February 23, 2011

Interview with Tom Grant, member of the NYS Board of Parole from May 2004 to June 2010

Tom Grant, member of the NYS Board of Parole from May 2004 to June 2010 joins the Board of CURE-NY and reflects on his experiences as a Parole Commissioner.

From CURE-NY's Winter 2011 Newsletter:

Mr. Grant was a Member of the NYS Board of Parole from May, 2004 thru June, 2010. Immediately prior to his appointment to the Board he served as the Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Board for eight years. He also served for ten years as the Committee Director/Clerk to the NYS Senate Codes Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is a Certified Auditor for the American Correctional Association and is a Mediator with a particular interest in Restorative and Parallel Justice Issues. He also serves as a member of the Restorative Justice Commission of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese and is active with the Family and Friends of Homicide Victims.

With his term on the Parole Board behind him, Tom looks back and shares with us his experience as a Parole Commissioner.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Tom Grant by Debbie Boar, the Task Force Coordinator of the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force. "The Ones With Life After Their Name":

What interested you in serving on the Board?

I had a long standing interest in criminal justice issues, but over the years I became more interested in a micro approach than a macro approach. Many times you make criminal justice policy based on trends, but I became more and more interested in individual cases. What types of situations do individuals find themselves in that lead them to incarceration? What happened in that person’s life that caused them to appear before three strangers who would judge whether they would get released or not?

What type of training do you receive as a member of the Parole Board?

There is a bit of a vetting process when you get appointed by the Governor’s Office, looking at your interests and your background. When you get confirmed by the Senate, you receive an overview of what the Division and the Board is all about and training from the Division of Parole’s Counsel’s Office and Operation’s Office. Most important is the training given by the Counsel’s office. You learn the requirements of Executive Law §259 and the standards under the law for release consideration. You observe the interviewing process for a couple of weeks. The best training is really in the actual hands on process, the longer you are on the Board, the better perspective you get. That is why I think that when people initially get on the Board, because they have less experiential knowledge, they don’t understand some of the accomplishments an individual who comes before them was able to achieve. As you spend more time on the Board, you are able to compare and contrast people who go before you.

Do you remember the first individual that came before you?

Yes, it was a drug possession case, when I first saw him, I was taken aback. I asked myself, “How can I release someone like that?” The first case you see is the worst case you see. It takes a while as a Parole Board member to get perspective on the population you are looking at. Sometimes, depending on your perspective when you get on the Board you might have a “lock um up and throw away the key” attitude in the back of your head. But you shouldn’t write these individuals off. The more you learn about reentry programs such as Fortune and Osborne, Father Young’s, you realize there is room for reentry. The work that the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force does shows the practical benefit of reentry to the community. Reentry improves community safety. Your work demonstrates all the positive things that can occur for formerly incarcerated individuals when they have support in the community. That’s why it is important when you first get on the Board to keep an open mind.

Did you find that some Parole Board members clash in their philosophies?

Yes, very much so. It takes two members to grant release. The clash reveals itself in the deliberation process. After you interview someone, you discover there are tremendous differences of opinion, which is good. You don’t want to have a unanimous opinion. You want thoughtful consideration. You want thoughtful decision-making. I used to love the give and take you have in the deliberations. That was one of my favorite parts of being on the Board. Dennison encouraged dissent. Before he become Chairman, dissent was very unusual, decisions were almost always unanimous. There was a real interest in collegiality. One of Bob Dennison’s real accomplishments was encouraging dissent. He would encourage you to prepare a written dissent if you felt that strongly. I think from a lot of the unanimous decisions in the past, people would get the wrong impression. They thought the decision was basically a rubber stamp. I didn’t find that to be the case, but I can see a lot of situations where maybe there was a push to have a unanimous decision.

What do you think of criticism that the Parole Board frequently overly focuses or exclusively focuses on the severity of the crime without considering the rehabilitative accomplishments of an inmate?

I think it is vitally important to consider the instant offense, you have to. You’d often have someone come before the Board who had committed a very, very heartbreaking crime when he was 18 or 19. He had been given a sentence commensurate with that, a lengthy sentence. When I’d see him, 25 or 30 years later, I would want to compare that person with the person who committed the instant offense. How had he changed? I was one of the people who strongly considered the instant offense, but in comparison with how that person was now.

Would you advocate using an evidence-based risk assessment tool that has the capacity to assess an individual’s likelihood of reoffending as part of the release decision process?

That would be very, very important. The current Chairwoman of the Division of Parole, Andrea Evans is working on developing a risk assessment modality. Now that the statute has been switched from an indeterminate sentencing structure to determinate structure, most of the cases the Parole Board will see are the A1 violent felons (maximum sentence is life).

What are reforms to the Parole Board that you believe should be made?

I think there should be term limitations for Parole Board members. Your decision making should just be based on Executive Law §259. I think in the past there may have been some Parole Board Commissioners, who, in the back of their head thought they might want to get reappointed. I am not saying this happens, but they could be influenced based on public reactions that are separate from the statute. Term limitation would take care of that to some extent.

What is next for you?

I am a mediator. I just got appointed to the Restorative Justice Commission in the Albany Dioceses. I believe in restorative justice and parallel justice. I am active with Friends and Families of Homicide victims and also working closely with prisoner’s rights groups. There is more commonality you would think between the offenders and victims. The system right now is a good system, but sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you like. The more knowledge and groups you can get together, the better. We should be trying to repair harms. Many times punishment is appropriate, but you also want to give victims a sense of why these things happened to them and offer prisoners a chance for redemption.

February 15, 2011

Purpose and Intent Statement for the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act

Details of the Purpose and Intent Statement for the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act—proposed by the NYS Parole Reform Campaign.

DELETION OF SUBDIVISION 1: This section of the statute is outdated and no longer relevant. In 1980, the legislature placed the full responsibility for setting the minimum period of imprisonment on the courts, determining that the courts were better suited than the Parole Board to perform this function. Since the change in 1980, the courts have set the minimum for all indeterminate sentences.

THE INTERVIEW SHALL TAKE PLACE WITH ALL PARTIES PRESENT IN THE SAME ROOM: In-person interviews result in a more engaged, effective and meaningful process for parole applicants and parole commissioners. By increasing the opportunity for fairness, concern and serious consideration, such hearings increase the applicants’ trust in the process and in the goal of reintegration. At the same time, by their very nature, in-person hearings create an environment in which the parole board can more fully and fairly evaluate applicants.

THE INTERVIEW SHALL BE RECORDED AUDIO/VISUALLY: Videotaping interviews ensures that the final record is accurate and comprehensive, and eliminates the mistakes and omissions commonly found in transcripts. Recording the interviews in this way allows for a more effective review of the hearing, the atmosphere in which it takes place and the demeanor of all parties—and holds everyone accountable for their conduct. The cost of videotaping hearings and providing copies, when requested, to parole applicants is more than offset by the savings realized by eliminating the cost of stenographers and, in many cases, the cost of transcripts.

NO DOCUMENTS THAT ARE AVAILABLE TO THE PAROLE BOARD SHALL BE CONSIDERED CONFIDENTIAL EXCEPT WHEN FOR THE SAFETY OF THE PAROLE APPLICANT: Providing for full disclosure to the applicant of those documents that are already available to the Parole Board for consideration results in greater transparency, fairness and trust in the parole process. With full and fair disclosure, the applicant can address errors or other information, thereby ensuring a more accurate portrayal of him/her on which to base the board’s decision.

WITH THE PAROLE APPLICANT’S CONSENT, A COPY OF HIS/HER PSYCHIATRIC EVALUATION AND “PAROLE RELEASE PLAN” SHALL BE MADE AVAILABLE TO A REQUESTING VICTIM, OR VICTIM’S REPRESENTATIVE. THE PAROLE BOARD SHALL CONSIDER SUPPORTIVE OR CRITICAL INPUT FROM THE VICTIM CONCERNING BEHAVIOR OF THE PAROLE APPLICANT POST-SENTENCING: This change provides more information than ever before to victims and their representatives, who have typically been uninformed about the parole applicant’s progress while incarcerated, and alienated from the parole process. With this kind of information, victims have a more complete picture of the parole applicant’s behavior since sentencing and his/her readiness for release, and they can provide input in the parole process in a more meaningful way.

RELEASE ON PAROLE SHALL BE GRANTED FOR GOOD CONDUCT AND EFFICIENT PERFORMANCE OF DUTIES WHILE CONFINED, AND PREPAREDNESS FOR REENTRY AND REINTEGRATION INTO SOCIETY, THEREBY PROVIDING A REASONABLE BASIS TO CONCLUDE THAT, IF SUCH PERSON IS RELEASED, HE OR SHE WILL LIVE AND REMAIN AT LIBERTY WITHOUT VIOLATING THE LAW: With this change, the parole board is given more specific, workable criteria by which to determine parole releases. It requires the board to more thoroughly evaluate whatever changes have taken place in the parole applicant since sentencing, based on his/her institutional record, behavior and other reliable indicators while confined.

THE PAROLE BOARD WILL BE REQUIRED TO STATE IN DETAIL THE SPECIFIC REQUIREMENTS FOR ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN, PROGRAMS OR ACCOMPLISHMENTS TO BE COMPLETED, OR CHANGES IN PERFORMANCE, OR CONDUCT TO BE MADE, OR CORRECTIVE ACTION OR ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN, IN ORDER TO QUALIFY FOR PAROLE RELEASE: Requiring the Parole Board to explicitly set forth detailed conditions for release is consistent with the proposed New York State Transitional Accountability Plan (TAP), which was a collaboration between the Department of Correctional Services and the Division of Parole. This change makes for good corrections, providing a fairer, more thoughtful and transparent process by which the Parole Board can make determinations regarding current and future release. It also alleviates the frustration and confusion experienced by parole applicants when they are not given clear and complete instructions regarding what they must do in order to meet the expectations of the next Parole Board. In the end, this change holds everyone accountable—the applicant, the Department of Correctional Services and the Parole Board.

THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES SHALL PROVIDE TO THE PAROLE APPLICANT ACCESS—WITHIN 90 DAYS—TO THE PROGRAM OR PROGRAMS, ACTIVITIES AND/OR FACILITIES NEEDED IN ORDER TO PROVIDE THE OPPORTUNITY TO FULFILL THE REQUIREMENTS SET FORTH BY THE PAROLE BOARD: Having created goals and expectations for the parole applicant, good and consistent corrections practices require that the applicant be given the opportunity to meet these goals. Such opportunities must be made available quickly, in order to take advantage of the applicant’s heightened motivation and willingness to participate. Doing so is also in keeping with the proposed TAP, and it promotes collaboration between Parole and Corrections.

THE PAROLE APPLICANT SHALL BE SCHEDULED FOR A REAPPEARANCE BEFORE THE BOARD UPON COMPLETION OF THE STIPULATED REQUIREMENTS, OR AFTER 24 MONTHS, WHICHEVER COMES FIRST. IF THE REQUIREMENTS PREVIOUSLY SET FORTH BY THE PAROLE BOARD HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED, RELEASE SHALL BE GRANTED: This change requires the initial Parole Board to be more thoughtful, thorough and specific regarding the evaluation of and expectations for the parole applicant. For example, at an applicant’s first parole hearing, the Parole Board must make a thorough, detailed assessment of the applicant’s strengths and deficits. Should the applicant be denied parole at that first hearing, the Parole Board must provide specific, detailed criteria that the applicant must fulfill in order to address the deficits. Once all criteria are fulfilled, and if the applicant’s record remains satisfactory, the applicant must be released.

Building Bridges - February 2011 edition

The February edition of Building Bridges has been issued by the Prison Action Network.

Items covered this month include:

1. Actions, events and meetings including information regarding researching parole denials, writing to the governor in support of the SAFE Parole Act, using an outline provided to help you communicate with your legislators.

2. The Correctional Association has appointed J. Soffiyah Elijah as the new Executive Director. She will succeed Robert Gangi, who has served as Executive Director since 1983.

3. Formerly Incarcerated People's Movement - Activists directly affected by the prison industrial complex are beginning to develop a national civil rights movement.

4. Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis discuss incarceration as a system of racial control.

5. NYS Parole Reform Campaign Report includes a list of 51 organizations that have signed on; the Campaign’s easily understood list of reasons (called the Statement of Purpose and Intent) for specific changes in the SAFE Parole Act, and a call for help translating the Campaign’s literature into Spanish and designing a logo for the Campaign's under-construction website.

6. Parole News - Governor's Budget Bill calls for a reduction in the number of parole board members to 13, combining DOCS and the Division of Parole into one agency called the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, with the Parole Board remaining an administratively independent decision making body; December A1VO statistics.

7. Think Outside the Cell announces a National Symposium on Saturday September 24 2011.

February 09, 2011

Bill S2812: Includes the proposed amendments to the Parole Statute, Executive Law §259

Executive Budget Legislation. This includes the proposed amendments to the Parole Statute, Executive Law §259.

Bill S2812: Enacts into law major components of legislation necessary to implement the state fiscal plan for the 2011-2012 state fiscal year.

Summary of Bill S2812:
"Amd Various Laws, generally.
Enacts the financial regulation and protection act as a new consolidated chapter; repeals certain provisions of the banking, executive law and general business law; merges the office of victim services, state commission of correction and office for the prevention of domestic violence into the division of criminal justice services; amends the correction and executive law to merge the department of correctional services and division of parole into the department of corrections and community supervision; eliminates the New York state foundation for science, technology and innovation and transfers the functions thereof to the NYS urban development corporation."

February 02, 2011

Reactions to Cuomo's budget proposals for prison closure

From the Poughkeepsie Journal:

"The proposal is already meeting resistance from the union that represents correction officers. The mostly Republican lawmakers who represent the largely rural, upstate areas with prisons and youth centers may also oppose the closures and consolidations.

Cuomo, in his budget presentation, said the plan would need to move forward rapidly in order to save money.

"We are not talking about releasing prisoners. We are taking about consolidating prisons and unused space," Cuomo said.

The governor, a Democrat, added that he wants to include lawmakers in the process.

But the details of Cuomo's plan show that he would move quickly to close prisons after receiving recommendations from a commission 30 days after the budget is approved."

Full story:
Cuomo plan to close, combine prisons draws union opposition (Poughkeepsie Journal, February 2 2011)

See also:
NY prisons data show more assaults in 2010 (Wall Street Journal, February 22 2011)
Cuomo's prison panel irks Senate Republicans (Democrat and Chronicle.com, February 14 2011)
Cuomo: Task force to determine which prisons will close (update) (Adirondack Daily Enterprise, February 1 2011)
Cuomo to close prisons; Tug Hill agency gets ax (Watertown Daily Times, February 1 2011)
Prison guards PBA says no prisons can safely close (Times Union Capitol Confidential, February 1 2011)

February 01, 2011

Proposals in Governor Andrew Cuomo's 2011-12 Executive Budget

Proposals in Governor Andrew Cuomo's 2011-12 Executive Budget include "merging the Department of Correctional Services and the Division of Parole into the new Department of Corrections and Community Supervision; consolidating the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, the Office of Victim Services and the State Commission of Correction into the Division of Criminal Justice Services..."

"...significant reform of the State's juvenile justice system and greater use of preventive services to generate better outcomes for children and family as well as significant savings. These reforms will redirect savings achieved by right-sizing State facilities and reducing unnecessary juvenile detention into more effective and lower cost community-based alternatives."

"...The Governor's Executive Budget proposes to reduce excess capacity in prisons, youth detention and mental hygiene facilities. Governor Cuomo will reduce excess capacity using rational processes and will propose to eliminate the statutory 12-month notification prior to closures. Actions for youth and mental hygiene facilities will be taken following careful analysis of vacancy rates, service utilization, and other factors. For prisons, actions will be implemented pursuant to recommendations of a task force created by Executive Order to examine excess capacity and recommend specific prison closures of the enactment of the bill appropriating funds for State operations. If the task force does not recommend a sufficient plan of action, the Commissioner of Correctional Services would implement facility closures. Recognizing the impact of facility closures on host communities, the Executive Budget directs $100 million in economic development aid for affected areas."

Full text of the Executive Budget Press release, February 1 2011:
See also: