The Parole Board ignores its job of evaluating a person’s readiness for release, writes Jim Murphy in the Albany Times-Union, September 1, 2015 • “Too Much Time Spent in Prison” •
The late judge and former Assemblyman Richard Bartlett, a leader in the 1970s legislation reforming parole, once observed of the state’s parole board: “It is not the function of the board to review the appropriateness of the sentence. That is for the court to decide. Their role is to determine the suitability of release based on the inmate’s behavior while imprisoned and the likelihood of their reoffending.”
Yet many parole board members ignore Judge Bartlett’s remarks. Instead, they review the sentence to see if it has been long enough. The person’s current history and risk assessment are merely noted and dismissed, as if they are unimportant and irrelevant. They assume current danger based on the past crime with no other indicators.
Take the case of Mohaman Koti, who the board determined was, “At risk to commit another crime, and … create disrespect for the law” in denying him parole in 2013. At that time, Mohaman was 85 years old, with multiple medical problems and confined to a wheelchair. Sentenced to 25 years to life in 1978, he had been in prison for 35 years and had a low risk assessment and positive record. Luckily, on a 2014 appeal, a judge ruled that the board’s basis for denying him parole was irrational and called for a new hearing. After a split decision in one hearing, he won release that September.
The board’s reluctance to release aging felons shows in the state’s own statistics. Among older A1 felons who came before the board in 2014, six of the 11 who were older than 80, and 48 of the 59 who were aged 70 to 79, were denied parole.
However, when individuals convicted of felony murder are released, the statistics underline the weakness of asserting current danger. Between 1985 and 2009, 2,130 individuals sentenced for murder were released. Just 47, or 2.2 percent, were returned with a new conviction. None of them was convicted for a new murder.
To put a face on some of these individuals:
- Larry White [in photo, with the late Eddie Ellis] was released in 2011 after serving 32 years and being denied four times. At 80, he remains a passionate advocate for criminal justice reform and is working with the American Friends Service Committee.
- Mujahid Farid was released in 2011 after serving 33 years on a 15-to-life sentence. He was denied parole 10 times. Currently he is the chief organizer for Releasing Aging People in Prison.
- Diana Ortiz was released in 2006 after serving 22 1/2 years on a 17-to-life sentence and being denied parole three times. She is now associate director of Exodus Transitional Services, an organization helping those returning from prison to live productive lives.
- Shuaib Raheem, released in 2011 after serving 25 years on a 25-to-life sentence and being denied five times, is a career coach in the fatherhood initiative at the Osborne Association.
Why were these people released after being denied multiple times before? Were there new factors that made them eligible that had not been there before? Were their releases based on a change in their risk assessment of danger to the community? No. The simple answer is, there were different board members hearing their case.
The Parole Board is supposed to operate as a quasi -judicial body evaluating a person’s readiness for release with the tools appropriate for the task. But in its current form, it’s a lottery system, in which inmates who have done their time and pose no danger to the community have to rely on the luck of the draw.
Jim Murphy of Schenectady is a longtime advocate on criminal justice issues and parole reform.