Published in Building Bridges on July 5, 2015
Take action to pass the Safe and Fair Evaluations (S.A.F.E.) Parole Act!
Where criminal justice reform stands: As this year’s session of the New York State Legislature closes, it is clear that reform of New York’s atrocious criminal justice system faces powerful pushback from regions that benefit financially from prisons, and also from law enforcement and other political forces with a stake in maintaining racist repression. On the positive side, our vibrant movements against incarceration and police brutality were more successful than ever at forcing criminal justice issues onto the agenda of the governor, the legislature, and the media. The criminal justice reform issues that had the most visibility and support this session but did not pass (Raise the Age, HALT Solitary Confinement, special prosecutor for police who kill, etc.) will build on their momentum and have a better chance next session. Between now and when the next legislative session convenes in January 2016, we can make the SAFE Parole Act one of those issues.
Where the SAFE Parole Act stands: At the close of this session, the SAFE Parole Act has six sponsors in the Senate and twenty-one in the Assembly!! Dozens of organizations have signed on to a statement to support it, and hundreds of individual activists, advocates, and families have written letters, signed petitions, and participated in demonstrations and other events. It has been promoted at meetings, workshops, and programs and has support and name recognition among incarcerated people, families, advocates, activists, faith groups, and legislators.
How the SAFE Parole Act came into being: People in prison, their families, and people released from prison urged outside supporters to respond to parole injustice and participated in writing the SAFE Parole Act. Prisoner justice organizations receive more letters from people in prison on parole injustice than on any other issue. The overriding demand from incarcerated people is, “The Parole Board must stop denying us based on our original crime – the one thing we have no power to change!”
Why we need the SAFE Parole Act: The SAFE Parole Act, if passed into law, would require the Parole Board to evaluate parole applicants based on their prison history and their current risk to the community, not on their original crime. All the evidence confirms that people’s original crime is NOT a predictor of recidivism once they have served their minimum sentence. The Board would have to provide a path by which parole applicants could demonstrate their community readiness, low risk potential, good record, and rehabilitation, and would have to release them when they have fulfilled all of these requirements. Community well-being would replace revenge and punishment as the goal of the parole process.
What we have to do to get it passed: (1) The national and statewide momentum opposing mass incarceration and police killings has created a climate which begins to make change possible. We have to be part of that momentum and help it grow – that is, our parole justice movement has to support and be allied with other movements challenging the criminal INjustice system.
(2) We supporters of the SAFE Parole Act have to make it more visible and better understood than it has been so far. What we have done in the past year:
• Formed a new coalition, Parole Justice Now! to promote the SAFE Parole Act
• A statewide tour combining the educational video “The Nature of the Crime” with a workshop training families and advocates to effectively lobby legislators
• A new website: www.parolejusticenow.org
• A petition
• An organizational sign-on support letter to gather new organizations and renew the commitment of previous signers
What you can do right now:
• Gather more individual signatures on the petition
• Recruit your organization to sign on to the Parole Justice Now campaign: lifers/long termers, faith-based, family, labor, advocates, community or any other concerned group
• Set up a program/Family Empowerment training with Parole Justice Now to come to your (or your family’s) community
Parole reform is key to undoing mass incarceration! It challenges the racially loaded narrative of “the worst of the worst” by demonstrating that people are not defined forever by the worst thing they ever did. It says that the lives of incarcerated people matter and that communities and families need and benefit from the return of their community-ready members. It insists that social problems can be better solved by social, economic, public health, and education programs than by punishment. It proves that valuing community well-being and valuing the lives of incarcerated people are not contradictory but are essential to each other.