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.
Please call Governor Cuomo, 1-518-474-8390, press 1 to leave a message; and Senator Jamaal Bailey, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Correction Committee (Democrat), 1-518-455-2061. He approves appointments to the Parole Board.