In a world that heralds rehabilitation and second chances as essential components of a just society, it's high time we re-evaluate the role of parole in our criminal justice system. New York, like many other states, has gotten rid of the death penalty but has replaced it with life sentences that don’t have the possibility of parole. A report from Columbia University: “New York's New Death Penalty: The Death Toll of Mass Incarceration in a Post Execution Era” found that 56% of deaths behind bars in the last decade were individuals 55 years old and older—more frightening is of those that died behind bars 1 in 2 are Black.
These jarring statistics are a clear example that it's time for New York to initiate the process of granting parole to those in prison and explore alternative pathways to ensure public safety. New York University School of Law’s Center on Race Inequality & the Law found that from 2016 to 2021, overall, the Parole Board was 19% less likely to release people of color than white people, compared to 30% less likely in 2022 and 2023 and 32% less likely in the first quarter of 2023. During the first quarter of 2023, the racial disparities got drastically worse as the Board was 32.42% less likely to release a person of color than their white counterparts. We are literally watching Black and brown people get railroaded by the legal system in every direction.
Concerns about public safety often fuel resistance to the idea of granting parole to incarcerated individuals. However, it's crucial to recognize that the current parole system only partially eliminates these concerns. A renewed focus on rehabilitation, restorative justice, and comprehensive reentry support contributes to long-term public safety by addressing the underlying factors that lead to undesirable behavior. We can create a more secure and harmonious society by giving individuals the tools they need to succeed.
New York has an opportunity to lead by example, illustrating that second chances and rehabilitation are not just ideals but viable solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in our society.
When administered effectively, parole ensures that individuals are supervised, held accountable, and provided with the necessary support, enhancing public safety while promoting a more compassionate and just criminal legal system. It's an investment in the potential for change and creating a safer and more fiscally responsible future for all.
What can we do?
In the heart of New York, a powerful movement is brewing: the People's Campaign for Parole Justice. A passion for reforming the parole system and promoting justice for incarcerated individuals drives this grassroots campaign. They advocate for transformative bills that have the potential to reshape New York's parole landscape.
Fair and Timely Parole (S02179/A1504): This bill seeks to redefine parole by shifting the focus from the original crime to an individual's rehabilitation during incarceration. It's a vital step towards ensuring fair parole hearings and increasing New York's notoriously low parole release rate. While it doesn't entirely remove parole commissioners' discretion, it aligns parole with its original purpose – identifying readiness for release, not rehashing the past.
Elder Parole (S2423/A2035): This legislation offers a chance at parole hearings for incarcerated individuals aged 55 and older who've served 15 or more years. Passage of the Elder Parole bill could immediately benefit around 1,000 individuals, with countless more experiencing the positive effects in the years to come. Former Acting DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci once testified about the higher costs to incarcerate older people. The living conditions, stress, and dietary restrictions in prison lead to individuals aging faster than they would if they were home in their community.
These bills can only achieve their potential without a fully staffed and fair Parole Board. The People's Campaign for Parole Justice calls for a Parole Board of 19 commissioners with diverse expertise in social work, healthcare, reentry services, and mental health. These skills are crucial in accurately assessing an individual's readiness for release. Governor Hochul vowed to staff the Parole Board fully. Yet, she has dragged her feet on nominating four more commissioners.
Furthermore, the method of conducting Parole Board interviews deserves careful consideration. While technology has undoubtedly transformed many aspects of our lives, conducting these crucial interviews might fall short of capturing the depth and nuance necessary to make well-informed decisions. Parole Board interviews in person allow for a more holistic evaluation of an incarcerated individual’s readiness for reentry. The physical presence of the board and the individual enables a direct assessment of body language, demeanor, and emotional cues that can significantly contribute to the accuracy of the decision-making process.
These interviews offer a genuine opportunity for the Parole Board to connect with the individual, fostering a more empathetic understanding of their journey and aspirations. Adequate staffing ensures that parole hearings are efficient and fair. With a fully-staffed Board, there's an even distribution of the workload, reducing the risk of rushed or uninformed judgments that can have far-reaching consequences for both the individuals seeking parole and the community.
Lastly, the public should be able to see how each Parole Board commissioner is voting. Making the parole commissioner's voting rates public information would be a pivotal step in addressing the racial disparities on release. Releasing these statistics to the public provides a crucial layer of oversight and insight into the decision-making process of the Parole Board. Transparency fosters public trust in the criminal justice system and ensures that parole decisions align with the values of fairness and rehabilitation. The public release of parole commissioner vote rates serves as a beacon of accountability, guiding the parole system toward greater equity, consistency, and public confidence.
If you're as passionate about these reforms as we are, we urge you to visit the People's Campaign for Parole Justice website here. There, you can dive deeper into these critical bills, find resources for advocacy, and learn how to take action. At Common Justice, we believe that together, we can create a more equitable and compassionate future for all New Yorkers, where parole truly serves its intended purpose – to provide second chances and promote rehabilitation. In the pursuit of a fairer, more equitable criminal justice system, New York must consider the merits of releasing individuals in prison from parole. By doing so, we honor principles of fairness and justice, promote economic and social benefits, remove barriers to successful reintegration, strengthen family bonds, and ultimately enhance public safety through a more rehabilitative approach.
It's time to reimagine the role of parole in our society, embracing the power of redemption and second chances. Through this shift, New York can pave the way for a more compassionate and effective criminal justice system, benefiting both individuals and communities alike. It’s time to start granting parole, we cannot continue to leave individuals behind bars to die. It’s time to grant clemency now.