On Monday, April 24, RAPP members and other advocates challenged the New York State Parole Board to release greater numbers of people who have served long sentences.
By the New York Times Editorial Board, January 3, 2017
Anyone who visits a prison these days might be shocked to see what looks more like a nursing home with bars and metal detectors. Prisoners put away years ago under the wave of draconian sentencing are now turning gray and frail, suffering from heart disease and hypertension and feeling the effects of Alzheimer’s and other age-related illnesses.
Corrections officials once thought they had time to prepare for this, but something unexpected happened. Federal data shows that prison inmates age more rapidly than people on the outside — because of stress, poor diet and lack of medical care — so much so that their infirmities qualify them as “elderly” at the age of 50.
This problem is overwhelming the state and federal prison systems’ ability to manage it. And unless prisons adopt a common-sense approach of releasing older inmates who present no danger to the public, this costly group could soon account for a full third of the population behind bars.
Granting early release to sick, elderly inmates with families who want to care for them would be the humane thing to do. But it also makes good policy sense, given that they are far less likely than the young to commit new crimes. For example, a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union documented that criminal activity drops sharply as people age. In New York, the study found, just 4 percent of prisoners 65 or older return to prison with a new conviction within three years of release; only 7 percent of those who are 50 to 64 do so. In contrast, 16 percent of those 49 or younger return.
A 2015 report on the federal prison system published by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General offers a sense of what managing aging inmates will cost if compassionate-release programs aren’t expanded. Older prisoners are already more expensive than younger ones; treating the sick is more costly in prisons. The costs will grow as prisons are forced to hire more and more people to help elderly inmates feed, bathe and dress themselves or to escort them on trips to see medical specialists. Some elderly inmates will also require costly infrastructure improvements, like elevators and wheelchair-accessible cells, bathrooms and passageways.
The inspector general’s report also found that the re-arrest rate for older inmates was relatively low compared with the rate for young inmates and said that many older inmates were good candidates for early release. But federal policies “limit the number of aging inmates who can be considered for early release and, as a result, few are actually released early,” the report explained. This problem is echoed at the state level, where eligibility for compassionate release is so strictly defined that parole boards almost never consider granting it.
Prisons, of course, cannot release people based solely on age. But the states and federal government can expand medical parole programs under which far too few terminally ill and physically disabled people are now released. In addition, parole boards across the country can screen older inmates for release using widely accepted measures to determine whether or not the inmate poses a risk. The best answer for the future is for state legislatures to keep moving away from the disproportionately harsh sentencing laws that brought us to this point in the first place.
Saturday night, September 26, 2015 was not the first time Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP – along with about 100 or so other New Yorkers committed to ending mass incarceration and prison injustice – held up lighted candles outside Governor Cuomo’s home in Mt. Kisco. “Candles for Clemency” started last year, when we first stood outside the governor’s home, urging him to grow a heart and a spine and begin taking steps to reduce New York’s huge prison population.
The target issue of the Candles for Clemency vigils has been the governor’s executive power to release people from prison when other channels are not available. RAPP has been crucial to expanding these efforts, because we emphasize that, beyond clemency, the governor could also instruct his parole commissioners to release applicants when they clearly pose no danger to public safety.
Last year, Governor Cuomo did not appear at or respond to Candles for Clemency. This year the governor sent his counsel, Alphonso David, to address the crowd. And on the governor’s behalf, David insulted us all. He threw the burden for the governor’s lack of compassion (zero commutations in his five years in office) back on incarcerated people and their families. The obstacle, David said, has been the lack of “viable candidates” for commutation, a dearth of robust applications submitted to the governor. Individual candle-holders began to challenge David’s statements, calling them fabrications. After all, many people at the vigil had friends or family members who have in fact submitted files and papers requesting commutation—and who have waited in vain for a response.
But we don’t need to cite those files to expose the fabrications mouthed by David for his boss. All we need to do is look at the records of parole board releases—and denials.
There are more than 9,500 elders (people 50 and older) in the prisons of New York, and 2/3 of them have parole-eligible sentences. Put those numbers together with the regulations governing parole—the use of evidence-based methods for determining whether a person of, say, 62 years of age poses any risk of committing a crime of the nature he or she may have committed many decades earlier—plus the statistics showing that older people who have served long sentences pose the very lowest risk of recidivism, and you get a recipe for simultaneously promoting public safety and human rights. Yet Governor Cuomo and his administrators continue to deny some 75% of parole applicants over and over. That is a main reason why the population of people aged 50 and older in New York State prisons has risen by 81% since about 2000.
With a series of quick strokes of his pen (to sign clemency petitions) or just one phone call (instructing his parole board to do the right thing), the governor could put New York in the lead in ending the internationally embarrassing racist policies and practices that have filled prisons with people of color, damaging their families and destabilizing their communities. He could take the courageous—but totally sensible—step of releasing many elders, instead of turning prisons into nursing facilities. He could immediately save the millions of dollars being wasted on security and incarceration and funnel those funds into community health and welfare.
In other words, Governor Cuomo could be a leader. But first he desperately needs some heart. Instead of asking the community to nominate individual cases for clemency consideration, he, like the lion from the Wizard of Oz, should have asked us to help him find some courage. When he does that, we will know he truly cares about communities and justice.
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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]
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.