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.