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.