(photo: The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign)
For years, advocates, community members, and New York State lawmakers have worked to change our state’s unfair, biased, and harmful criminal legal system. We came together as supporters of common sense, cost-saving reforms that would benefit all New Yorkers. But our efforts were stymied by a political landscape that prevented us from making these important changes.
Now that landscape is different and the power dynamics in the state Legislature have shifted, it is time for New York to promote justice and safety once and for all. Reforming our parole system is an important component of this agenda.
While New York has recently seen a steady decline in the overall prison population, the number of older people in prison and those serving lengthy prison sentences has skyrocketed. New York now holds more than 10,000 older people in prison and has the fifth highest population of those serving life sentences in the country. People are dying at great moral and financial costs to all of us. Families and entire communities of those aging and despairing behind bars throughout our state have pushed for needed changes for decades. We must side with justice and place ourselves on the right side of history.
As the Chairs of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, and Assembly Committee on Correction, we will push for critical parole reforms this legislative session.
We will begin by working to fully staff the State Parole Board with Parole Commissioners who believe in the concept of rehabilitation and come from professional backgrounds that allow them to thoroughly evaluate incarcerated peoples’ current risk to public safety and readiness for release. The Board is currently understaffed, with seven vacancies, and does not afford Commissioners and incarcerated people alike the time and process they deserve during parole interviews. Our state should allocate the resources necessary to fully staff the Board, embark on a transparent and thorough appointment and confirmation process, and onboard Commissioners who believe in rehabilitation and will be independent actors of fairness and justice.
Legislatively, we will prioritize changes to the state executive law that make parole a forward-looking process and ensure that release determinations are not exclusively based on the nature of someone’s crime but instead on who they are today. To that end, we will push for “fair and timely parole,” which would ensure that parole release is based on rehabilitation and current risk to public safety. Our parole laws should center the values of redemption and transformation, not retribution and vengeance.
Finally, we must tackle the crisis of aging in prison by passing elder parole. Decades of research from across the country and around the world shows that peoples’ risk to public safety significantly decreases as they age, and that prison sentences that amount to death do nothing to keep us safer or deter crime. Based on this evidence, elder parole would allow for a consideration of parole release for incarcerated people aged 55 and older who have served 15 years in prison. Passing this bill in a fair and inclusive way would allow our state to restore mercy and compassion, while saving taxpayers dollars that could be re-invested in communities throughout New York.
Taken together, these three measures would make significant progress towards ending mass incarceration, promoting public safety, and re-connecting families and communities. We call on our colleagues in the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to join us in these worthy efforts. The lives and well being of countless New Yorkers depend on us.
Senator Luis Sepulveda represents the 32nd Senate District in the Bronx and is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections. Assembly Member David Weprin represents the 24th Assembly District in Queens and is the Chair of the Assembly Correction Committee. On Twitter @LuisSepulvedaNY & @DavidWeprin.