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 Shazzia Hines, LMSW and RAPP Organizer
• In December 2016, a front-page article in The New York Times said, “The New York State Board of Parole often operates like an assembly line, with inmates given mere minutes to make a case for their freedom. It is an impersonal process: Commissioners see dozens of cases a day, and most hearings are conducted via video conference. Decisions are frequently boilerplate and can sometimes seem arbitrary.”
To help remedy this problem, the parole board may want to consider hiring New York State Licensed Master’s Social Workers as parole commissioners. I believe that social workers are the most qualified professionals to take up a role that requires parole board members to conduct fair and comprehensive assessments to determine whether an incarcerated person is prepared to be released with conditions including community supervision. If I were an incarcerated person going for a parole hearing, I would only pray that the people reviewing my case were ethically responsible to value the dignity and worth of human beings as a basic professional guideline and code of conduct. Social workers are such people.
That New York Times article (“For Blacks Facing Parole, Signs of A Broken System”) makes it clear that the current parole board members are overpaid, under-qualified, and culturally incompetent. According to The Times, “Board members are mainly from upstate, earn more than $100,000 annually and hold their positions for years. They tend to have backgrounds in law enforcement rather than rehabilitation. Most are white; there is currently only one black man, and there are no Latino men.”
Contrast this with the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, which states, under the section on the dignity and worth of human beings: “Social workers treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs. Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society. They seek to resolve conflicts between clients’ interests and the broader society’s interests in a socially responsible manner consistent with the values, ethical principles, and ethical standards of the profession.”
By the time they attend a parole hearing, most of our incarcerated elderly have long since rehabilitated themselves by taking college courses and creating programs demonstrating positive leadership. The fact that these elderly incarcerated women and men are consistently denied release on parole shows that the parole board lacks humility and competence. It exemplifies the board’s professional inability to adequately and comprehensively assess a person’s readiness for parole.
The parole board should function in a way that reflects those principles of social work—to look at a person as an individual, honoring their capacity to change and determining whether to release them based on who they are now and what they can offer to society. Parole boards should also act in the interest of society as a whole, meaning they should promote fairness and healing over revenge and hatred.
I conclude with a call to action for Governor Andrew Cuomo to appoint licensed masters level professional social workers, as five of the current parole commissioners’ terms are due to expire this year.
Shock waves continue to spread from the August suicide of John MacKenzie in his 40th year behind bars and following his 10th parole denial. At the August meeting of the New York State Board of Parole, the chairperson read an angry letter blaming the Board for John’s death.
Fueled by our grief for John’s death, we must now push forward and make a change. It is time to get the Board to release our elders, our family members, the thousands of people in New York prisons who have served well beyond their minimum terms, who pose no threat to public safety, but who remain in the tombs of our state because the Board denies their parole applications every two years.
Those denials, after all, are what killed John.
- Urgent, Right Now: Comment on New Parole Board Regulations
Reacting to years of pressure from the public, the NYS Board of Parole has published new draft regulations to guide release decisions. The new version is designed to correct a major fault in the current regs, which ignore a 2011 law directing the Board to base decisions on risk and needs assessments—evidence-based tools that help predict a person’s future actions.
Some of the proposed changes to the regulations may provide greater protections to parole applicants. Specifically, the proposed changes require commissioners to consider risk assessment scores, as well as age (for people who were under 18 at the time of the crime and face a life sentence), with more purpose and intention than is current practice. In the same spirit, the new regulations also require that in their denials, commissioners must give “factually-individualized” reasons for their conclusions.
But the proposed regulations do not fundamentally change the structure or methods of the Parole Board. The rules are not explicit and clear in making sure that the Board assesses applicants based on their current risk, rehabilitation, and readiness for release. As such, the regulations could result in a continuation of the Board’s current practice: refusing to release people from prison even when they pose a low risk of endangering public safety and are undeniably suitable for release. THIS sample comment, which you can use in submitting your own, explains this more fully.
The Board needs to hear from us—incarcerated people, family members, community organizations and individuals who care about justice and want to see the prison population decrease.
Read comments filed by:
Center for Appellate Litigation
NYC Council Member Daniel Dromm, 25th District Queens
National Lawyers Guild New York City Chapter
Community Service Society
New York State Bar Association Committee on Civil Rights
Quinnipiac University School of Law
Christopher Seeds, Attorney at Law
Milk Not Jails
Kathy Manley, Attorney at Law
Brooklyn Defender Services
Legal Aid Society and Prisoners’ Rights Project
Correctional Association of New York
Claude Marks/Freedom Archives
Glenn Martin/Just Leadership USA (JLUSA)
Rise & Shine Community Services, Inc.
Issa Kohler-Hausmann, PhD, JD; Avery Gilbert, JD; Christopher Seeds, JD
The Osborne Association/Elizabeth Gaynes
Moira Meltzer Cohen, Esq.
New York State Prisoner Justice Network
Nancy Jacot Bell
Prison Action Network
Parole Justice Committee of Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration
Center for Community Alternatives
CURE-NY/Deborah Bozydaj, President
Donna M. Accettulli
Sister Honora Kinney
Mary Frances Burek and Pat Case
Robert Rose III
Richard Kuhn, Criminon
Wil Van Natta
Rhys Mateo Klauser
These materials are suggestions—undoubtedly it is those most affected by parole who are the experts in its reform. However, we believe there is great power in sending a unified and consistent message. We can demand that the Parole Board create clear regulations to begin doing what Parole Boards should: release people for whom further incarceration serves no purpose—neither protecting public safety nor advancing personal growth and rehabilitation. With your help, we can work toward parole reform and help reunite people with their families and communities.
Comments can take the form of a letter, or even just a list. We encourage you to include your own personal stories of how you or your loved ones have been impacted by current parole policy, as well as criticisms of the current proposed regulations.
2: Remove Obstacle: Recalcitrant Commissioners
Improving the regulations would be an important step forward. But there is another obstacle to justice: some parole commissioners have shown themselves to be dead set against following any such changes. They deny parole release over and over, thumbing their noses at the law. There is no reason to believe that these commissioners will respect the new regulations any more than they have respected the 2011 law.
The Board’s practice will never improve with such commissioners in office. Therefore, we urge Governor Cuomo, who appoints the Board, to remove these commissioners now or refuse to reappoint them when their terms expire. Among the most recalcitrant Commissioners are G. Kevin Ludlow, Lisa Beth Elovich, Walter William Smith, and James B. Ferguson (all appointed by former Governor Pataki). Governor Cuomo, who is the ultimate authority for the Board, must tell them and all commissioners: Either follow the law or find another job.
- Join the Fight for New Laws for Parole Justice
Two bills now before the New York State Legislature—the Safe and Fair Evaluation (SAFE) Parole Act (S.1728/A.2930), and Assembly Bill A,9960—would correct basic problems with New York’s parole practices. The Assembly bill (A.9960), for example, says:
…risk and needs assessments shall comprise presumptive evidence of the inmate’s risk of re-offense. Should the board choose to override such risk and needs assessments in deciding whether or not an inmate will iive and remain at liberty without violating the law, its decision must provide a detailed, individualized and nonconclusory statement as to its reasons for departing from the risk and needs assessment findings which shall be subject to judicial review. Such override decisions shall not be based solely on information relating to the instant offense and/or the pre-sentencing report for such offense.
Join RAPP, Parole Justice New York, and many other groups (more than 100 so far) in urging your representatives to pass these laws.
(Photo on homepage by Victoria Law)
The statewide Parole Justice New York Coalition, with RAPP as a member, has released this new short film, “The Nature of the Crime,” featuring RAPP lead organizer Mujahid Farid, former parole commissioner Ed Hammock, and other experts on the issue.
The film shows how 14 people in New York State control the freedom of tens of thousands of men and women. The 14 people are called the Parole Board and they determine whether people in prison with indefinite sentences (such as 25 years to life) should be released. Every year 10,000 incarcerated New Yorkers are denied parole. Most of these people are denied repeatedly despite the fact that they pose little if any risk to public safety. For the skyrocketing population over age 50 in the New York prisons—a group that poses the lowest risk of committing a new offense if released—this means a future of illness and death behind bars. For New York as a whole, this means the destruction of our communities and families, and the immense waste of public funds spent keeping people behind bars for no reason. It means a continuation of the culture of revenge and permanent punishment that has filled the prisons in this country and threatens to keep doing so. It means continuing a racist system of “justice” that treats Black people and other people of color as criminals unworthy of a second chance at life.
“The Nature of the Crime” refers to the reason the Parole Board gives when it denies an incarcerated person parole: no matter what you have accomplished in the 20, 30, or 40 years since your conviction, no matter how much support you have in the community, no matter how low a risk you pose of returning to prison or committing a new crime, you cannot be released because of the nature of the crime for which you were convicted, often many years ago. That is something you cannot change. And it is an unreliable measure of whether you are ready to be released. It only means that there is a political gain for the Board to deny you: they can show how “tough on crime” they are.
The film premiered in Albany at the state Capitol in May to pressure the legislature to pass the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act. RAPP is part of a statewide effort to use this film to increase public support for the SAFE Parole Act and for the wisdom and humanity of releasing aging people from the New York prisons.
If the risk is low, let them go. Bring our grandparents, our fathers, our mothers, our loved ones and friends home. Please share the video and the campaign homepage with your friends and family, then join the campaign for justice for New York.
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.