J. Soffiyah Elijah took office as the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York (CA) on March 14 — and while she acknowledges that she is still settling into that role, she has declared herself to be an ardent advocate of the ongoing parole reform movement. The CA is one of only two private organizations in the country (and the only one in New York) with legislative authority to inspect and report on conditions in state prisons.
Elijah has expressed strong support for the SAFE Parole Act — which was introduced in mid-May by State Senator Tom Duane and State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry. The bill, which is at this point still within committees in both houses and has yet to be voted on, would amend the statute of New York State law governing procedures taken by the state’s Parole Board during prisoners’ applications to be released on parole. Among other things, the bill would make it necessary for all parole hearings to be done face-to-face (they are often done by videoconference), and would force the Parole Board to judge an applicant’s request to be released based on their behavior, education and rehabilitation while in prison — and not on the nature of their crimes.
“I think that a lack of information, especially in terms of how parole should work, is what divides people and makes some of them unreceptive to reform,” said Elijah in a June 24 phone interview. “The fact is that when you deny parole based on the nature of the original offense, you basically condemn people to die in prison — and that’s not what sentencing is for.” ...
... A particular area Elijah highlighted when expressing the need for parole reform was that of the aging prison population. She added that, under her direction, she would like to see the CA work with the Prison Action Network (the advocacy group that worked with Senator Duane to create the SAFE Parole Act) to build a campaign around that issue. She called it an “early, embryonic” idea, but hopes to eventually build support for another in-depth look at the parole guidelines as they specifically affect older prisoners.
“Recidivism drops drastically after the age of 40 or 45, and people need to be informed of the lack of value in the continued incarceration of the older prison population. There’s just no public safety concern — it drops to less than five percent. And if we look at those facts, why are we spending up to $124,000 a year to keep an older prisoner with medical needs incarcerated?” ...
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SAFE Parole Act backed by Correctional Association of NY, by Sam Spokony (Chelsea Now, July 13 2011)