Parole review process has serious shortcomings

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By Scott Paltrowitz

Each year, more than 10,000 people are denied parole in New York State.  Worse still, thousands of people are repeatedly denied parole, sometimes as many as ten times, thereby remaining in prison for decades longer than they should.

Only one out of every five people who appears before the Parole Board for a general assessment of eligibility for parole is released from prison. All of the individuals denied release have already served, at least, the minimum sentence deemed appropriate by the judiciary and the legislature for their crimes of conviction and past criminal history.

Yet, the Board repeatedly denies individuals parole based on one unchangeable factor: The nature of applicants’ crimes of conviction and their past criminal history.  In the process, the Board fails to adequately consider or give sufficient weight to what a person has accomplished while incarcerated, their current readiness for reentry, or their actual risk to the community, as measured in an objective manner.

The role of the Parole Board should be to evaluate whether an individual is ready to return to the community, not to re-sentence a person to additional punishment – a role reserved for the courts.  By relying only on the nature of an individual’s crime or their past criminal history to determine a person’s parole-readiness, the Board is in violation of a longstanding requirement that Parole Commissioners give due consideration to all statutory factors delineated for parole decisions, including applicants’ institutional record, program participation, and release plans. This reliance also thwarts the underlying intent and purpose of indeterminate sentencing and parole: To create positive incentives for people to improve themselves while incarcerated.

The repeated denials of parole, particularly when coupled with DOCCS programming that is lacking and insufficiently supported, is an inhumane form of persistent punishment. People serving long sentences who are repeatedly denied parole — even when they have completed required prison programming and demonstrated rehabilitation —  are left to languish behind bars, with little positive opportunities and little hope.

In addition to this human cost, this system of parole denials also is a tremendous drain on taxpayer funds. Each denial of parole (approximately 10,000, per year) generally results in an additional two years in prison for the person who has applied. The annual cost per incarcerated person in a New York State prison is $60,000. Even if one looked solely at the Board appearances for a general assessment of eligibility for parole and increased the rate of release in those categories to only 50% in a single year, there would be approximately an additional 4,000 people released. This would mean a potential savings of approximately 240 million dollars per year.

Moreover, when the state fails to abide by the rule of law, the resulting demoralization from repeated parole denials can lead some people to become less willing to engage in beneficial activities. Instead, individuals may engage in problematic or disruptive behavior, or lose respect for the rule of law or society as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, repeated parole denials deprive families and communities of valuable and contributing members. Many people who are denied parole are parents, children, or grandparents; have transformed their lives or self-actualized; have attained GEDs or college degrees; and are genuinely cognizant of the harms they have caused others and deeply committed to doing something positive in the community to help repair the harms caused.

In order to rectify the current deleterious impact of unfair parole denials, the Board must have written procedures that explain exactly how the Board will focus on applicants’ accomplishments, current readiness for reentry, and actual risk to the community, including through the use of objective risk assessments.

In addition, New York needs additional legislation to ensure the Board relies on forward-looking factors of rehabilitation and readiness for reentry, improves procedural protections and applicant participation in hearings, and provides specific guidance for people denied parole, along with a clear path on how they can obtain release.

Moreover, the composition of the Board must be more representative of the people who are appearing before it and the communities to which they will return. Overall, the State must release more individuals who have demonstrated rehabilitation efforts. By allowing valuable family and community members who have served their due time to return home, the State can help  reduce both the human and financial costs of mass incarceration.

Scott Paltrowitz is an Associate Director at the Correctional Association’s Prison Visiting Project.  He can be reached at spaltrowitz(@)correctionalassociation.org.

The Correctional Association provided testimony about the Parole Board’s ongoing failure to release community-ready individuals from prison at a hearing before the New York State Assembly Committee on Correction on December 4, 2013. Download a copy of the official testimony here.