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 updates 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.
On March 13, 2018, a widely respected elder, Herman Bell, was granted parole, having met all the criteria for release according to his sentence. The parole commissioners recognized his progress after serving nearly 45 years in prison and granted his parole application. He is looking forward to being reunited with his family and friends. We welcome him home.
On March 19, 2018, responding to a solid week of attacks on the decision—and on Mr. Bell himself—by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and other law enforcement organizations, the New York Times wrote this editorial in favor of Mr. Bell’s release:
Don’t Let Parole Become a Meaningless Concept
by the New York Times Editorial Board
Some felt Herman Bell deserved execution or at least a prison sentence of life without parole, but in mid-1970s New York those weren’t options. No question, Mr. Bell’s crime was a despicable assault on society itself. In 1971, with fellow Black Liberation Army radicals, he ambushed two police officers in Harlem, repeatedly and fatally shooting them as part of a war they had declared on the United States.
Rather than being condemned to prison forever, Mr. Bell got 25 years to life. Now, at 70, and after more than 44 years behind bars, he has been granted parole by a New York State board, which found he had expressed “regret and remorse.” Long in coming though the statement was, he is said to have told board members this month: “There was nothing political about the act, as much as I thought at the time. It was murder and horribly wrong.” In mid-April, he could be freed from his maximum-security prison in the Hudson Valley.
Despite angry reactions from law enforcement groups and others, the process worked as it should if parole is to amount to more than an empty word. Our prisons call themselves “correctional facilities.” The New York board found that Mr. Bell had indeed been corrected, based on a solid disciplinary record, a “sturdy network of supporters” and a likelihood of his now leading a “law-abiding life.” To lock him up forever even though deemed a changed man is to make a mockery of his sentence: “25 years to life” is not supposed to be cynical code for “life.”
Parole is understandably fraught in cases of slain police officers. Emotions run high, as does posturing by the politically powerful. In New York, a notable example involves two women who were part of a leftist band that killed two police officers and a guard during a bungled robbery of a Brink’s armored car in 1981.
Though plainly guilty of involvement in the crime, neither of the women, Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark, fired a shot. They both went on to become model prisoners who expressed remorse for their actions. Ms. Boudin was paroled in 2003. But the road to freedom has been rockier for Ms. Clark, denied parole once again last year despite having had her sentence commuted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Bell case is a reminder of how brutal New York could be in the early 1970s, an era of supercharged racial and political hostilities. Mr. Bell’s victims, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini, were among 12 police officers in the city shot to death in 1971. In contrast, it has taken the past 13 years to record 12 officer deaths. (The New York City police, too, are now far more restrained, fatally shooting eight criminal suspects in a typical year, compared with the 1971 toll of 93.)
Officer Piagentini’s widow, Diane, remains implacably opposed to freeing Mr. Bell. The parole board’s decision, she said, “devalues the life of my brave husband” and “betrayed the trust” of police families. But relatives of Officer Jones have been more forgiving. In a 2014 interviewwith The Daily News, Waverly Jones Jr. said, “This man has been in prison for over 30 years and hasn’t gotten into so much as an argument.” To continue to lock him up, Mr. Jones said, “would only be for revenge.”
He’s right. And vengeance is not supposed to guide a system of justice.
Take Action to Help Keep Advancing Parole Justice
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!