By Barbara Treen, Retired NY Board of Parole Commissioner •
The disgrace of mass incarceration in the United States continues to be critically commented upon by academics, analysts, criminologist, practitioners, and providers. Still, with all the condemnation and forward-thinking formulas that would lead to warehousing fewer people, nothing has changed for the aged locked in by parole denials. I have a ‘best practice’ to suggest that would surely make a difference: common sense!
After a career in criminal justice, I am now a retiree of 12 years as a commissioner on the New York Parole Board. I now am an advocate for the aging and long-term incarcerated. I follow the promises and the politics, the conferences announcing reform (bail, drug treatment, modifying stop-and-frisk) at the front door to prison, while the appeals to denials at the back door pile up in the office of the Parole Board’s counsel.
The new solutions are suggested in the language of regulations, guidelines, and policies attempting to legally employ humanity and change our culture of punishment. What about gut instinct? What would it take to convince the Board that an incarcerated person devoured by dementia, who can’t walk straight, should be released? What does it take to figure out that a crime committed by an 18-year-old should not stick to the transformed 62-year-old? What does it take to release an applicant meeting the board twenty or more years beyond what the court prescribed?
While decision-making has been shored up by guardrails, human behavior occurs through feelings. And this ingredient is what this Board needs to allow in their deliberations—and to recognize in others.
I realize that emotional decision-making is not professional and can go either way. But there is room within the guidelines and the written word to articulate what rules don’t spell out: sincerity, transformation, time, physical condition, or on the other hand suggestions of public risk. Is this not why we have people doing this job rather than computers tallying the score? And this is why we should abandon decisions made by camera rather than personal appearances. When I was on the Board and sitting at a business meeting, a most conservative colleague stood up and declared that we all used gut instinct as part of our reasoning (surely he believed that we were all behavioralists and not cops). There was a gasp followed by silence in the room. This was heresy and this was never spoken about again…until now. Intuition is compatible with legalese; let in common sense and begin letting out the aging.
Barbara Hanson Treen, Comm (ret)
Author of “Geranium Justice” January 27, 2018
Note: a version of this article later appeared in the Albany Times-Union as “Let common sense in and let aged prisoners out,” January 31, 2018