Corrections chief rejects 'zookeeper' role

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 4, 2011 - 11:56 PM

Under fire over parole decision, Tom Roy makes no apologies.

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Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy, front, told legislators Thursday that parole hearings for murderers are the “dark, dark days in my life,’’ but defended his recent decision to parole a cop killer.

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Last August, Tom Roy walked into the State Capitol for what was supposed to be a routine meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton. After seven months as commissioner of corrections, Roy was there, officially, to update Dayton on his job overseeing a network of prisons and juvenile facilities that house more than 9,300 offenders.

During their 45-minute meeting, Roy found his opening and told the governor what keeps him awake at night: the burden of deciding which murderers serving life sentences should be granted parole.

Unbeknown to Dayton, Roy was considering parole for Timothy Eling, a 61-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for the 1982 murder of an off-duty Oakdale officer during a pharmacy robbery in St. Paul.

It is the case that has now made Roy the most recognized commissioner in the Dayton administration.

The episode, longtime colleagues say, has showcased the traits that earned Roy his job in the first place. A career corrections officer, he was a probation director from the state's Arrowhead region -- someone who'd worked to prevent murderers, rapists and wife-beaters from re-offending once they were freed from prison. He was what Dayton needed: a realist who understood violent offenders and could judge which ones had the capacity to transform themselves while completing their sentences.

Despite the high-profile Eling case, Roy, 58, does not seek the spotlight. He declined to be interviewed for this article, saying in a statement: "The focus should not be on the personalities involved. It should be on the law, the policy and the process: whether the law was followed, the voices of the victim's families were heard and whether the decision took public safety into account."

Yet his quiet demeanor has not stopped him from placing a forceful question before the public: Is this the Department of Corrections or the Department of Warehousing People?

Childhood wasn't sheltered

Roy, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1974 with a degree in political science, is from Cloquet, a town that borders the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. His father was a banker. He grew up in a home with advantages and closely watched those who had few, according to Fred Friedman, a longtime St. Louis County public defender who has known Roy for decades.

"You have a huge advantage being a commissioner of corrections if you grew up in a town where you watched how Native Americans are treated,'' Friedman said. "You learn compassion. You see how some people make it, how some don't. Tom has 'seen' it."

Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren is a retired probation officer and former Carlton County Court administrator. He worked alongside Roy as they set the foundation for what eventually became the Arrowhead Regional Corrections. He says Roy was always focused on creating programs that offered educational and vocational programs to offenders serving out their probation.

"He had great ideas, but the difference was that he worked on them to make sure they happened,'' Ahlgren said. "He's quick, but if he doesn't know the answer, he's not going to pretend he knows.''

He's also taken advantage of playing on larger public-service platforms. In 2007, Roy served on a national working group with the FBI to create a standardized information exchange for apprehending fugitives. Previously, he'd worked on creation of a police-probation website focused on tracking juveniles.

Unrattled by criticism

Last Thursday, after the Eling parole decision had been disclosed in the Star Tribune, Roy found himself testifying before a committee of legislators and a crowd of police leaders who questioned his judgment. Irritated lawmakers listened as Roy calmly explained his rationale, the law and a set of sobering statistics: Commissioners who succeed him will face tough decisions as more than 150 of the state's 468 lifers become eligible for parole in coming decades.

Roy rejected any suggestion that he's soft on offenders, and said he believes they must face consequences. He has reviewed parole for more than 20 offenders sentenced to life, he said, and approved only three beside Eling.

Two hours later, he left -- unrattled and unemotional as ever.

In an interview three weeks ago, Roy outlined the complexities that led to his landmark decision to parole Eling, a man he genuinely believes has met all expectations of the corrections system.

"The governor knows about the gravity of my decision-making,'' Roy said. He said he didn't offer Dayton the names of any of the offenders, nor did the governor ask for specifics. In the course of the interview, though, Roy made it clear that he is an activist who believes violent offenders can become productive citizens under close supervision after release from prison.

"I wasn't hired to become a zookeeper,'' Roy said. "We are mandated to make a difference. Citizens expect us to make a difference.

"Sometimes we're very good at that and sometimes we fail miserably,'' he added. "But obviously, the influence of my philosophy remains to be seen. I certainly won't hold this particular case up as the poster of my administration.''

Eling won't be released until late 2015, when he completes a separate sentence for a 1996 conviction for smuggling drugs into prison. (At the time he was convicted of murder, any prisoner sentenced to life was eligible for parole after serving 17 years. In 1993, the law was changed, making it mandatory for anyone who kills a police officer to spend the rest of his or her life in prison.) To Roy, Eling met the criteria by law as well as by his actions to rehabilitate himself.

"My approach to these 'lifers' is that each case has individual dynamics," Roy said. "Victim impact, victim involvement, attitude and adjustment in prison. Some walk in the door with absolutely nothing. Some have presented release plans that are very well thought out.

"Lots of these decisions are life and death,'' he added. "They have that potential, always. That weight is with me always."

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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