An op-ed in the Albany Times Union explores how a New York police union influences parole board decisions—and how that could change, fast.
February 11, 2016 • http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus • by Lumumba Bandele and Eve Rosahn
Calling his 2016 agenda “Built to Lead,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo promises New York will set national precedents by confronting the state’s prison population.
The state has more than 52,000 people in prisons; nationally, the figure is well over 2 million.
“We are working to end warehousing in prisons and moving towards educating and rehabilitating,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address. His policy book says New York’s dysfunctional parole board is keeping the prison population unconscionably high: “More than 10,000 people are denied parole annually in New York state, and only one in five have it granted.”
The governor lists welcome proposals to fix the problem and parole thousands of men and women who could safely be released — many of whom have weathered decades of parole denials. But to enact them, he must face a reality he doesn’t mention: Behind the board’s intransigence, looms the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and its ongoing efforts to keep thousands of people in New York prisons until they die.
The parole board has been given relatively enlightened guidelines. In 2011, the law was changed to require that parole release be predicated on evidence-based “needs and risk assessments.” Such assessments use objective, scientific standards — rather than subjective viewpoints of individual parole commissioners — to guide the board in its key task: predicting whether a parole applicant will, if released, commit crimes. Basing release on such standards reflects New York’s mandate to protect public safety as well as to honor the rehabilitative goals of the penal system. Yet thousands of people — long since rehabilitated — remain behind bars.
If, for example, the board applied evidence-based assessments to the crisis of aging people in prison, it could, indeed, set a national precedent. People older than 50 now constitute nearly 18 percent of New York’s prison population. These are mostly people serving parole-eligible terms for violent crimes, including murder, committed many years ago. The board, however, methodically avoids using such reliable and transparent criteria. When the applicant is a long-termer convicted for a violent crime — especially for murder or attempted murder of a police officer — the board regularly denies parole, citing “the nature of the offense.” This, despite the fact that New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision statistics show that aging people convicted of murder are least likely to commit a new crime.
Sustaining this unbending stance is the PBA, which fights against the release — ever — of anyone serving time for violence on a police officer. Form letters from the New York City PBA website inundate the board, opposing the release of anyone so convicted, no matter how old or sick, how insightful and changed; no matter the near impossibility that they will ever commit another crime.
Sadly, the board bows to these letters — sent by suggestible people who know nothing about the person seeking parole, other than a conviction for a crime that may have occurred more than 40 years ago.
With nearly 8,000 people serving time in New York for murder or attempted murder, the PBA’s undue influence contributes mightily to the meager parole release rate Cuomo cites. But the governor need not explore new avenues to correct the situation. All he needs to do is to direct his parole commissioners to follow the law by rejecting the vengeful agenda of the PBA in favor of science, fairness and justice. That would be a huge step toward making New York “built to lead.”
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Lumumba Bandele is with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and an adjunct professor at City University of New York. Eve Rosahn is former director of the Legal Aid Society of NY’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit. Also contributing to this was Michael Tarif Warren, a human rights attorney for victims of police brutality.