Democrats, advocates target parole reform

Courtesy of Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP CampaignA crowd rallies for the Legislature to enact parole reform in the concourse of the Empire State Plaza outside the state Capitol in Albany in January 2020.

With the budget passed and solitary confinement restrictions signed into law, progressive Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have their sights set on their next criminal justice goal this session: Parole reform.

Incarcerated New Yorkers, lawmakers and advocates rallied Monday and Tuesday as part of National Second Chance Month pushing the Legislature to enact parole reform, which could lead to the release of hundreds of incarcerated people in the state’s prison system, with the passage of two proposed bills this session: The Fair & Timely Parole Act (S.1415/A.4231) and Elder Parole (S.15A/A.3475).

“Today, we stand here with our hearts repeatedly broken in the face of racism in America,” Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa, D-Manhattan, said Tuesday. “...We know the disparities in our failed parole system in New York keeps our communities incarcerated. We know that Black and brown people are disproportionately denied parole. Make no mistake: Life without parole is a sentence to death behind bars.”

If passed, the elder parole bill would require incarcerated New Yorkers over age 55 who have served 15 or more consecutive years be considered for parole regardless of their crime or sentence. The law should be prioritized, lawmakers and activists argue, as the age group faces an increase risk of COVID-19 complications and death.

The Fair & Timely Parole Act would amend executive law mandating the state’s Parole Board to release eligible incarcerated New Yorkers on parole unless the person presents a current and unreasonable risk, or a risk that cannot be mitigated by parole supervision, according to the bill.

The state reports 177 incarcerated New Yorkers were released upon their first appearance in front of the Parole Board in 2015. Twenty others that year were released after additional appearances. More releases, according to the bill, sponsored by Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D,WF-Bronx; would prevent older incarcerated people who require expensive medical care and have a low likelihood of recidivism from remaining in the system.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision does not comment on proposed legislation.

Stanley Bellamy, who is incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, Dutchess County, spoke at a virtual press conference about the issue Monday morning. At the age of 58, Bellamy is serving a 62.5-year-to-life sentence.

The state Parole Board currently has three vacancies of 19 total members.

Representatives from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the proposed legislation Tuesday, including when the vacancies are expected to be filled.

Families of incarcerated New Yorkers have fought for a more diverse state Parole Board to represent the Black and Latino people who make up the majority of imprisoned people.

Incarcerated people who are white who apply for parole are more likely to be released, according to recent reports. The state Parole Board granted release to 41% of white applicants from October 2018 through October 2020, compared to 34% of Black and 33% of Latino people, according to statistics reported in an Albany Times Union analysis and New York Times investigation the campaign cited Tuesday.

Eleven of the current 16 members are considered to be minorities or people of color, DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci said during a bicameral legislative budget hearing Feb. 10. Staff are mandated to receive implicit bias, racial stereotype and other training, he said.

Faith leaders spoke as part of a virtual press conference Tuesday led by the Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP Campaign.

“Every single person has inherent worth and dignity,” said the Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, of the Universal Unitarian Church of the South Fork on Long Island. “We are not defined by the worst thing we have ever done. Whatever your religion is, people of good conscience, we are morally called to act with compassion. We know everyone is capable of redemption and everyone is worthy of mercy.

“Everyone deserves a second chance.”

An increasing number of Democrats in the state Legislature are throwing support behind both measures to get parole reform passed this legislative session, scheduled to end June 10.

Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Queens, who chairs the Correction Committee, noted the Parole Board’s recent increased diversity Tuesday and spoke in favor of passing both measures this session.

“The whole point of the correctional system rehabilitation is rehabilitation,” said Weprin, adding many people enter state prisons at 16 or 17 before their mind is medically developed.

“There’s no question the individuals when they first came in at a young age are very different people today.”

Assemblywoman Sarah Clark, D-Rochester, would also vote in favor of both measures to implement parole reform.

“For me, this is all about what we want our society to look like,” Clark said in a statement. “Do we want our system to be as punitive as it currently is or do we want a system that is restorative? I’m excited to keep fighting for a better system for everyone.”

Parole reform would accelerate state decarceration efforts, further decreasing the prison population.

The number of incarcerated New Yorkers is about 31,407 as of March 26, down from about 31,800 on March 15. The figure reflects a decrease of more than 22,000 people since Cuomo took office in 2011 — the lowest total since 1984 and a 57% decline since the all-time high of 72,773 in 1999.

The state has reduced its incarcerated population by about 12,100 New Yorkers since Jan. 1, 2020, according to a statement from DOCCS on March 27.

The state is expected to close an undetermined number of facilities with 90-day notice through Fiscal Year 2022-23 because of the decreased number incarcerated New Yorkers, Cuomo and top aide Budget Director Rob Mujica said, adding the closures will right-size a shrinking system.

“The prison capacity and the population are mis-matched right now with the prison population down from over 50% from its peak,” Mujica said Monday during a telephone call with reporters. “You have over 50% less people in the system than you had at the peak. ... It’s purely a result of sentencing reforms and other changes in criminal behavior.”

State agencies are evaluating facility infrastructure, safety and decreasing population to determine which to shutter next.

Representatives from the governor’s office did not respond to queries about the governor’s stance on parole reform and if it is part of his plans to further decarcerate state prisons.

The Fair & Timely Parole Act passed the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee and is on the Senate Floor Calendar. The Assembly version of the bill has remained in the Codes Committee since March 9.

The Elder Parole legislation was reported to the Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime And Correction Committee on April 2. The Assembly bill has not moved from the Correction Committee since Jan. 26.

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