State Comptroller Responds to Aging in Prison. Now, Let’s Hear from the Attorney General.

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When a crisis plagues our society, we want elected officials to act. So the skyrocketing population of older people in New York prisons should provoke response from New York’s public servants. Recently, it did just that when NY State Cover of Comptroller Report -- RAPPComptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a searing report, “New York’s Aging Prison Population.”

The April, 2017 report shows that, while the overall number of incarcerated people in New York has fallen by more than 17 percent since 2007, the number of people 50 and older has risen by 46 percent. “No other age segment of New York’s prison population increased over the ten-year period,” the report says.

The Comptroller reports that prison medical costs rose 24 percent in the past three years alone. He urges the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to analyze how much of this increase results from imprisoning an aging population.

DiNaopoli describes the irony in the numbers: “In contrast to incarceration costs that may rise as inmates age, recidivism rates decline as offenders grow older.”

As a result, the report says, “…because of factors including recidivism rates that are generally lower for older individuals than for their younger counterparts, early release for older individuals may be an appropriate strategy in certain cases.” This reflects the common-sense position of many community organizers and justice advocates, who urge the Parole Board and the Governor to use parole, compassionate release, and clemency to release people who pose little or no risk to public safety.

So what are other leaders in New York State doing about this crisis? In 2016, when Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP and other advocates asked the Comptroller to investigate the problem, we also urged the State’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, to take action. We asked him to issue an advisory opinion directing the Parole Board to follow a 2011 law requiring them to base decisions on an applicant’s current risk to public safety, using risk and needs assessments. We asked him to address the horrendous statistics of parole in the state: some 80 percent of applicants are denied, no matter their age or low risk-assessment scores. Many people 50 and older have been denied every two years for decades—a problem tragically highlighted when John MacKenzie, 70 years old and incarcerated for more than 40 years, died by suicide last August after a tenth parole denial.

Six state legislators and New York City Council members asked the A.G. to issue an advisory opinion. Sadly, Schneiderman has not done so, and instead continues, through his staff, to defend Parole Board decisions when they are challenged in court.

When the Comptroller’s report came out, Schneiderman did act—sort of: he issued a press release saying, “I have long supported effective, evidence-based compassionate release guidelines for qualifying members of this population.”

Why wait until an incarcerated woman or man is seriously ill or near death to use evidence-based guidelines for release? The Attorney General could help New York State address the crisis of aging people in prison, simply by directing his clients, the Parole commissioners, to do their job.

All public officials should follow the State Comptroller’s example, addressing social problems and moving New York State closer to public welfare and justice.

By Laura Whitehorn, Release Aging Prisoners Project (RAPP)