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.