An Amsterdam News article, “Exposing the New York State Parole Board,” has an encouraging ending
(see two UPDATES at end of article)
The Amsterdam News, June 8, 2017
by The Northeast Political Prisoner Coalition
(See update at end of article)
Over the past several years, there has been a great deal of examination and public outcry about mass incarceration and its damaging impact on poor and working-class Black/Brown families and communities. What hasn’t had as much outcry or examination is the covert murkiness, impunity and absolute authority in which the New York State Parole Board and its recalcitrant commissioners operate as judge, jury and executioner over the lives of thousands of incarcerated individuals and their families.
The New York State Parole Board should, by law, comprise 19 commissioners, all appointed by the governor. The current Board has only 12 commissioners. The absence of the other seven has created a backlog and resulted in parole appearances that consist of a 10-minute video conference before a three-person panel. Three of the current commissioners are holdovers from the George Pataki administration, a Republican whose policy agenda favored locking people up for life.
For an incarcerated man or woman to be parole eligible, the individual must undergo a “risk and needs assessment” performance test. This test is a readiness instrument that measures who they are today, their prison record, educational, psychological and sociological accomplishments, and what, if any, risk the individual poses for committing a new crime if released. When applied justly and appropriately, the risk and needs assessment offers an incarcerated individual a fair shot at release. The practice, however, is anything but. Instead, parole commissioners routinely and perniciously ignore the risk and needs assessment findings, and rubber stamp the denial of 80 percent of those who appear based on the “nature of the crime” and a bias that their release “would so deprecate the law.”
Over the past approximately two decades, these repeated parole denials have caused a 98 percent increase in the number of people over the age of 50 incarcerated in the NYS prison system. These are people who have been in prison for 25 or more years, and who according to the state’s own research, are the least likely to engage in recidivism. They are persistently denied parole by a Board that continues to re-sentence them 10, 15 and, in some cases, 24 years past the sentence imposed on them by the judge. More often than not, a parole denial comes with a “two-year hit,” which means they cannot appear again for another two years. New legislation, already approved in the Senate, is now being proposed to extend the two-year hit to a five-year hit. Readers can object to such an extension by calling their elected representatives in the New York State Assembly.
For thousands of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunties and uncles, sisters and brothers across this state, these encounters with the parole board turn an otherwise hopeful experience, full of the possibility of healing and renewal, into one of perpetual abuse, disappointment, separation, hopelessness, punishment and state violence.
How do we heal this trauma, violence and devastation inflicted on these families and communities by the mass incarceration and perpetual parole denial of their loved ones? We start by applying community and political pressure on Governor Cuomo to appoint commissioners who are educators, faith-based community leaders and social workers with an interest in reinvesting, rebuilding and rehabilitating the communities incarcerated people will return home to, and not the current practice of appointing current and former law enforcement (i.e., police officers, prosecutors or judges) personnel whose intent is to keep people in prison for life. We ask readers to petition Governor Cuomo not to reappoint commissioners James Ferguson, Kevin Ludlow, William Smith, Otis Cruse or Julie Smith. All of them have consistently demonstrated their refusal to follow the law and a blatant disregard for the communities in need of their loved ones return.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
- Of the five Commissioners whose terms expired this year only two were reappointed: Otis Cruse and William Smith. While we celebrate the fact that only two Commissioners were reappointed, it is unacceptable that the Governor and Senate re-appointed William Smith. Appointed by Gov Pataki, Smith has been on the Board for over 20 years and has a record of humiliating people and denying release to those who have served decades in prison, transformed their lives, and pose little or no risk to society.
- Three Commissioners were NOT reappointed: Ferguson, Ludlow and Julie Smith. Ferguson and Ludlow were both Pataki appointees, and all three frequently disregarded the humanity of people in prison and violated the law.
- Additionally, Parole Commissioner Lisa Elovich resigned from the Board, despite the fact that her term does not expire until 2019. Elovich was also a Pataki-era appointee. We believe as a result of your advocacy efforts and continued calls to the Governor’s office and legislature, she felt pressure to leave the Board. Now, only one Pataki-era appointee will remain on the Board by the end of the year.
- Six new Parole Commissioners were appointed for the first time: Caryne Demosthenes, Carol Shapiro, Tana Agostini, Erik Berliner, Tyece Drake, and Charles Davis. While only time will tell whether these new appointees perform their duties correctly and justly, many of them more closely reflect the identities and experiences of people in prison, and come from a broader range of professional backgrounds.
We defeated Lorraine’s Law (A2350A) in the Assembly (after it had passed the Senate as S2997-A): As many of you know, a devastating bill that increased the time between Parole Board hearings from 2 years to up to 5 years for people convicted of the most serious crimes had a lot of support in the legislature. However, as a result of your efforts, it was narrowly defeated.
Most importantly, we profoundly shaped the confirmation process of new Commissioners, exposed the many injustices and cronyism inherent in the process, educated our legislators about the impact of parole on our loved ones, and for the first time, garnered serious opposition on the Senate floor. In an unprecedented moment, Senators on the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee that confirms the appointments, voiced strong opposition to the reappointment of William Smith. The opposition continued onto the larger Senate floor, where Senators dissented and 19 people ultimately voted NO on Smith’s reappointment! Although not enough to defeat his reappointment, such a public rejection of a long-standing Commissioner suggests a new and dramatic shift in parole policy. For example, watch this short video of Senator Gustavo Rivera’s speech to the Senate on the purpose and practice of parole.
On September 27, 2017, the new Board of Parole regulations became available. While still far from what justice and good governance demand, these regulations do categorize risk and needs assessments as a “guiding principle” for release decisions, rather than as one on a list of “factors” to be considered.
Along with the newly appointed commissioners, the new regs could allow more incarcerated people to win release on parole, as their records and achievements mandate. BUT: It will take continuing pressure from the community to ensure that the new regs and the new commissioners are not just window dressing to make a cruel, unforgiving, and unjust parole system look less ugly.
Take Action to Help Keep This Shift Going
Come to our meetings and get involved: Email us to learn more about joining our campaign and attending meetings in your area.
- NYC: Parole Justice NY has quarterly meetings in the city and monthly phone calls. Email email@example.com for more info.
- Attend RAPP monthly coalition meetings (first Wednesday of every month)
Attend a meeting of Challenging Incarceration. To find out when and where, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Capitol Region: CAAMI (Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration) has a Parole Watch team who attend every public Parole Board meeting. CAAMI’s work also extends far beyond parole. Email email@example.com for more info.
Again, we want to thank you all for your powerful and persistent efforts these past few weeks. We are entering a new moment in the movement for parole justice. We have the attention of our legislators and Governor and we have each other!