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Fear-mongering Versus Reality in New York Parole

state capital herman bell 3

Senate Republicans oppose Herman Bell's parole (photo via Senator Patrick Gallivan's website)

Juxtaposed with the decision by New York State Senate Republicans to hold hearings to voice anger over decisions by the Parole Board was this past Friday’s annual Parole Summit of the Lifers and Longtermers Organization at Otisville Correctional Facility.

Summit attendees, including parole reform advocates, clergy, academics, and a judge from the New York Court of Appeals, heard person after person talk passionately about the Lifers’ commitment to their “Four Rs” of responsibility, remorse, reconciliation, and rehabilitation. By day’s end it was clear that for many people behind bars there is a fifth “R” – redemption.   

The transparent political motivation to hold hearings so close in time to elections is made all the more shameful by the appeal to fear-mongering, as comments already circulating by Senate Republicans raise the specter of droves of dangerous criminals randomly turned loose on the streets of Albany and Long Island, the chosen sites for the hearings, and elsewhere.  

Senator Patrick Gallivan, Chair of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee that co-sponsored the hearings, characterizes a select few Board decisions granting parole as “indefensible and an affront to law-abiding citizens.” To the contrary, the Board followed the laws and regulations that govern the Board’s decision-making. Far more troubling to law-abiding citizens is an elected official urging the Board to flout the law.    

The Legislature passes laws that set minimum and maximum sentences, and judges mete out sentences pursuant to those laws. A person becomes eligible for parole after they have served their minimum judicially-imposed sentence. The Legislature has enumerated a number of factors that the Parole Board must consider when weighing whether to grant parole. If you have done well while incarcerated -- completed all required programs, avoided serious disciplinary infractions, accepted responsibility for your actions, and made a thorough re-entry plan -- you should be released. That is the law. Indeed, that is what people are told when they are sentenced.  

Long-overdue changes to the laws and regulations that govern parole direct the Board to take a forward-looking approach; evaluate who the person is today instead of fixating on the crime of conviction from often decades earlier. Now, the Board is required to utilize an objective evidence-based risk-assessment tool to determine whether someone presents a risk of future violent behavior. Elected officials who suggest that the Parole Board is turning loose a slew of dangerous criminals conveniently ignore that each of these people were deemed to be at the lowest possible risk for re-offending. They also elide the fact that each of these people served decades in prison before they were released. Not only have they been significantly punished, but, according to every study of age and crime, they have long ago “aged out” of any real possibility of future criminal conduct. Put simply, they are profoundly different people at age 50, 60 or 70 than they were when they were in their teens or twenties.  

Several Senators also refer disingenuously to the Board’s “seeming automatic releases.” That is patently untrue. The most controversial cases of the past year all involve people who had been denied parole eight, nine, ten, or more times spanning decades. However, consider the recent case of Richard DiGuglielmo. Mr. DiGuglielmo was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in a high-profile case involving the killing of a black man by a white off-duty police officer in a dispute over a parking space. Mr. DiGuglielmo served his 20-year minimum and was released at his very first appearance before the Board, a very rare outcome for someone convicted of murder, especially considering the objections from the victim’s family. Notably, there was no outcry from the Republicans members of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee.

The Board is subjected to relatively little public opprobrium when it chooses to deny parole.  Contrary to the claims of Senate Republicans, the far larger problem with the Board, as made abundantly clear at the Otisville Parole Summit, is its habit of routinely denying parole to the many people who have so fully transformed, decisions based solely on the serious nature of the crime of conviction, something the person can never change. These punitive, backward-looking decisions ignore the innate human capacity to change and are ultimately cold and merciless.  

The epidemic of mass incarceration is now readily acknowledged. The 130 Lifers and Longtermers at the Otisville Summit have collectively served more than 2,400 years in prison.  Many of them have been denied parole repeatedly based exclusively on the crime of conviction from decades before. Contrary to the views of Republican members of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, decisions grounded in the extant laws and regulations to grant parole should be praised, not pilloried, and must not be influenced, let alone determined, by who yells the loudest.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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