Statement to our Communities from the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign and Parole Preparation Project
• As the 2019 New York State legislative session ends, we’re reflecting on the progress we’ve made in the movement for parole justice, and the work that is still to come.
One of our primary goals this year was to fully staff the New York State Parole Board with commissioners who embrace notions of redemption and believe firmly in rehabilitation. We wanted a Board of 19 people from therapeutic and clinical backgrounds—social workers, mental health counselors and medical professionals. We wanted a Board of people who came from and had deep personal ties to communities most impacted by violence and incarceration.
This yearlong campaign culminated late Wednesday night after a long and contentious parole commissioner confirmation process. Last week, Governor Cuomo sent the names of six new parole board appointments to the State Senate for confirmation. The six nominees included a former prosecutor, a current and former parole officer, a nonprofit executive, a pastor and a former public defender.
Among the nominees, we had the most serious reservations about candidate Richard Kratzenberg, a former corrections officer and life-long Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) employee. According to public records, Kratzenberg was also formerly a registered Republican (now party unaffiliated) and predominantly lived in conservative, rural and suburban towns in upstate New York. Further, in his confirmation interviews with Senators, he repeatedly conveyed an archaic belief that a person’s crime of conviction—and not their record of rehabilitation or transformation—should be the primary factor when making parole release determinations.
In an unprecedented and historical moment, due to fierce opposition from the advocacy community and our legislative allies, Kratzenberg’s appointment was never brought to the Senate floor for a vote, ending his potential nomination. Five of the six appointed candidates were then confirmed by the Senate on the last day of the legislative session. These proceedings marked the longest and most substantive parole commissioner confirmation hearing to date.
Despite our success in ending Kratzenberg’s nomination, and the relief it brought, we were disturbed by the overall appointment process. Half of the candidates put forward by the Governor came from prosecutorial or law enforcement backgrounds, and very few had any professional experience in trauma-informed care or other therapeutic work. Where were the nurses, substance-abuse counselors and mental health professionals?
The Cuomo administration also shared no information on how they sourced candidates, how they conducted their interviews, their criteria for ultimate selection or the timing of appointments until after their appointments were final. Despite repeated promises made by the governor’s staff in meetings over the past year to share the names with advocates, the appointees were only publicly made available by the press, less than 24 hours before the first confirmation hearings. Advocates, currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families—those whose lives literally hang in the balance—had no opportunity to vet the candidates, speak with their references and determine their suitability for this powerful position.
While we are hopeful that some of the new commissioners share our values and will give people in a prison a fair and meaningful opportunity for release, we are devastated that we cannot with confidence say to our incarcerated loved ones that this new cohort brings with it real hope for the future and the possibility of freedom.
Despite these ongoing obstacles and resistance, we feel proud that as a result of our advocacy efforts, the decision over who may serve as a parole commissioner is now a public process. We have transformed lawmakers’ understanding of the significance of Parole Board appointments and parole release more broadly. We have taught our legislators and the broader public that transformation and redemption are the best guarantee of public safety, not punishment and indefinite confinement.
In the coming year, we will continue our push to change the composition of the Parole Board and its enduringly punitive culture. We will work to ensure that future commissioners share the values of redemption and transformation, and believe in the humanity of all people in prison. We will also hold current and newly appointed commissioners accountable for their actions on the Board, by demanding more transparency, data and training. We will struggle until all of our loved ones are home.
Beyond our efforts to staff the Parole Board, both our legislative initiatives—Fair and Timely Parole (S.497) and Elder Parole (S.2144)—were voted out of the Senate Crime and Assembly Correction Committees and sourced powerful community support. However, an intense wave of opposition from police unions and other conservative forces made legislative leadership waver, ultimately stalling the bills. Sadly, the state legislature did not pass a single piece of legislation this session to improve or expand the parole release process.
We are also devastated that the legislature would not pass Humane Alternatives to Long-term Confinement (HALT) (A.2500 / S.1623), despite the fact that the bill had ample votes and tremendous public support. The last-minute, closed-door deal brokered between legislative leadership and Governor Cuomo is a poor excuse for reform. It does little to curtail the use of solitary confinement, excluding local jails entirely, and leaving intact other forms of isolation frequently employed by DOCCS.
Without these critical bills, lawmakers guaranteed that more New Yorkers will age, despair, and die behind bars. This is unacceptable. Next session, legislators must come back to Albany with the will to pass these bills, bring parole justice to New York State and end the torture of solitary confinement. The lives of countless New Yorkers depend on it.
Here is the statement we sent out earlier this week, encouraging all to help prevent Kratzenberg from being appointed. Thank you to all who joined our effort:
Statement from Release Aging People in Prison Campaign and Parole Preparation Project Opposing the Confirmation of Richard Kratzenberg to the NYS Parole Board
Today, June 18 2019, the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee confirmed six new appointments put forward by Governor Cuomo for the New York State Parole Board.
Most concerning of the appointments is Richard Kratzenberg, a former corrections officer and long- time, in-prison parole officer. His entire 32-year career has been almost exclusively within the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and there is no evidence he has community ties or personal or professional references outside of that setting. According to public records, Kratzenberg was also formerly a registered Republican (now party unaffiliated) and has predominantly lived in conservative, rural and suburban towns in upstate New York.
During this morning’s confirmation hearing, Kratzenberg cited both the nature of a person’s crime and their criminal record as two of the most important factors in parole release determinations. He spent little time discussing the role rehabilitation or personal transformation play in his assessments, and expressed strong support for current DOCCS programming, which many New Yorkers know is deeply inadequate. Further, Kratzenberg showed no nuanced understanding of the underlying causes of violence and crime, or the conditions and circumstances that often lead people to prison.
Undoubtedly, making determinations about a candidate’s suitability for this role on the Parole Board solely on the basis of their credentials and a short interview, is a dangerous thing to do. However, the timeline of events and the total lack of transparency in this nomination process leaves us no choice but to oppose the confirmation of Mr. Kratzenberg. Without any time to vet these candidates, we cannot in good conscience support the nomination of a person who has spent his entire career surveilling and supervising incarcerated people.
Mr. Kratzenberg is emblematic of parole in the Pataki-era, when commissioners came from primarily law enforcement and prosecutorial backgrounds, and the parole release process served as another mechanism to indefinitely punish people in prison. However, in the last eight years, parole has undergone dramatic reforms, resulting in fairer parole decisions, longer parole interviews and more hope. Kratzenbrg’s nomination jeopardizes that progress. If confirmed to the Parole Board, Mr. Kratzenberg would be appointed for a six-year term, longer than any other candidate appointed this year.
At the Senate Crime Committee meeting, Senators Myrie and Rivera voted against Mr. Kratzenberg’s appointment, and Senators Bailey and Gallivan voted without record. Mr. Kratzenberg’s nomination was narrowly voted out of the Crime Committee and referred to the Finance Committee for a second confirmation hearing.
If confirmed, Mr. Kratzenberg will have the power to deprive thousands of people of their freedom and to extend New York’s ugly, racist legacy of “tough-on-crime” policies and mass incarceration.
We urge members of the Finance Committee and the larger New York State Senate to vote no on his appointment.