Our state has reduced its prison population recently. However, we are still incarcerating lots of people who should be out: people who have already served decades, have radically reassessed and changed themselves, and in many cases have reached an age where the chance of committing new violent crimes is negligible.
Part of the problem is that sentences are too long. In particular, we impose too many life sentences. In 2020, about 8,000 people were serving life in New York. This compares with about 6,000 in Britain, a country with 3½ times the population of our state.
The relief valve should be parole. For instance, take people with 15 years-to-life sentences. You might think that after the required minimum of 15 years, being paroled would depend on what they had done, and how they had changed, since sentencing. But our current law adds that release on parole should not “deprecate the seriousness of the crime.”
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The Parole Board uses this criterion, over and over, to deny release, paying great attention to the crime – often committed while a person was still a teenager – and almost none to what the person has done and become while in prison. There seems to be an assumption that the judge, despite seeing the disturbing details of the original crime, probably set a minimum that was far too low for the crime. Why judges – most of whom come from prosecutorial backgrounds – would consistently behave in this inappropriately lenient way is unclear.
Two bills currently under consideration in Albany would improve the situation.
The first, Fair and Timely Parole (S7514/A4231), removes the “deprecate the seriousness of the crime” criterion and favors granting parole unless the behavior of applicants suggest a current danger to community safety. When parole is denied, in other words, it should be for practical reasons, not to increase punishment. However, victim statements would still be taken into account.
A second bill, Elder Parole (S15A/A8855A), mandates that a person who is 55 or older and has already served 15 years be allowed to have a parole hearing – with no guarantee of release. The age cutoff is based on the prison system’s criterion for considering incarcerated people as seniors.
This bill again reflects reality: the likelihood of people committing violent crimes is vastly lower at 55 than at 18. Also, at 55, people who have transformed themselves and would therefore be granted parole are experienced, committed and ready to make contributions to their families and communities once released. Finally, releasing rehabilitated elders saves taxpayers the enormous cost of continuing to incarcerate them, with prisons becoming geriatric facilities, even nursing homes – a role for which they are ill-suited.
Let’s be smart and humane and stop keeping people in prison who don’t need to be there.