Parole justice moves forward in New York State despite police union publicity stunt

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This photo is posted to the website of the New York City Police Benevolent Association with the following caption: “DISPATCH: 400 police officers, accompanied by widows of officers killed on duty, went to Albany on April 24. They brought with them hundreds of cardboard boxes packed with letters urging the state Parole Board to keep cop-killers in jail,” claiming 816,725 letters were ignored. But, as Naomi Jaffe notes, “No investigative reporter asked to look in the boxes to see if they contained even a single actual letter written by an actual person.” – Photo: NYC PBA

Join us for Parole Justice Advocacy Day in Albany, Tuesday, May 14, at the Capitol; see Facebook event page

by Naomi Jaffe, New York State Prisoner Justice Network

The tide is turning on parole injustice in New York, and the police unions do not like it one bit.

In early March, a newspaper article revealed that the New York City Police Benevolent Association was outraged to learn that a secret direct link from their website to the website of the New York State Parole Board had been discontinued. The PBA had used the link to allow any one person, with one click, to generate hundreds (perhaps thousands) of messages of opposition to parole for anyone whose release the PBA opposed.

Then the PBA claimed that thousands of people had written letters against that person’s release, and the Parole Board, in its rejections, often cited “community opposition” as a factor. Although the link was discontinued, the cozy relationship between the PBA and the Parole Board, and the politics of endless revenge that drove so many parole rejections, continued.

In April, the PBA unloaded a giant wall of boxes at Parole Board headquarters, claiming they were filled with “800,000 letters” of opposition to parole that should have been considered by the Parole Board but weren’t because the website link had been discontinued. No investigative reporter asked to look in the boxes to see if they contained even a single actual letter written by an actual person.

The illegal and discriminatory privileging of access to the Parole Board for a special interest group, such as the police, has long dominated parole decision-making in New York – but the winds are shifting. The police, the tabloids, the prison guards, the prosecutors and the right-wing legislators whose politicized pro-prison agenda has until now trumped justice, mercy and legality are on the defensive.

From the point of view of advocates, family members, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people whose persistence has begun to bring about some changes, the time for justice is long overdue. People who pose no danger and would be an asset to their families and communities are still locked inside for decades beyond their parole eligibility dates. The person’s original crime, which they can never change, still often outweighs everything positive they have done during their years in prison and their low risk of re-offending.

Elders, whose recidivism rates are close to zero, are still being denied parole based on a politicized culture of punishment instead of rehabilitation.

John MacKenzie was one such elder. He was incarcerated for more than 40 years for killing a police officer during a robbery. Despite a sterling prison record and outstanding programming accomplishments, year after year he was denied parole due to his original crime.

When he received his 10th two-year parole denial in 2016, MacKenzie appealed on the grounds that a denial based solely on the underlying conviction was illegal. A judge agreed and ordered a new hearing. When the new hearing produced exactly the same result as all the previous ones, John MacKenzie took his own life.

Shortly after MacKenzie’s death, the court held the Parole Board in contempt for failing to follow the law and the court’s orders in MacKenzie’s re-hearing. On May 1, 2019, an appellate court, in an unprecedented move, upheld the lower court’s finding of contempt against the Parole Board.

In that decision, the judge stated that “the Board may not deny an inmate parole based solely on the seriousness of the offense” – a major victory for parole justice advocates.

The courts are not the only place where the times are changing. The parole commissioners who hold the hearings and make the parole release decisions are appointed by the governor, with the approval of the – until this year – Republican-dominated Senate. They have typically been drawn from the ranks of law enforcement and prosecution.

Last year, Gov. Cuomo, pressured by the reform community, appointed a handful of new commissioners drawn from social service and other non-law enforcement backgrounds. One of the new commissioners was even married to a formerly incarcerated person. The relationship was kept secret until “outed” by opponents, but the concept that directly impacted people should have a voice in the process had crept in by the back door.

This year, advocates are demanding that the understaffed Parole Board be filled with people who believe in rehabilitation, have experience in human services and have a background that allows them to be impartial evaluators.

Liberal and mainstream media have recently jumped on the prison reform bandwagon. The New York Times even ran a favorable piece featuring a long-time advocate for prison abolition, Ruth Gilmore.

The third arena of change is the New York State Legislature, where Democrats this year gained control of both houses. Although Democratic control by no means guarantees good legislation, it does open up possibilities that, until now, were completely closed. The Republican-controlled state Senate had tried to increase criminalization, lengthen sentences and impose harsher conditions – such as charging prisoners for medical care.

This year, some criminal justice reforms have already passed and others have a chance at passage. One that has a chance is the HALT Solitary Confinement Bill, which, if it passes without being watered down, will impose by far the greatest limitations in the country on the length, the conditions and the vulnerable populations subjected to solitary confinement.

Parole reform is admittedly a heavier lift, because it affects people who have been convicted of serious crimes. By the same token, however, it poses a deep challenge to the punitive ideology of mass incarceration and the demonization and racist imagery directed toward people in prison.

Over nearly a decade, advocates in New York State have built a series of parole reform coalitions fighting against that ideology. They agreed to hold the line against compromises which “throw under the bus” people convicted of certain crimes, such as killing a police officer.

Jose Saldaña, director of the coalition member group Release Aging People in Prison, says, “In our communities, the life of a police officer is not considered more valuable than the lives of our children.”

Out of this history, and a partnership with legislators who are committed to criminal justice reform, have come two strong parole reform bills which, if passed, would greatly improve the fairness of the parole process: the Elder Parole Bill, which would allow a parole hearing for incarcerated people age 55 and older who have served 15 or more years and who, because of the length of their sentence, are not parole eligible; and the Fair and Timely Parole Bill, which would require the Parole Board to release parole applicants unless there are demonstrable factors showing the person is a current risk to public safety.

The campaign for the passage of these two bills involves the fourth and most fiercely contested arena of change: public opinion and the media. The movement’s own anti-incarceration media (like the San Francisco Bay View) have paved the way with clear calls against incarceration and for prison abolition.

Liberal and mainstream media have recently jumped on the prison reform bandwagon. The New York Times even ran a favorable piece featuring a long-time advocate for prison abolition, Ruth Gilmore.

The liberal media, like liberal politicians, often advocate for so-called “reforms” that would actually make things worse, like more electronic monitoring. They poison the waters by separating “deserving” low-level non-violent offenders from “the worst of the worst,” violent thugs (cue racial dogwhistle) who deserve endless torture. And a vast array of conservative and tabloid media, along with blogs and social media, are always calling for more prisons and more punishment.

However, a media- and social media-savvy new generation of prison justice campaigners seems to be increasingly successful at spreading the word that prisons are harmful, unfair, racially discriminatory and ineffective at protecting anyone, and the people locked up in them are our children, parents, spouses and neighbors.

The outcome for parole reform, and for wider anti-incarceration change, hangs in the balance. But for now there is a new sense of possibility, and the movement for parole justice, which has helped to create this moment of opportunity, is well positioned to make the most of it to challenge and change mass incarceration in New York State.

Naomi Jaffe is a founding member of New York State Prisoner Justice Network, Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration and Parole Justice Albany, and a long-time anti-incarceration activist in upstate New York. She has been visiting a loved one in New York’s maximum security prisons for 30 years. Email her at naomi643@gmail.com.

1 COMMENT

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