January 14, 2009

The Monster Among Them, by Billy Doane

Thought-provoking article which raises questions about the parole system in NYS:

The Monster Among Them – by Billy Doane

On October 15, 2008, New York Parole Board commissioner Chris Ortloff was arrested in an Albany motel for soliciting sex from minors on the Internet. Ortloff, a Board member for two years, was apprehended in consequence of a four-month sting operation by the New York State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (Albany Times Union, 10/15/08). According to the official complaint, Ortloff believed he was arranging a sexual liaison with two children aged eleven and twelve. Instead, he was arrested in his motel room, naked, and in possession of sex toys and lubricants. Since his arrest, he has admitted to having sex with nine and twelve year olds and having an indecent fondness for toddlers (New York Daily News, 10/15/08). When Ortloff was not preying on children, he was functioning as a no-nonsense Parole Board member known for his tough on crime approach to parole consideration. The blatant hypocrisy, absence of moral conscience, and violation of the public trust exhibited by Ortloff's criminal conduct exposed a Jekyll and Hyde persona that turns an accusing finger back on the parole system as it currently exists in New York State.

As anyone who has been before a parole board knows, these hearings are conspicuously devoid of any substantive method by which an inmate can be judged by total strangers in a fifteen-minute appearance. Even the federal courts have noted the "nebulousness" of New York State's "extremely vague statutory standards", and that the "statute's language does not provide a workable decision-making scheme and the broad grant of discretion has not been structured for exercise in a fair, rational and non-discriminatory fashion" (U.S. ex. rel. Johnson v. Chairman, 500 F2d, 925). The absence of objective criteria is substituted with the "unfettered discretion" of Parole Board members. One would think the Board's discretionary authority would be tethered to concrete data concerning proficiency, conduct, performance of prison duties, completion of DOCS mandated programs and other positive accomplishments directed toward rehabilitation. However, parole consideration under NYS Executive Law § 259 (i) specifically states that parole is not a reward for these factors. There is no other objective criterion that provides an empirical measure of individual self-improvement in a given period of incarceration. Since the parole statute excludes reliance on prison accomplishments, lacks objective criteria, and a statutory mandated decision-making scheme, how does the Parole Board determine who does and does not present a continued public risk? Given the vagueness of the statute, the provision of wide discretionary powers infers a dependence on an intuitive element in the decision-making process.

This intuitive theory is substantiated by the statutory requirement of physical appearance before a panel of Parole Board members. What are they looking for? What does rehabilitation look or sound like when detached from the unrewardable data of prison conduct and achievement? American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson are held to a higher standard of objective measure than New York State parole commissioners. For two years, the New York Division of Parole has had a monster in its midst, an admitted predatory child-molester who exerted a great deal of energy in pursuing his degeneracy while protecting his upstanding public image. How many parole commissioners were duped by this sociopath? All of them apparently; yet these same commissioners, who could not detect Chris Ortloff’s diabolical character even while working closely with him, are expected to determine in a fifteen-minute hearing whether if placed on parole, an individual will remain at liberty without violating the law. This is not an indictment of parole commissioners who failed to recognize the demon lurking beneath the public face of Chris Ortloff. After all, they are only human, and human beings are simply not capable of penetrating the hidden self in others. That’s the point. Even well-meaning Parole Board appointees are subjected to a flawed statute that reduces parole from a rational system of practical evaluation to a penological exercise in clairvoyance. Not only is the system of subjective prognostication unfair to the individuals who have spent years – decades even – in the sincere commitment to rehabilitation, but clearly, a hit-or-miss, spin-the-wheel guessing game is a violation of public trust. At the very least, the state could replace the political pretence that parole is a rational process with the public virtue of government transparency; discontinue the political patronage of Parole Board appointments. This will save the state more than 1.5 million dollars in annual six-figure salaries. At considerable savings, contract Ms. Cleo and the Psychic Hotline, which will transfer the nebulousness of parole from the uncertain speculation of rank amateurs, and place it in the mystical minds of professional soothsayers. In the meantime, Ortloff’s arrest should give pause to Commissioner Alexander and all of the remaining Parole Board members. Evaluating individual character, integrity, and potential, requires more than the superficial observation and cursory examination indicative of current parole practice that merely satisfies a minimum statutory requirement. Parole consideration must be tied to individualized criteria that provide parole commissioners with evidence of positive change, personal growth, and civic consciousness. Undoubtedly, when Ortloff goes before a Parole Board panel many years from now, he will not want to be judged by the same subjective vagaries he used while pretending to be the self-righteous arbiter of the public good.

Questions remain concerning the potential legal ramifications that stem from the arrest of Chris Ortloff. Ortloff, 61, has not been convicted of a crime, but various media outlets have reported his voluntary admissions of indecent and illegal conduct. His voluntary resignation from his six-figure Parole Board appointment also suggests an admission of culpability. One would also expect that after a four-month sting operation, the investigative agency would have accumulated a trove of incriminating evidence. Admissions are not confessions and evidence is not fact. Criminal culpability aside, Ortloff’s voluntary admissions clearly violate the New York State Code of Ethics (Public Officers Law § 74). More importantly, the mental imbalance evident from Ortloff’s tough on crime public persona and the moral degeneracy of his private life clearly invalidates any defense argument that he was capable of making rational or moral judgments concerning the rehabilitation of others. Ortloff once stated, “Our government must do more to keep dangerous, sexually violent predators away from children and women” (Albany Times Union, 10/15/08). I agree – appointing them to the Parole Board, however, is not the solution.

How much of Ortloff’s tough on crime rhetoric and actual parole denials were calculated, deceptive tactics affected to assuage his own personal guilt? Was being tough on others a form of psychological transference wherein his own self-loathing was redirected to others? Freud would have had a field day with this guy. It would be advisable for those who had Ortloff conducting or participating in their parole hearing to include arguments attacking his competence by juxtaposing his admissions against the State Code of Ethics. It would be interesting to know if Commissioner Alexander was aware of the ongoing investigation, and continued to permit Ortloff to participate in parole hearings.

– Postscript –

On December 24, 2008, Ortloff pled guilty to using the Internet to prey on children for sex. He is scheduled to be sentenced on April 23, 2009 in Albany and is currently free on $100,000.00 bail. Under a plea agreement, Ortloff will receive 10 years rather than face the possibility of a life sentence had he been found guilty at trial. Under federal guidelines, Ortloff will serve a determinate sentence with a specified release date. Consequently, this former “tough on crime” parole commissioner with a reputation for summarily denying parole applications, will never have to face a parole hearing himself. When released, he’ll also be half a million dollars richer, thanks to his taxpayers-funded $53,000.00 a year for life pension guaranteed under New York State’s Constitution (New York Post, 12/27/08).

New York’s Board of Parole suffered further embarrassment when Parole Chairman George B. Alexander was forced to resign because at a criminal investigation, Alexander was found to be in possession of a $1,700.00 laptop that was missing from the Erie County Probation Office where Alexander worked prior to his appointment to the Parole Board. Alexander previously denied any knowledge of the missing laptop, but a GPS security device led investigation to his home. Alexander is expected to plead guilty to official misconduct, a misdemeanor (Albany Times Union, 12/19/08).