Give parole-eligible prisoners a chance

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Prison Mirror
  • Updated: March 8, 2012 - 7:53 PM
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Tom Eling was convicted in 1982 in the killing of an off-duty police officer. Last year, he was granted parole with respect to that crime. He remains in prison in connection with another sentence.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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It's been a while since last October, when Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy ordered the eventual release of Tim Eling, who will have served 33 years when he's freed in 2015.

The Prison Mirror has taken a cautious approach to reporting the event. Still, it impacts our community greatly and deserves attention.

Along with Eling, Roy has paroled at least three other lifers.

Roy, who brought 35 years' experience to the office, believes that parole-eligible prisoners who turn their lives around can earn a second chance. In an interview with the Mirror, Roy said that parole-eligible lifers "have done considerable time [and] have accomplished things during that time."

While victim impact and other factors shape release decisions, the message is clear: Criminals can transform, and can contribute to the community.

Tim Eling is one of the finest examples of a life turned around. Roy said as much when he testified in front of legislative leaders, adding that even correctional officers spoke very highly of Eling.

Long-time readers of the Mirror have seen on full display Eling's principled morality, contrition, and ability to call out acts of kindness, even when it wasn't popular.

The decisions to parole lifers impact the greater Minnesota community, too. Since it's been very rare that a lifer is paroled here, it's natural for people to be unsure how to react.

In uncertainty, many rely on the media and politicians to shed light on the issue. In this case, they got little of what they needed.

The Star Tribune broke the story of Eling's release ("Should a cop killer ever be set free?" Oct. 30). The use of the term "cop killer" surely grabbed attention, but only through provoking fear and suspicion.

The first story took many paragraphs before it got to Eling's story of repentence and transformation. While he made himself available to the Star Tribune for a long interview, the paper included just three sentences from Eling in its initial coverage.

As if often the case, the story was shaped by the initial coverage.

Local TV news flowed in the Strib's current and reported the story the same way, leading with scenes of the murder (handily on file 29 years later), then lending sympathetic platforms to victims and perceived victims, and finally, as if by afterthought, tacking on a breath's worth of words about the principles behind the decision.

Politicians called for Roy to explain why Eling's life sentence should be cut short. Roy was greeted ominously, as the hearing opened with the announcement that "this is not a witch hunt."

Roy laid out his principles that guide release decisions, how the law establishes his responsibilities, and how he is following through on a timetable of benchmarks set by his predecessor.

Politicians, as is the current trend, sought to be understood, not to understand. Reactions came in shades of cautious support to outright opposition. The sanctity of a police officer's life was safely declared, as if a flag pin on a lapel -- popular, patriotic, obvious.

Despite the opposition, the fact remains that a full decade had passed after Eling's crime before the law was changed to require life without parole for taking a police officer's life. Eighteen years after that, and it was too late for politics. Principles would win the day.

The next chapter will be about how Commissioner Roy reacts. While the press and the politicians are charged with shedding light on issues, too often it's not light they give off, only heat.

If Roy and Gov. Mark Dayton can take the heat, more parole-eligible prisoners may get their chance to shine a light and prove the commissioner was right all along.

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The Prison Mirror is published monthly by inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater. The opinions it expresses do not necessarily reflect the position of the facility or the Department of Corrections.

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  • Should a cop killer ever be set free?

    Sunday October 30, 2011

    The landmark parole of Tim Eling has triggered a debate over justice and redemption. Eling says he understands.

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