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Often-arbitrary decisions by parole boards are unfair and end up wasting money

So many news stories lately have highlighted the abuse of power by a few members of law enforcement. But a different form of abuse of power has been going on for decades with little notice until now, with calls for reforms beginning to emerge.

The problem involves state parole boards, which wield enormous power in determining which prisoners remain behind bars. In some cases that means inmates stay locked up far longer than judges and juries intended.

It is a matter of fairness to low-level offenders who have paid their debt to society but are unable to persuade a parole board to give them a second chance. Beyond fairness is the crippling expense to taxpayers, for little benefit to public safety. The prison population in the United States stands at more than 1.5 million, giving us the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. The financial costs are equally staggering.

A month-long investigation by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system and written by Beth Schwartzapfel, revealed a disturbing level of politics driving the decisions about who gets released on parole.

Parole board members worried about public and political backlash, along with losing their well-compensated seats, means that relatively few prisoners have much chance of being released on parole. Even after serving decades locked up.

New York State’s board has proven just as reluctant to parole inmates as many others. According to the Marshall Project, in the early 1990s the state board voted to parole more than 60 percent of those eligible, but: “That rate then went into a two-decade decline, dipping below 20 percent in 2010.”

A recent report by the New York State Sentencing Commission recommended sweeping changes in the state’s sentencing system. In a separate article for the Marshall Project, Schwartzapfel noted that the commission seeks to “reduce the length of prison sentences and broaden eligibility for probation and other alternatives to incarceration for about one-third of the felony convictions New York hands down each year.” It would also end the parole board’s role in determining exactly when prisoners go home.

New York State has more than 50,000 people incarcerated in prisons that provide jobs across the state, so it’s little wonder that the commission’s recommendations have found little support in the State Legislature. The draft legislation itself has no sponsor.

The topic of parole has shifted with the political winds across the nation, and New York State is no different. A tough-on-crime approach that ensnared low-level drug violators and other non-violent offenders caused prison populations to surge in the last decades of the 20th century. That shifted as the century turned and the public demanded a change to the draconian 1973 Rockefeller drug laws.

The reforms in 2004 and 2009 that eliminated indeterminate sentences for most drug crimes marked a step in the right direction. But with sentences for violent felonies and drug crimes fixed, it leaves most everything else to the parole board’s discretion. This has not produced consistent results.

Parole boards across the country are in dire need of change resulting in fair and equitable decisions that ensure public safety but that allow people who have done their time a chance to prove themselves.