Video of panel at the Beyond the Bars: Breaking Through Conference on Sat., March 8, 2014, Columbia School of Social Work.
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Inmates are repeatedly denied parole long after they have served their minimum sentence, not because of misbehavior or any concern for public safety but because of the “seriousness” of the original offense. As one former chairman of the board told The New York Law Journal last year, “If the Parole Board doesn’t like the crime, you are not going to get out.”
This attitude may be predictable from a body made up of political appointees, but that doesn’t make it just or protective of public safety.
In 2011, legislators amended the state law to require that the board consider a prisoner’s future along with his or her past. So far it hasn’t made much of a difference. While New York has reduced its overall prison population by more than 15,000 since 2000, release rates — the board granted just over one-third of the 16,000 applications it considered in 2012 — have actually gone down.
Prisoners’ rights advocates and those who have gone through the process — which involves a brief, often intimidating interview — say parole decisions are inconsistent and largely unrelated to what a person has accomplished while incarcerated. Recently, some state judges have been scrutinizing, and reversing, the board’s denials, which use boilerplate language and in some cases fail even to acknowledge an inmate’s Compas results.
In December, the board finally complied with the 2011 amendment by proposing new regulations to guide its work, but it continues to resist any meaningful change.
Its obstinacy is all the more lamentable because programs like Compas have been proved to work. At least 15 states have used similar data-based risk-assessment tools in recent years, with good results. A three-year study in New Jersey found that parolees were 36 percent less likely to return to prison for new crimes than inmates who served full sentences. The key was post-release supervision: parolees get it; those who “max out” do not.
The study also suggested reducing the number of parolees sent back to prison for technical violations, like a missed appointment or failed drug test. In New York, such violations account for three out of four parole revocations.
Lasting reform of New York’s parole system will require a fundamental reworking of both the board’s process and its culture. For low-risk inmates, early release into parole should be the default, and the board should have to articulate a good reason to keep them locked up.
If the board is worried that some parolees might commit new crimes, it could start by releasing older inmates, who represent one of the fastest-growing and most-expensive segments of the prison population and yet are by far the least likely to reoffend. (Elderly prisoners convicted of first-degree murder have among the lowest recidivism rates of all.)
For parole to have any value, it must serve as a meaningful incentive to personal growth and rehabilitation. “No one can ever change the past,” a prison chaplain wrote to the board last month. “But we don’t have to remain prisoners of it.”
Undoing months of organizing efforts took less than three minutes for New York State’s Parole Board. At their April 21, 2014 meeting, the Board dismissed more than 300 public comments urging the use of objective and consistent criteria in release decisions.
After the board posted their draft regulations governing parole criteria in December 2013, a large number of formerly and currently incarcerated people wrote letters commenting on the regs, as did families, lawmakers, civil rights organizations, and other concerned groups and individuals. The overwhelming majority of comments asserted that the Board’s draft regulations were inadequate to address the core problem: parole decisions currently function more as second (or multiple) trials than as assessments of an individual’s readiness for release. Because the board bases its decisions largely on the “nature of the original offense” committed by an applicant, the community argued for the regulations to be amended to shift the focus to risk-assessment and rehabilitation. This would allow the board to release people—especially elders—who pose no risk to public safety and for whom longer incarceration serves no rational purpose and simply wastes community resources. We also insisted that the Board provide specific guidelines as to why an applicant was denied and what they could to do improve their chances of parole.
The Parole Board’s response to countless pages of passionate and analytical comments? Dead silence—and then a show of hands unanimously affirming their own regulations and procedures.
Recently, the case of Stokes v. Stanfordchallenged these insubstantial regulations. The Appeals Court ordered a new parole hearing for petitioner Robert Stokes, ruling that the Board failed to show evidence that they had considered anything but the nature of the crime in their decision to deny parole. The case exposes what we already know to be true: there is an alarming disconnect between Parole Commissioners’ decisions and the evidence presented to them of individuals’ low-risk status and readiness for release. Stokes may represent a legal victory, but until the Board is put in check with clear regulations, it will continue to use the vague language of its regulations to deny release in most cases and continue a culture of permanent punishment.
The Parole Board may be relying on silence to maintain the status quo, but we will only raise our voices louder to show that we want change! The community will make our voices heard – by people on the streets, in the subways, at community board meetings, on campuses, and across the world on the internet. We hope you will join us in our efforts to build a mass movement so big that Parole Commissioners will have no choice but to listen and respond.