by Nora Carroll and Dave George, Albany Times Union, October 20, 2018:
State Sen. Patrick Gallivan recently chaired “public” hearings on New York State Parole Board policies and procedures, and on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order that makes people on parole eligible to vote in this year’s elections.
Gallivan, R-Elma, and many of his Republican colleagues contend the governor’s restoration of voting rights is unconstitutional and endangers public safety, and that the Board of Parole has granted parole release to increasing numbers of “high risk” people.
These contentions are not only false, but also a clearly partisan attempt to incite race-based close to the mid-term elections.
Republicans’ objections to people on parole voting offer another example of their desire to limit rather than expand the fundamental core of democratic participation. They also promote a long-legacy of racism that vilifies currently and formerly incarcerated people for the purposes of inciting racist fear among voters.
The remote possibility (because there have been no reported incidents) of a newly-enfranchised parolee committing some crime at a polling place like a school is nothing but a dog whistle. It’s a desperate Willie Horton-esque move by Republican leaders to generate race-based fear before an important election.
It’s undeniable that proportionately more black people and people of color, especially black men, are in prison. This overrepresentation in the criminal legal system is precisely why issues like clemency, felony enfranchisement, and parole justice are racial justice issues, and why trying to disempower people on parole from participating in electoral politics is plainly racist.
The other imaginary menace postulated by many Senate Republicans is the Parole Board’s release of people they deem dangerous or irredeemable. Their hearings purported to examine the standards the Board of Parole uses and whether they are complying with them, as though the Board of Parole has suddenly unlocked the gates and released everyone who appears before them. This is hardly the case. The truth is, while the board’s release rates have incrementally ticked upward over the last year, the majority of parole applicants are still denied parole. That most people appealing for their freedom continue to be denied it for years and decades is the real injustice that Senate Republicans and all New Yorkers should focus on. But that’s unlikely, because for Gallivan and his colleagues these hearings were never about the well-being of New Yorkers or public safety.
The real beef that Republican Senators have is not with the executive branch or the Board of Parole, it’s with their own legislative branch. The people who are interviewed by the Board of Parole are those who were sentenced by judges to parole-eligible sentences. It is the Legislature that determines the sentences for all criminal offenses, not the Parole Board. Therefore, when Gallivan and others opine that someone convicted of murdering a police officer should never be released from prison, they are effectively telling the Parole Board to defy the very laws that they, the Legislature, created. It would be unlawful for the Board of Parole to decline to review someone’s case just because of their crime.
This comes with great irony given that Gallivan’s career as a sheriff, Parole Board commissioner and now legislator has supposedly been about upholding, enforcing and literally making the law.
Further, the “no parole for cop killers” philosophy is troubling when subjected to the most minimal scrutiny. It suggests a greater value should be placed on the lives of law enforcement officers than the rest of us. It denies the reality of redemption and rehabilitation that is so apparent to most people who have even the most minimal experience with prison populations, whether as a convicted person or service provider, attorney, chaplain or prison volunteer. It rejects scientific evidence-based approaches to reducing epic levels of incarceration by releasing those who post the lowest risk: older people convicted of violent crimes. Finally, and perhaps most troubling, this philosophy centers and celebrates the retributive, punitive function of the criminal legal system by embracing life-without-parole sentences, also known as “death by incarceration.”
The motivations of Gallivan and other Senate Republicans are clear in our current political context. With the dissolution of the Independent Democratic Conference and the and recent electoral defeat of six former IDC senators, Republicans are on the verge of losing control of the Senate. Their response is to attempt to drum up and animate the white part of their base that is fearful of those they do not know or understand: black and brown people and the formerly incarcerated.
White voters shouldn’t take the bait and let Republicans succeed, let alone get away with this age-old political strategy. What should be exposed are the injustices facing people in prison and their families. Republican Senators should hear loud and clear that New Yorkers want and demand parole justice, not race-baiting politics.
Nora Carroll is co-director of the Parole Preparation Project. Dave George is associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign.
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