Critics of Pennsylvania parole system praise decision to keep Robb jailed

Gary Gregory (left), brother of Ellen Gregory Robb, helped organize the effort to overturn the decision to parole his sister's killer.
Gary Gregory (left), brother of Ellen Gregory Robb, helped organize the effort to overturn the decision to parole his sister's killer. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

Rafael Robb must have been ready to get out of prison.

After all, only a few weeks stood between him and the release date the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole had granted him six years into his five- to 10-year sentence for beating his wife to death with an exercise bar.

That return to freedom was to come Monday. But frustration with the board's decision and a process that largely excluded the victim's family fueled a public campaign by relatives and elected officials to keep him behind bars.

They succeeded. On Wednesday, the board revoked Robb's parole, saying he would be considered again for release no sooner than September 2014.

Not only did the concerns of officials, Ellen Gregory Robb's relatives, and others get an airing in the last eight days, so did complaints about the probation and parole board process, which critics say gives criminals more rights than victims or victims' families.

"All we wanted them to do was give us a fair shake," Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.

Instead, the Gregory family was never allowed to talk to board members before the decision was made.

Robb pleaded guilty in 2007 to killing his wife the year before. She was wrapping Christmas gifts in their Upper Merion home when the two argued over her decision to seek a divorce, and Robb became violent.

Initially, then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., now a county commissioner, charged Robb with first- and third-degree murder. But further investigation, he said last week, indicated Robb committed the crime in a hot-blooded rage rather than with cold-blooded calculation, which pointed toward a lesser charge.

Robb pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and Castor asked for the maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison. (Castor also has written letters objecting to Robb's potential release.) Retired Montgomery County Court Judge Paul W. Tressler, who could not be reached for comment, set the sentence at five to 10 years, making Robb eligible for parole in January 2012 after serving the minimum.

The board had considered releasing him at several points over the last year.

Even though Robb always met with at least one board member at such times, the victim's family never got to.

"The current system does not afford the same opportunities to the victims as it does the criminals," State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) said.

The Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act says victims have the right to appear in front of a hearing examiner or parole board or to participate in a conference call, according to Vereb, who said parts of state law conflict over whether victims have that right.

According to the board, that provision and the state probation and parole code do not mandate in-person meetings with victims or their relatives.

Still, when the board was deciding whether to parole Robb, now 62, the victim's family members were not even "offered an opportunity to appear before a hearing examiner, the board, or participate in a conference call," Vereb said.

The family was blindsided when it was told in September that Robb would be released Jan. 28. They said their concerns got no response from the board, so they and Ferman decided to go public.

Board chairman Michael Potteiger met in Harrisburg last week with Gary and Art Gregory, brothers of the victim. They were prepared to make their case, but Potteiger explained at the beginning of the meeting "he would not accept the evidence and our direct testimony. He said that needs to go through the office of victim advocate."

Only the parole decision process was discussed, Gary Gregory said.

Ferman noted problems other than access with the board's decision-making process:

"They are far too mechanical and focused on numbers and not sensitive enough and aware enough and considerate enough of the impact that certain offenders' release can have on victims and on a community."

Board members don't, she said, understand the consequences of their actions.

The probation and parole board consists of nine members appointed by the governor to six-year terms. Those members, and 16 hearing examiners, make about 22,000 decisions yearly to grant or deny parole, a board spokeswoman said.

Inmates' character and background, aspects of their crimes, and statements from victims, trial judges, and prosecutors may be factored in, but parole boards rely heavily upon assessments that score inmates on issues including their likelihood of committing another crime.

Such objective evaluations, which Ferman called mechanical, have been proved to be most accurate in predicting behavior, said Caitlin J. Taylor, a professor of criminal justice at La Salle University who studies ex-offender reentry and reintegration.

Taylor disagreed with Ferman's view that board members don't understand the consequences of their decisions: "They are under a great deal of scrutiny, so I don't think they are just acting hastily."

Gary Gregory, Ferman, Vereb, and Pennsylvania victim advocate Carol L. Lavery all are sympathetic to the parole board's responsibilities and praised the outcome in this case. Vereb said Potteiger was open to making changes.

Potteiger said in a statement issued Saturday he was working with Lavery "to develop a process for victims to provide in-person testimony to decision makers." He also said parole consideration was tied to the criminal charge and sentence.

"The plea agreement in this case did not reflect the heinous acts committed by this defendant, and, as a result, the expectations of the family members may have been raised beyond what our justice system could deliver in this instance," Potteiger said.

Vereb wants a single, unambiguous law that would give victims and families the right to meet with board members. Legislators will have to come up with criteria, though, that do not flood the nine board members with thousands of meetings.

Vereb and some House colleagues are scheduled to talk this week about issues the Robb controversy has illustrated. Hopefully, Vereb said, the bill that emerges will be named after Ellen Gregory Robb.


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or follow @carolyntweets on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.

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