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)