September 25, 2011

The Misuse of Life Without Parole

"...The American Law Institute, a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars, has wisely called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.”

In capital cases, life without parole is a sound option. Public support for the death penalty, a barbarity that should be abolished in this country, plummets when life without parole is an alternative. In many states, juries are instructed that it is an option. But the use of the sentence has gone far beyond death penalty cases, even as violent crime rates have declined.

In the last decade in Georgia, one of the few states with good data on the sentence, about 60 percent of offenders sentenced to life without parole were convicted of murder. The other 40 percent were convicted of kidnapping, armed robbery, sex crimes, drug crimes and other crimes including shoplifting. Nationwide, the racial disparity in the penalty is stark. Blacks make up 56.4 percent of those serving life without parole, though they are 37.5 percent of prisoners in all state prisons.

The overuse of the sentence reflects this excessively punitive era. But as the institute’s report explains, an “ordinary” life sentence is “a punishment of tremendous magnitude” whose “true gravity should not be undervalued.” In the past 20 years, the average life term served has grown from 21 years to 29 years before parole...

...A fair-minded society should revisit life sentences and decide whether an offender deserves to remain in prison or be released on parole. And a fair-minded society should not sentence anyone to life without parole except as an alternative to the death penalty."

For full story:
The Misuse of Life Without Parole (New York Times, September 12 2011)

See also the following responses:
Life Sentence for Youths? (New York Times, September 18 2011)
Revisiting Life Sentences (New York Times, September 25 2011)

September 16, 2011

Building Bridges - September 2011 edition

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

Articles in this edition include:

1. Attica: NYC's Attica Is Us event focused on the messages we can take from the 1971 Rebellion; Buffalo engaged in educating the public about the impact of incarceration on individuals and the community, and Mika'il DeVeaux used his memory of the day to write a piece reminding us of the continued politicizing of incarceration, and calls on us to fight back.

2. The Women in Prison Project looks forward to a "day when survivors who act to protect themselves and their children from an abuser’s violence are given support and protection instead of harsh punishment and incarceration—to a day when survivor-defendants are treated with the fairness and dignity they deserve."

3. Columbia Law School Professor Philip Genty analyzes the potential impact of the policy shift contained in the Governor's revision of Exec Law § 259-i and concludes that "this addition of an explicit requirement that the Parole Board adopt and be guided by procedures that require it to evaluate "rehabilitation" and "the likelihood of success…upon release" signals a critical reform and modernization of parole practices."

4. Job Announcement from FACES NY, Inc. Job Title: Re-Entry Case Manager; Hours: 35 hrs/weekly; Salary Range: $30,000 - $35,000/yr Qualifications: BA degree in Social Work or a related human services field and/or 5 years minimum experience.

5. Legislative report dispels the rumor that the SAFE Parole Act has passed. A bill is not a law. The NYS Senate and Assembly both need to vote for it during a Legislative Session. The last Legislative Session ended in June 2011, and will not start again, barring an emergency, until January 2012. (See further details below.)

6. The NYS Parole Reform Campaign invites family members and friends and advocates of people who have appeared, or will appear before the NYS Parole Board, to tell their stories on video or audio recording, and hopefully by doing so open the eyes of those who know nothing of the injustices we experience. They also need data entry and legislative look-up volunteers to help their supporters get the information they need.

7. Parole News: July Statistics for A1VO Parole Releases.

Also from Building Bridges, an update on the status of the SAFE Parole Act:

"Rumors that the SAFE Parole Act has passed are unfounded. A bill is not a law (please refer to the August issue of Building Bridges for the process). The NYS Senate and Assembly both need to vote for it during a Legislative Session. The last Legislative Session ended in June 2011, and will not start again, barring an emergency, until January 2012.

S5374: The Senate will have to reintroduce the SAFE Parole Act in January when they go back into session. It will be given a new Senate number. At the end of last session it had four Senate sponsors: Senator Tom Duane and three co-sponsors: Senators Velmanette Montgomery, Bill Perkins, and Gustavo Rivera.

When Sen. Nozzolio chooses, the SAFE Parole Act will be introduced to the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee, which he chairs, for a vote. A majority of the members will have to vote for it in order for it to move out to the Senate floor for a vote. If a majority vote against it, it will be dead unless and until someone reintroduces it at the next Session (January 2013).

A7939: The Assembly retains bills for two sessions, so it will keep this number and its seven Assembly sponsors: Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, two co-sponsors: Assembly Members Andrew Hevesi and Eric A. Stevenson, and three Multi-sponsors: Assembly Members Herman D. Farrell, Jr., Richard N. Gottfried and John J. McEneny.

Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry (who is also the head of the Assembly's Corrections Committee) probably will wait until he feels it has enough support to pass before he introduces it to the committee. Like the Senate, if the committee passes it, it goes to the Assembly floor for discussion and a vote.

Please encourage your State Senator and Assembly Member to vote for the SAFE Parole Act if there is to be any hope of this bill becoming law."

September 15, 2011

Changes to Parole Laws Signal Potentially Sweeping Policy Shift

The following extracts from this article by Philip M. Genty, referring to Governor Cuomo's revision, are taken from Building Bridges:

"...In his article [condensed here] Prof. Genty holds that the most significant reform in Gov. Cuomo’s revision was the removal of Section 1. In 1978, the Parole Board announced its guidelines for setting the minimum sentence, which Section 1 gave them authority over. The only two factors specified in these guidelines were the seriousness of the offense and the person's prior criminal history. The guidelines were presented as regulations, which set out a grid for calculating the minimum period of imprisonment, i.e., the period of time a person in prison would be required to serve before becoming eligible for parole release:
(3) To derive the guideline time range, the appropriate cell is located on the parole decision making grid where the offense severity and prior criminal history scores intersect. The offense severity score is located on the vertical axis, the prior criminal history score on the horizontal axis. The cell on the guideline grid where the two scores intersect indicates the suggested time to be served, based on these two major factors.

...No other release guidelines have ever been set forth by the board. In 1980, the Legislature removed the responsibility for setting minimum sentences from the Parole Board and transferred it to the courts. Senator Christopher Mega's memorandum in support of this change described the Parole Board's power to set sentences as "an irrational waste of taxpayer money as well as of criminal justice resources" and observed that "there is nothing on which the Board's decision can be based which was not before the court at the time sentence was imposed…; and most of these factors consist of matters the court is better able to ascertain and evaluate (e.g., seriousness of the offense, mitigating and aggravating factors, etc.). However, despite the Parole Board's loss of the responsibility for setting minimum sentences, Section 259-i(1) of the Executive Law—"Establishment of the Minimum Periods of Imprisonment"—stayed on the books, and the guidelines remained unchanged.

...The 2011 amendments require the board to adopt procedures that incorporate a growing body of social science research about assessing post-release needs and recidivism risks. These procedures will be designed to measure rehabilitation and facilitate better informed parole release decisions. The amended Section 259-c states that the Parole Board shall:
establish written procedures for its use in making parole decisions as required by law. Such written procedures shall incorporate risk and needs principles to measure the rehabilitation of persons appearing before the board, the likelihood of success of such persons upon release, and assist members of the state board of parole in determining which inmates may be released to parole supervision.

...This addition of an explicit requirement that the Parole Board adopt and be guided by procedures that require it to evaluate "rehabilitation" and "the likelihood of success…upon release" signals a critical reform and modernization of parole practices. Such procedures, when promulgated, will rationalize parole decision-making by placing the focus primarily on who the person appearing before the Parole Board is today and on whether that person can succeed in the community after release, rather than—as under the previous "guidelines"—on who the person was many years earlier when she or he committed the crime. This is a shift in policy of potentially sweeping significance."

The Prison Action Network make the following comments about Professor Genty's article:

"We are encouraged by Columbia Law School professor Phillip Genty’s optimistic view of the Governor’s changes to the parole laws, and we certainly hope Parole Commissioners are reading it and being influenced to see it as he does. Through Genty's eyes, the Governor’s changes accomplish much of what the SAFE Parole Act would. However we do not share Prof. Genty’s faith in the Risk and Needs Assessment that is used. Its questions measure the strengths and deficits of the person being interviewed. While this is useful in developing a Transitional Accountability Plan for use during incarceration and after release to parole supervision, how it will influence release decisions remains to be seen."

For full text of the article, see:
Changes to Parole Laws Signal Potentially Sweeping Policy Shift, by Philip M. Genty. (New York Law Journal, September 1 2011)