The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 25% of its incarcerated population, according to CNN. Why? In good part because we keep people in prison too long, and then, after release, too often reincarcerate them for no good reason. Reforming our parole system would help.
Many sentences in New York are “indeterminate”: 20 years to life, for example. Once people reach the minimum, they can go before the parole board and ask for release on parole.
You would think that the parole decision would be based mainly on what people did in prison – obeying rules, addressing the problems that led to their crimes, helping others, and examining their lives and transforming themselves. But no, even when all these factors are positive, the parole board often refuses parole because release “would deprecate the seriousness of the crime.”
This is unjust, since the sentencing judge already took that into account in setting the minimum. The board also denies the reality of transformation: that a person who committed a serious crime at age 20 is a very different person at age 40.
It denies hope to incarcerated people, telling them that no change they make, no record of service and self-improvement, will overcome the stain of what they did at the worst moment of their lives. This is not only unjust but dumb, since it reduces the incentives for good behavior and self-transformation while in prison.
The Fair and Timely Parole Act would instruct the parole board to focus on the applicant’s current character and likelihood of living crime-free in the community, not the original crime. Additionally, the Elder Parole Act would allow aging people who have already served long terms to have a parole hearing – with no guarantee of release.
Once people are released on parole, they are frequently reincarcerated, often for years, for violating parole rules in ways that are not crimes: being out after curfew, moving without permission, failing a drug test, etc. One-third of admissions to New York prisons are for such parole violations rather than for crimes.
Also, when people are charged with a violation, they are held (no bail) for weeks or months until a hearing determines whether a violation actually occurred. The parole violation system adds to the prison population and gravely damages the lives of alleged violators, while doing little or nothing to advance community safety.
This system contradicts and undermines the whole point of parole, which is to help returning citizens succeed in a new, law-abiding life, contributing to the community.
The Less Is More Act would greatly limit reincarceration and end pre-hearing incarceration for noncriminal parole violations.
These bills would reduce needless and unjust incarceration. And, by the way, save lots of taxpayer money.
Stephen Hart, of Buffalo, is secretary of Halt Solitary of Western New York.