October 14, 2011

Setting the record straight, Part 1: Why we need to continue working for passage of the Safe Parole Act

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT, a series of articles presented by the Coalition For Fair Criminal Justice Policies to explain and support the SAFE Parole Act.

Part 1: Why we need to continue working for passage of the Safe Parole Act

In his September 1, 2011 New York Law Journal article, Professor Philip Genty shares with readers his optimism for parole reform, as he attempts to interpret the legislative change enacted by the Governor’s March 31, 2011 budget bill. If that optimism depends upon the good will of the parole board to write procedures heralding a new day for parole reform, should we share that hope?

If Professor Genty is correct in his prognostication, we say “hurrah!” But there is substantial room for skepticism, and it is that skepticism that is the basis for the need for supporters of real parole reform to continue to demand sweeping change. It is important to understand what the legislative change did and did not do—and why now is the time to push for the real reform proposed by the SAFE Parole Act (A.7939 and S.5374).

The statutory change that has generated this optimism is a re-write of Executive Law§ 259-c(4). It says that the parole board shall:

establish written [guidelines] PROCEDURES for its use in making parole decisions as required by law[, including the fixing of minimum periods of imprisonment or ranges thereof for different categories of offenders]. Such written [guidelines may consider the use of a] PROCEDURES SHALL INCORPORATE risk and needs [assessment instruments] PRINCIPLES to MEASURE THE REHABILITATION OF PERSONS APPEARING BEFORE THE BOARD, THE LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESS OF SUCH PERSON UPON RELEASE, AND assist members of the state board of parole in determining which inmates may be released to parole supervision.
( [ ] = deleted from original; CAPS = added to original)
It should be noted that there was also a rewrite of Executive Law § 259-i, which contains the factors that the parole board must consider. These factors remain exactly the same as they were, except for their repositioning within the statute. They continue to include the very static factor “the seriousness of the offense...” This factor and all of the other factors are still required to be considered under the new procedures that are still to be written.

So, here we are six months after the enactment of this hope-generating statute, and neither the procedures nor the risk and needs assessment instrument have been implemented. Yet it is these, as yet unwritten, procedures that Professor Genty would have us pin our hopes on. It doesn’t seem like a good time to sit back with our fingers crossed in hopes that the parole board will inject real reform into the still to be written procedures.

The SAFE Parole Act doesn’t leave the practical implementation of reform to the vagaries of the parole board and the hope that it will write reform-minded procedures. The SAFE Parole Act contains the procedures for implementation right in the statutory proposal itself.

Unlike the budget bill, the SAFE Parole Act would do the following:

A) Remove from parole consideration “the seriousness of the offense,” leaving that consideration exclusively to the sentencing court.

B) Add the requirement that the parole board must consider the parole applicant’s preparedness for reentry and reintegration, as evidenced by the applicant’s institutional record pertaining to program goals and accomplishments as stated in the facility performance reports, academic achievements, vocational education, training or work assignments, therapy and interactions with staff and other sentenced persons, and other indications of pro-social activity, change and transformation.

C) Add the requirement that the parole board consider the progress made towards achieving the programming and treatment needs developed in the transitional accountability plan.

D) Add the requirement that if parole is not granted the parole board will state in detail and not in conclusory terms the factors and reasons for the denial and 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.

E) Add the requirement that if parole is not granted the Department shall, within ninety days of the hearing decision, provide the parole applicant access to the program or programs, activities and/or facilities needed in order to provide the opportunity to fulfill the requirements set forth by the board.

F) Add the requirement that if the requirements previously set forth by the parole board at the time of denial have been successfully completed and the parole applicant’s institutional record has been satisfactory during the time between the previous and current parole hearing, release shall be granted.

G) The parole applicant shall be entitled to a copy of the scored risk and needs assessment.

These are but a few of the provisions that the SAFE Parole Act would require if enacted.

We have two choices.

We can sit back and hope that the parole board writes procedures for itself that adopt the requirements of the SAFE Parole Act, and thus prove true Professor Genty’s prognosis that these procedures may “be the most significant parole reform in more than 30 years.

Or we can continue to do the hard work of organizing for legislative change and passage of the SAFE Parole Act.

From: the Prison Action Network, in Building Bridges, October 2011.