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)