Victim’s testimony, a time-honored part of the American criminal prosecution process, has sent thousands of New York offenders to prison. But justice is not advanced when, years later, crime victims are called again to give emotionally charged encores, moments before parole panel members decide whether or not to release their offenders from prison.
Parole: Late 19th century reformers called on state-run prisons to shift from places of punishment to places of rehabilitation, where inmates could earn an early release. Adopted first in New York State, in 1907, by 1942 all states operated a parole system.
The parole model’s popularity, however, peaked in the 1970s and, today, 16 states have abolished early release parole boards. Convicted offenders in these states are sentenced to a prison term with a fixed length.
In the other 34 states, including New York, convicted offenders receive an “indeterminate” sentence, ranging from a minimum term to a maximum prison term. Once the minimum term is served a parole board may release an inmate prior to his or her maximum sentence date.
Victims get organized: The National Crime Victim Law Institute, allied with the Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., writes that the Modern Crime Victims’ Rights Movement began around 1990 and is “one of the most successful civil liberties movements of recent time.”
“Nearly every jurisdiction in the United States,” according to the institute, “guarantees victims a constitutional and/or statutory right to be heard post-conviction in connection with parole and other release-related proceedings.”
A victim’s testimony commonly includes details of how the crime changed his or her life, the emotional, mental and other injuries suffered at the hands of the offender and, according to the institute, “whether the victim supports the release of the incarcerated person on parole.”
The problem here is that victims’ testimony at parole hearings is largely irrelevant to the task at hand – an objective, fact-based assessment of the inmate’s future risk of criminal behavior.
This point is addressed in a 2005 article in Criminology & Public Policy, by Kathryn Morgan and Brent L. Smith, where they ask: “To what extent will parole boards allow victim influence override the concerns for the inmate? Is it fair to further punish an inmate who presents a low risk of recidivism for future criminal behavior because victims show up at a hearing to protest the release?”
Parole hearings: In 2018, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a Northampton, Mass., nonpartisan research organization that tracks how overcriminalization of our criminal justice system harms individuals and communities, studied how state parole boards conduct their hearings.
The purpose of its report, titled, “Grading state parole systems,” is to “encourage states to give every incarcerated person ample opportunity to earn release and to have a fair process for deciding whether to grant it to them.”
Parole board hearings give inmates an opportunity to demonstrate how they have overcome past problems and have made personal changes that will guide them in the future.
But, New York State law grants crime victims the right to submit a written or recorded victim impact statement or appear in person before the parole board when the board is deciding whether to release the defendant.
The purpose of a parole hearing, PPI claims, is to determine an inmate’s current readiness for release, and “should not be contaminated by outdated information that was the basis for the underlying conviction or plea bargain,” adding that “crime survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed, having not seen them for years.”
How just is this hypothetical, but likely, scenario? As a young adult, you are convicted of a felony, a first-degree home invasion burglary in which the victims feared violent injury during the crime. Sentenced to five to 15 years in prison, you completed personal improvement courses and anger management training. You earned an associate degree in accounting and prepared tax documents for other inmates. But, while rated a low risk for recidivism, you are denied parole after six years behind bars due to an emotional testimony from your victims.
America’s commitment to a justice system giving deserving inmates a second chance depends, it now seems, on how well New York State parole boards balance concern for crime victims with concern for their offenders.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.