On February 12, the New York State Assembly announced a Criminal Justice Reform Package with some meaningful changes to New York’s criminal legal system on bail, discovery, speedy trial, and solitary confinement—important steps toward undoing the far-reaching damage of mass incarceration.
But a major element was missing: No bills on parole and elder release were included in the package. Mass incarceration in New York will never end unless the legislature and the governor initiate changes that get at the heart of the problem—the persistence of a racist culture of revenge and permanent punishment that keeps people in prison without meaningful access to release. Increasing parole releases, especially of older people who have served long terms for violent crimes, would be a step in this direction.
That may sound unlikely given that the prison population soared because politicians found it easy and popular to act “tough on crime.” The starting point? Increase punishment by pointing to people convicted of the most serious offenses—especially the crimes that make headlines. But now, we need policy makers to understand that what got us here won’t get us out.
To end mass incarceration, the legislature, the parole board, and the governor will need to end the cycle of permanent punishment. Releasing people who have spent decades in prison for a violent crime committed years ago, who have engaged in meaningful transformation and now pose minimal risk to public safety, would be a safe, cost-effective way to begin this process.
Here are some ways RAPP is urging them to do exactly that:
“Geriatric Parole:” Governor Cuomo has proposed legislation to expand New York’s medical parole program for incarcerated older people, instituting a medical parole plan for people age 55 and older with debilitating health conditions.
But the plan excludes some people based solely on the crime of conviction, such as anyone convicted of first-degree murder, no matter how ill or debilitated—and no matter how low the risk they pose to public safety. Engaging in a serious crime at a young age does not make an incapacitated elder a current threat to public safety. In fact, evidence shows that long-incarcerated elders convicted of murder actually pose the very lowest risk to public safety: in contrast to recidivism rates that generally hover in the 40% range, people in this group return to prison at rates around 1% and lower.
The governor’s exclusions should also make us question whether we want our society to deny compassion to whole sectors of people, guaranteeing that they will die in prison.
RAPP urges the governor and the legislature to strengthen the “geriatric parole” proposal by removing all restrictions based on crime of conviction, along with other language that allows the Parole Board to deny applicants solely because of the nature of the crime. The bill should also be strengthened to ensure that the medical criterion for eligibility is an individual’s ability to provide “self-care,” not “self-ambulation.” Finally, mechanisms that trigger and speed up the otherwise slow-moving certification process and ensure public transparency should be strengthened as well.
“If the Risk is Low, Let them Go”
The governor’s plan will shift rather than cut spending, especially as states, confronted with the Trump administration’s economic plans, will be forced to shoulder a larger proportion of spending on Medicaid and other public health costs.
What would truly save money—and promote public safety—would be real elder parole: a plan that presumptively releases people who have served more than their minimum terms and whose present—not past—behavior show that they pose little if any risk to public safety. Older people should be released before they are ill and dying, when they can still contribute to their families and communities. We urge the Assembly to pass A.7546, which ensures that an individual’s current risk to public safety determines parole release. Additionally, older people not otherwise eligible for parole should be given a “second look” and considered for parole at age 55 after serving at least 15 consecutive years in prison.
With older people now making up 21 percent of people in New York State prisons—10,337 total people, a number more than twice what it was in 2000— a bolder and more evidence-based proposal for elder parole should be the governor’s choice. Such a proposal will require Governor Cuomo to exercise political will and would make New York a true national leader in the struggle to end mass incarceration.
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