April 16, 2012

Building Bridges - April 2012 edition

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

Items discussed in the April newsletter include the following, see Building Bridges for full details:

1. The Senate's Crime Committee passed all but one of the mostly - but not only - sex-offender related bills at their meeting on March 20. The legislation considered by the committee is listed in detail.

2. People in prison weigh in on Parole Reform: talking about the moral high ground and the optimism that is felt not just despite, but because of, the escalation of prison abuses. This includes a perceptive item by Ismael Igartua, "The Moral High Ground", responding to the suggestion that facility parole officers have more influence at parole board hearings than previously thought. Igartua is writing in response to this article: State tells parole officers to surrender guns, by Brendan J. Lyons (New York Times, 24 February 2012).

3. Parole releases for February are depressing, but there is a recent favorable court decision in the case of Emmanuel Patterson. In response to requests, the Prison Action Network has reposted biographies of current members of the Parole Board.

Update in the case of Thwaites: Douglas Thwaites filed an Article 78 contesting the Parole Board's denial of his appeal that his parole hearing denial should be overturned: State Supreme Court Judge Ecker ruled in his favor on the Article 78 and stated that at the new hearing Mr. Thwaites needed to be judged by whether there is a reasonable probability that if released, he will live and remain at liberty without violating the law, and not on his past offense. According to the Board's website, his reappearance is scheduled for June 2012. We will be waiting to learn the decision.

In a recent court decision, Emmanuel Patterson received a favorable ruling on his Article 78: Patterson v Cully, Index # 1-2011-4748, Erie County, Michalski, 2012. The court noted the criteria governing release is contained in NYS Executive Law 259 (i)(2)(c)(a). Due to the timing of the case (2010), the court also refers to NYS Executive Law 259 (i)(1)(2)(c) which has now been changed and added to the preceding section.

The court stated the Board cannot solely cite the serious nature of the crime as a reason for denial, IGNORING THE CASE PRECEDENT IN King and Johnson. The court indicated the statement: "criminal behavior being extreme and violent with a total disregard for human life" could be said about any homicide and was not enough to constitute an aggravating circumstance beyond the serious nature of the crime, Patterson (id). The court found this decision "irrational and improper" Patterson (id).

The court concluded "the Parole Board's reliance on the severity of the crime to deny parole not only contravenes the discretionary scheme mandated by statue, but also effectively constitutes an unauthorized resentencing" Patterson (id).

4. Parole reform strategies: talking points that stress the importance of removing "the seriousness of the offense" from the Parole Board's consideration, when discussing effective changes to Parole Board policies. It is an opportune time because we are now at a point when there is concrete evidence of the parole board's lawlessness, arbitrariness and their refusal to follow the mandates of the legislature. In other words, they have demonstrated their bad faith to give fair consideration to parole applicants.

On March 31, 2011 several significant amendments to the Executive Law were signed into law including an amendment to Executive Law § 259-c(4) which requires the parole board to:

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.

The effective date of this mandate imposed on the parole board was October 1, 2011. As of April 5, 2012 the parole board has failed and refused to establish the written procedures that were required by the state legislature. The result of this bad faith on the part of the parole board is that they have failed to establish lawful procedures by which they will consider the risk and needs instrument that they are using, the COMPAS, and that they have no rules that control how they are to implement risk and needs principles. Not only does this make all decisions since October 1, 2011 unlawful, by failing to establish rules it prevents judicial review since the courts have no way of knowing whether the board decisions are consistent with law procedures. This total disrespect for the legislature and its mandated reform clearly requires stronger action on the part of the legislature. The parole board cannot be trusted to use its own devices to establish written procedures that will be fair and appropriate. If they will not follow the law as directed to them by the legislature, how can they be counted on to make their own rules?

Therefore, it is time for the legislature to act in response to this affront by the parole board and establish tighter control of parole board decision making. In order to do this, more specific statutory requirements must be imposed. Now is the time to impose the statutory requirements of the SAFE Parole Act!

One of the dominant features of the SAFE Parole Act is that it removes "the seriousness of the offense" from the parole board's consideration. There are several strong reasons why that factor is no longer appropriate for parole board consideration:

*Double counting of the crime and criminal record. This factor is used in the COMPAS risk and need assessment and is currently also being used by the parole board as a separate factor. By double counting, this factor creates an imbalance in the factors to be considered. It serves no legitimate purpose when it comes to the ultimate decision that the parole board is called upon to make, which is whether "there is a reasonable probability" that the parole applicant, if released, "will live and remain at liberty without violating the law." The seriousness of the crime has no predictive value in determining if the person is likely to reoffend.

*Currently as it is being used, the parole board is abusing the use of this factor. Even in cases where the COMPAS risk assessment score indicates low risk, the parole board is defaulting to the "seriousness of the offense" to support their conclusion that the parole applicant is a high risk. In other words, nothing has changed with the parole board, despite the legislature’s attempt to reform the process.

*The factor, "seriousness of the offense" originally appeared in the Executive Law § 259-i (1) as a factor to be considered by the parole board at a time, years ago, when the parole board actually had the authority to set the minimum sentence when the court had not. In such cases, because the parole board was serving a sentencing function, it was appropriate to consider that factor because the sentencing function properly considers punishment as a sentencing goal. However, since the parole board no longer sets the minimum, and therefore no longer is charged with the responsibility of considering punishment, it should no longer be considered as a factor.

*In 2011, subdivision (1) was repealed. Unfortunately, and without debate of discussion about the rationale, this factor was moved to subdivision (2) for parole board consideration in general. That repositioning of this factor was without sound rationale, and should be removed.

5. Building Bridges is polling their readers on the delivery of the Transitional Accountability Plan and the COMPAS risk and needs instrument. When are they being administered? Have they made a difference in parole decisions?

6. NYS Prisoner Justice Network announces May 22 Justice Action Day, including a meeting with legislators and a rally to demand fairer parole decisions and to show how much statewide support there is for Parole Board reform.

7. Merit Time for violent offenders is still on the table. Add your name to a website which already has over 2000 signatures in support of this bill, S338/A154.

8. Photo ID for visitors is to be required and maintained in DOCCS data bases. Prison officials plan to start photographing visitors to state inmates in a pilot program this fall at a facility in northern New York and possibly a few others. Those pictures will be filed in the corrections department's central visitor identification system. Regulations to establish the practice in all 60 facilities housing 56,000 prisoners are expected to follow. Separately, the department issued final regulations earlier this week to require adult visitors present a photo identification starting Oct. 1 at all state prisons.