June 16, 2011

Duane spearheads state parole reform

On May 13, State Senator Duane introduced the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act to the Senate’s Crime and Correction Committee. The bill would provide landmark reform to New York’s parole system by amending paragraphs “a” and “c” of Executive Law § 259-i, which dictate current procedures for parole hearings.

“I’ve heard directly from so many inmates who’ve been unfairly denied parole,” Duane said in a phone interview last week. “It was their experiences that led me introduce the legislation.”

The inmates to whom he was referring are mainly those who have committed A1 felonies — and, of those, primarily murder — but have shown an high level of rehabilitative effort based on sustained good behavior and exemplary performance in academic, vocational or social programs (along with having served time well beyond their minimum sentences). The major obstacle for those inmates once they apply for parole is the fact that the Parole Board always treats their pleas based not on their records of improvement but on the violent nature of their original crimes. This has invariably led to repeated denials — even for inmates who have the support of family, community members or advocacy organizations.

In its current form, the bill redefines those standards by which inmates would be judged at a parole hearing, with the overriding focus on “preparedness for reentry and reintegration.” The amendments would make it more clearly unlawful to deny an applicant based on the nature of their crime (although doing so is already a technical violation of the current 259-i statute). The bill would also do much to change the setting in which hearings are held — by requiring the Parole Board to meet face-to-face with any prisoner making a case for his or her release, as opposed to the more impersonal and psychologically distant videoconferences that often take place.

Another notable amendment to the state law proposed by the bill is the language used within it. All instances of the word “inmate” are replaced with the decidedly more innocuous “parole applicant.” Judith Brink, the director of Prison Action Network — a prisoner-rights advocacy group that worked with Duane to create the SAFE Parole Act — understands that steps forward in a paradigm shift in the way ex-convicts are perceived by the public begins with the simple changes in terminology found in the bill.

“Removing the stigma of dehumanization from people who’ve committed crimes in the past, as well as from their loved ones, is a huge part of this,” she said. “It’s important now because I think that more people who are directly affected by the prison system are seeing that the ‘shaft of shame’ is disappearing.”

Brink also made it clear that the SAFE Parole Act is only a small piece of the Prison Action Network’s much larger movement called “The Reintegrative Justice Campaign,” which will work to change the response to crime from a punitive one to one that sets a goal of reintegration throughout the process.

“We picked this issue now primarily because of the fact that so many people are being denied parole based solely on the nature of their crimes, even though they have transformed themselves and really want to give back to their communities,” Brink said. “But we saw, as soon as we looked at the prison system, that it needs reworking from beginning to end. From the moment somebody’s arrested, the system has to change.”

What may be more pressing at this point — while both the authorities and the public have yet to fully adopt such a liberal view of those who are or have been incarcerated — is making sure that the Parole Board is not able to circumvent the state law even after it has been amended. Robert Isseks, a Middletown attorney, is skeptical about board members following the letter of the law — because he’s already suing them for it. He currently represents ten inmates in an ongoing class action lawsuit against the state.

“The Parole Board has not been exercising its discretion according to the statute [259-i], which states that it should be done on an individual, case-by-case basis. When it comes to people convicted of A1 [felonies], they arbitrarily deny them based on that and for no other reason,” Isseks said. “So let’s just say that there’s certainly reason to doubt whether the board will follow [a new bill], simply because they’ve already continued to break the rules in that regard. So that’s troubling.”

But Duane is confident in the strength of his bill, as well as its chances of passing through the State Senate with relatively few changes. Like Brink, he sees it as one part of a greater shift that will take place — and that now, it’s just a matter of getting his peers and their constituents on board.

“I believe that all of the elements of the legislation are common sense and fair,” he said. “I wouldn’t pick out one more particular section and say that it would be more or less palatable, because holistically, it’s going to reform the parole system, and people are either going to be supportive of that or not.”

Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry introduced the SAFE Parole Act into the Corrections Committee of the State Assembly on May 25, but could not be reached for comment regarding the bill. He was also conspicuously absent from the College and Community Fellowship’s 11th Annual Graduate Celebration for formerly incarcerated women who were receiving college degrees, which took place last Thursday in Harlem.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision — which includes both the former Department of Correctional Services and Division of Parole (a merger created by Governor Cuomo’s 2011-12 Executive Budget) — declined to comment on the bill.

Both versions of the SAFE Parole Act — within the State Assembly and State Senate committees — have yet to be voted on or discussed at length by the committee members. Chelsea Now will continue to cover the development of the bill, as well as the ongoing parole reform movement, throughout the year.

The SAFE Parole Act can be found at: http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S5374-2011

Duane spearheads state parole reform, by Sam Spokony (Chelsea Now, June 15 2011)