Pay attention, New York! California has been changing its parole policies in ways favorable to basic human rights and economic good sense. In the last three years, the state has released nearly 1,400 lifers on parole with the approval of Governor Jerry Brown, and, as of this June, has announced it will begin the early release of elderly and unwell prisoners who meet new criteria.
People older than sixty who have spent at least twenty-five years in prison will be eligible for release—excluding only people sentenced to death or to life without parole. And those with health conditions requiring skilled nursing care will be in a position to be moved to health care or nursing facilities.
Back in 2008, the California Supreme Court ordered officials to look beyond the severity of parole applicants’ crimes. Instead, officials were directed to give serious consideration to people’s records while incarcerated and their volunteer work behind bars. Now that federal courts have ordered California to reduce its disturbingly high levels of crowding in prisons, the parole board is in a better position than ever to serve the needs of public safety and conserve community resources by releasing elders.
It would make sense for New York State to be taking similar steps, right? After all, the population of incarcerated people over age 50 increased 81% between 2000 and 2013, and elders now comprise fully 17% of the prison population.
But New York hasn’t heeded the call of common sense and humane practices. Instead, the parole board has continued to deny release to elders, citing over and over, for example, the nature of the original offense committed 43 years ago by a man who is now 64 years old—and whose prison record is pristine, family connections solid, and state-administered risk assessment score as good as it gets.
When more than 300 individuals and groups submitted statements to the board recommending that they begin assessing parole applicants based on the risk they pose to public safety rather than on the nature of the crime for which they were convicted, the board said, “No.”
That sums up New York’s intransigence compared to California’s forward-looking approach. Sad.
We urge New York State to begin showing greater leniency to the sick, the elderly, and those who have demonstrated their readiness to re-enter society. We urge Governor Cuomo to follow Governor Brown’s lead, and to assert leadership in this crisis. Although overall numbers of people imprisoned in New York State have been declining in the last ten years, the population of those over fifty is skyrocketing. So, too, are financial costs to taxpayers and personal costs to imprisoned people and their families.
Surely there is no need to wait for an even more serious overcrowding crisis in order to take sensible and humane action. If California can release more people without compromising public safety, why can’t New York?
[To see the comments community groups made about the parole board regulations, go to the Correctional Association of NY web site here]