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Another Voice: Parole system needs to acknowledge changed lives

By Donna Robinson

Growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t know much about New York’s criminal legal system. Then I moved to Buffalo and realized how harmful it was. People in my community were being arrested at alarming rates and almost all were poor people of color.

The tight grip of the system hit home when two of my children went to prison. My daughter’s incarceration has opened my eyes to how inhumane our system is. It’s why I believe parole reform is urgent.

When my daughter was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe our state could so easily throw someone away for such a long time. Then I began to visit my daughter at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and realized how many other daughters our state disposes of.

Spending countless hours in the prison visiting room, I’ve met women who’ve spent decades behind bars and grown old inside. Today, nearly 9,000 New Yorkers, including hundreds of women, are sentenced to life in prison. Women at Bedford have taught me why this is an injustice to us all.

The women “lifers” benefit my daughter in so many ways. They mentor and support her. Even though some have committed terrible crimes, these women have transformed their lives and work to positively change the lives of others. They could do more good if only they had a fair chance at release.

To ensure people in prison have this opportunity, New York State must embrace parole reform. To this end, the Legislature should pass Fair and Timely Parole (S.497), Elder Parole (S.2144), and fully staff the parole board with qualified commissioners.

Fair and Timely Parole would ensure the parole board evaluates incarcerated people for release based on who they are today. Instead of allowing the board to deny parole based exclusively on someone’s crime, this bill would ensure parole laws reflect parole’s purpose: to ascertain peoples’ current suitability for release.

We also need Elder Parole to allow people aged 55 and older who have served 15 or more years an opportunity for release. This bill offers hope and helps address long prison sentences that don’t make us safe or promote crime survivors’ well-being.

Finally, we need a fully staffed parole board with commissioners who embrace redemption. The governor and State Senate must fill the board’s seven vacancies this legislative session with rehabilitative professionals who are equipped to make fair decisions.

My family and I not only want my daughter free, but many others, too. At the least, we believe everyone should eventually have a fair opportunity for release. Parole reform creates a clear path for New York to reach that goal.

Donna Robinson is a resident of Buffalo and member of Prisoners are People Too, a community-based organization that promotes restorative justice.

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