October 23, 2011

When life is too long: Debate over older prisoners

Extract from article:

Yohannes Johnson is serving 75 years to life in a remote upstate New York prison, behind 30-foot concrete walls and locked steel doors, 300 miles and 30 years and 10 months from home in New York City.

He measures time in long, slow, personal change. And he maintains hope he will, someday, walk outside the Clinton Correction Facility.

"One thing I don't do is subject myself to the thought I'll never leave prison," said Johnson, now 55, slender and soft-spoken, his hair flecked with gray. He's a convicted robber and killer and president of the prison's Lifer's and Long-Termer's Organization, part of a growing club of inmates locked up for life nationwide. "I can't afford to do that. I do that, I lose hope. I lose hope then I don't care about anything. I don't care about anything then I become a detriment to myself and those around me."

Now, even corrections officials are considering different options for older inmates while some research suggests keeping them locked up until they die might be an expensive and unnecessary price for the public to pay.

Nationally, nearly 10 percent of more than 2.3 million inmates were serving life sentences in 2008, including 41,095 people doing life without parole, up 22 percent in five years, according to The Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to prison. The increase resulted from lawmakers "dramatically" expanding the types and repeat offenses that carry potential life terms, research analyst Ashley Nellis said.

"The theme is we're protecting society, then the question is: From what?" said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog group. She said with the cost of keeping a state inmate $55,000 a year — a cost that grows as they age and their medical needs increase — a financial analysis shows that parole and probation are far cheaper punishments that can also satisfy the public need for retribution.

Meanwhile, data show new crimes by convicted felons steadily declining from their teens through their dotage.

"Most criminal behavior is tied with impulse control. The section of the brain that controls impulse control is the last section of the brain that becomes fully developed," Elijah said. There's a large drop-off in criminal behavior and recidivism after 40 or 45, she said, a point seldom made in public discussion "because it's not convenient. It doesn't dovetail with the kind of tough-on-crime mentality that results in votes."...

For complete article, see:
When life is too long: Debate over older prisoners, by Michael Virtanen (Associated Press, October 22 2011)

October 21, 2011

Growing prison populations hinder budget cuts

Extract from article:

The rising number of prisoners serving costly life terms across the country is complicating state officials' efforts to make dramatic cuts to large prison budgets, lawmakers and criminal justice officials said.

From 1984 to 2008, the number of offenders serving life terms quadrupled, from 34,000 to roughly 140,000, according to the most recent count by The Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.

One of the fastest-growing subgroups are inmates serving life without the possibility of parole. Those numbers have jumped from 12,453 in 1992 to 41,095 in 2008 and represent the most costly inmates to house as the aging inmates require increased medical care.

"The challenge for us is to distinguish between the offenders we are afraid of — those who deserve to be locked up for life — and those who we are just mad at and who can be handled outside of prison," Texas state Sen. John Whitmire said...

For complete article, see:
Growing prison populations hinder budget cuts, by Kevin Johnson (USA Today, October 21 2011)

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.

October 13, 2011

Building Bridges - October 2011 edition

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

Articles in this edition include:

1. Prison Children Anonymous: Children who have or once had a parent, sibling or loved one involved in the criminal justice system, now have a place to receive emotional support and learn about our penal system.

2. Citizens Against Recidivism 5th Annual Citizens’ Awards Event, Saturday November 5th, is at a new location this year: TIAN, 679 Riverside Dr. Join the PAN table for a reduced ticket price.

3. Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM) announces a national conference to discuss and ratify a National Agenda to restore their civil and human rights.

4. The Coalition for Women Prisoners, a project of the Women in Prison Project, invites readers to help make the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs and rights of women and their families.

5. The Free Bus Program was recently eliminated by NYS DOCCS. Please help bring it back by taking the “Bring Back the Buses” Survey.

6. Legislation: Despite rumors, there is no law releasing inmates after 65% of their sentence is served, The SAFE Parole Act was not voted on by the Senate ‘s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, and only 4 of the 26 bills reported on in Building Bridges were voted on by any body. None of them became law.

7. NYS Parole Reform Campaign: Response to Philip Genty’s article on Exec. Law §259-i revisions by the governor (see Sept. Building Bridges). More than 210 letters to the Governor in support of the SAFE Parole Act have been gathered by hardworking readers. Good work, team!

8. Parole News: August releases, first use of revised Parole Board policies, comments from a stakeholder.

9. Youth Justice: New York State is one of only two states in the country (the other is North Carolina) where every 16 and 17 year old is automatically tried as an adult. Judge Lippman calls for raising the age.

October 07, 2011

NYSACDL Supports Call For Parole Reform

The NYSACDL [New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] has joined a growing list of legal, advocacy and community organizations that have called for the reform of New York parole law. This diverse coalition supports the Safe And Fair Evaluation of Parole Act, also known as the SAFE Parole Act. The SAFE Parole Act would amend New York’s existing parole statute, Executive Law § 259-i... ...

It might be asked why parole reform should be supported at a time when the newly appointed New York State Permanent Sentencing Commission seems poised to recommend adoption of a mostly determinate sentencing scheme for nonviolent felonies, adding it to the determinate scheme already adopted for violent and drug felonies. The answer is simple. No matter how quickly the Sentencing Commission and the Legislature act, there will still be thousands of people in prison serving indeterminate sentences for decades to come who will face parole board appearances. For example, there is certainly no consideration being given to ending indeterminate life sentences for A-1 violent felonies, A-1 drug conspiracies and major traffickers or persistent felony offenders.

In fiscal year 2009-2010 the Parole Board conducted over 19,000 hearings for people who were serving indeterminate sentences. It will take years for that number to diminish substantially. As of January 1, 2009 there were over 9,100 men and women in New York prisons serving life sentences for A-1 violent felonies. With an initial parole release rate of just 8% for A-1 violent felons, and a subsequent parole release rate of 13%, the number of people requiring parole consideration will measure in the thousands for the foreseeable future. The remarkably low release rate for this population reflects the Parole Board’s aversion to parole release for applicants convicted of A-1 violent felonies. The Parole Board has chosen to focus on the “serious nature of the criminal offense” rather than looking at factors grounded in prison based performance, to determine if there is a reasonable basis to conclude that the individual will live a law abiding life if released. It is noteworthy that the recidivism rate for this group is significantly lower than any other group of parole releasees. According to the Division of Parole, of the 784 people serving life sentences for A-1 violent felonies who were released on parole during 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 the recidivism rate, measured by return to DOCS for a new felony conviction, was 1/4 of one percent.

It is both unfair and bad corrections policy to require such a significant number of people to continue to be subject to a parole release system so fundamentally flawed.

For full article, including a review of some of the changes proposed by the SAFE Parole Act, see:
NYSACDL Supports Call For Parole Reform (Atticus, Volume 23 Number 1, Winter 2011)

October 01, 2011

Law Requires Board to Assess Rehabilitation in Parole Rulings

The revision of Executive Law §259(c) in the new budget legislation this year requires the parole board to establish and apply "risk and needs principles to measure the rehabilitation of persons appearing before the board" and to take into account the likelihood of success should the offender be released. In the past, the board "could" consider those factors; as of today it "must" consider them. The risk assessment tool is under development and is expected to be in use by November.

Advocates welcome the new paradigm and are eagerly awaiting the first batch of parole board determinations based on the revised standards. An article in the New York Law Journal includes the following reactions to the new law:

"This has the potential to really make a difference," said JoAnne Page, president and chief executive officer of The Fortune Society, a social services and advocacy group that promotes successful re-entry from prison.

"Static facts—what a person's record was, the nature of the crime—should not be the only things looked at when someone is appearing before the parole board," she said. "What [the new law] does is require looking at rehabilitation and likelihood of success on release and use of risk guidelines. If this is actually implemented, it will make an enormous difference."

Robert N. Isseks, an attorney in Middletown who has for years pursued a federal class action alleging that the parole board ignores current criteria and effectively acts as a re-sentencing body, said he has doubts.

The parole board routinely states in its determinations that it has considered requisite statutory criteria, and courts generally accept its assurances when inmates challenge a denial of parole release.

"I'd like to be optimistic," Mr. Isseks said. "I hope [the new law] will force them to do what they are supposed to do, but I can't predict. In the hundreds of decisions I have seen, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical."

An annual report issued by what was then the Division of Parole late last year stated that in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, 40 percent of the eligible inmates were released on parole (22 percent at the first opportunity) but only 9 percent of violent felony offenders.

The 2006 federal case filed by Mr. Isseks in the Southern District, Graziano v. Pataki, 7:06-cv-00480, was dismissed last December by Judge Cathy Seibel. Mr. Isseks is appealing and also attempting to reinstate a state court action pending before the Appellate Division, Third Department.

Mr. Isseks said the new requirements may put a heavier burden on the parole board to establish that it has performed more than a cursory review.

"These new guidelines might help the judges make more informed decisions, and give them something more to look at and consider," Mr. Isseks said.

Ms. Page agreed.

"This provides grounds for challenging a parole board hit on the basis of not having looked at evidence of rehabilitation or not having administered a recent risk assessment," she said. "It opens doors, provides a basis from which to challenge [a denial of parole]. It is a step in the right direction, and something that has been needed for many, many years."

Ms. Page said the new criteria may force the parole board to take into consideration that A-1 felons released on parole are at an extremely low risk of re-offending. In fact, state figures show that offenders who serve a sentence for murder are the least likely to commit a felony once they are paroled.

"People change," Ms. Page said. "If there is anything I know from my 22 years heading Fortune, it is that people who have been menaces to the community have the capacity to become good neighbors and make a positive difference in the world. And the people who committed the most horrific crimes and served decades [in prison] are beyond the age when people tend to recidivate."

Full text of report:
Law Requires Board to Assess Rehabilitation in Parole Rulings, by John Caher (New York Law Journal, September 30 2011)