Blog #24: The Parole Travesty

By Juan Rogers, President of the Attica Lifers Organization

It is easy to forget how America, with all of its faults, is still an exceptional country, governed by laws for the people and to some extent by the people. Even those who commit crimes, and find themselves on the receiving end of retributive punishment, can understand the importance of a legal system that punishes criminals and holds them responsible for their actions. There is a predominant element of retribution, which is meant to consequentially evolve into restoration (rehabilitation and repairing damage). Its primary objective is to achieve justice for the victim and assure the safety of law-abiding citizens. Its secondary objective is to rehabilitate the criminal, preparing him or her to be released at some point as a law-abiding, taxpaying, productive member of society. This is where the travesty begins which is vividly illustrated in the following piece from a 9/16/13 New York Law Journal article, written by John Coher:

“Some judges, most recently Supreme Court Justice Richard Mott of Columbia County, have taken the Parole Board to task for its policies and procedures. In a trio of decisions this year, Mott has ordered the Parole Board to grant new interviews to inmates where it used boilerplate language to deny release, but offered nothing to back it up.

In one decision (Zarro v. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 6073-13), Mott labeled the parole board’s reasoning “Preposterous” (NYLJ, Aug. 9). In another, Mott suggested the parole board was determined to prolong the offender’s incarceration, whether it had legal justification or not (Douglas v. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 6213-13; NYLJ, Aug. 20). And he also accused the Parole Board of “machinations” to prevent judicial review of its determination (Matter of Morris v. NYS Dept. of Corrections and Community Supervision, 5696-13; NYLJ, April 18). Parole Board policies are also under attack in a case pending before the Court of Appeals.”

Robert Dennison, retired Chairman of the Parole Board, speaks out against the unjust practices of the Parole Board and now advocates for prisoners who deserve to be released on parole. Since his retirement, Dennison has written support letters for over 20 prisoners. He said, “I look for someone who can explain to me what they were thinking, what their real involvement was and how they feel about what they did,” noting that offenders serving time for A-1 offenses, the most serious in the Penal Law, are by far the least likely to commit new crimes. Dennison goes on to say, “I look for someone who can show me they are a different person, and tell me how they became different.” He shares his thoughts on how the Parole Board relies on two standard phrases: release would depreciate the seriousness of the offense; and there is a reasonable probability that the offender would re-offend.

With regard to those phrases, Dennison further states that “Many parole commissioners don’t want to put their name on the release . . . If they don’t want to let the person out, they have to use one of those phrases. The ‘depreciate the seriousness of the offense’ phrase is stupid, since the sentencing judge decided that release after a minimum period of incarceration would be appropriate, assuming good behavior.”

This comes from a man who was on the inside, part of the system, and knows first hand how parole commissioners often violate the NYS Executive Laws that govern the Parole Board, under subdivisions of 259(i).

Those phrases are just alternative ways to say the nature of the crime, and by using them, the parole commissioners violate the legal standard, which specifies that a decision to deny parole cannot be based solely on the nature of the crime.

Prisons, AKA “Correctional Facilities” were created to be the base of operations in the process of retribution and restoration after a criminal is convicted. The process has 3 stages. Stage 1 is punishment/retribution: The criminal is incarcerated and all rights as a civilian are taken away, making him or her a ward of the state, subjected to rules governed by DOCCS, for a period of time deemed to be efficient by the sentencing judge. Stage 2 is rehabilitation: While incarcerated, the prisoner is required to participate in rehabilitative programs, with the goal of overcoming behavior that led him or her to prison. The prisoner has a responsibility to successfully complete specific programs and become rehabilitated. The Correctional Facility has the responsibility of making the necessary programs available to the prisoner. Stage 3 is restoration: After the prisoner server his or her designated time, successfully completes all required programs, demonstrates obvious growth and rehabilitation, and articulates a realistic plan—with the necessary resources in place—to become a law-abiding, taxpaying, productive member of society, the prisoner should be released.

Within those three stages the victim receives justice, the criminal pays for his or her crime, the public is relieved of a bad element, and in its place receives a reformed, productive, taxpaying, law-abiding citizen. However, regardless of the system, the rules and laws, over time the significance of stage 3 has been diminished, rapidly fading under a growing tone of “lock ’em up, throw away the key” sentiment. With every headline story of a hideous crime against an innocent victim, another degree of consideration for the release of a rehabilitated prisoner—who has met all of the requirements—is being depleted. Along with that comes a growing lack of awareness with regard to the benefits of stage 3. Those benefits are clearly demonstrated through numerous success stories of ex-convicts who have been released after serving extensive periods of time for violent crimes, and are now making significant contributions to their communities and society in general.

For example, Andre Cartier served 27 years in a maximum security prison. While in prison he earned nearly enough credits for a Bachelor’s degree. He took all of the required programs, volunteered for every available positive growth program, strived to become a better person and change behavioral patterns that led him to prison. Since being released 5 years ago he earned a Master’s degree, was promoted to Director of Praxis Housing Initiatives, and he is now on the Advisory Board of MFE (Motivation for Education) Network, awarding students for academic accomplishments, counseling youths and adults, helping them overcome behaviors that could possibly cause harm and/or lead them to prison.

Eric Waters spent 24 years in prison for murder, and since his release he has been using his experience, lessons from past mistakes, and all he has learned throughout the rehabilitation process to help others. As a productive, taxpaying, law-abiding citizen, he is presently a Program Coordinator for the Osborne Association counseling and assisting others in their efforts to become productive members of society.

Dale Volker, a former police officer from western New York, Republican Senator and perhaps the toughest-on-crime law maker in the Chamber at the time, was so impressed after a meeting with Waters and another ex-convict—Diana Ortiz, who is now Associate Director of Exodus Transitional Community—he helped Dennison champion a bill to benefit rehabilitated offenders who have served their time and proven that they no longer need to be in jail or under supervision.

Those are just a few out of many untold stories that demonstrate the value of rehabilitated ex-convicts, and how society in general benefits from their release when justice is served properly following all three stages of the system.

A report by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision confirms that offenders paroled after serving a sentence for murder have the lowest recidivism rate, with fewer than one percent committing a new crime. Here are some examples of the system failing, leading to a gross injustice that violates the laws, the rights of American citizens, and creates an unnecessary financial burden for taxpayers.

According to an article in the Spring-Summer 2013 CURE-NY Newsletter; in the matter of Rossakis v. NYS Board of Parole: Judge Kathryn E. Freed in Manhattan ruled that, “The Board failed to follow the statutory factors in NYS Executive Law 259(i)(2)(c) in that they determined her Parole Board denial by only looking at the serious nature of her crime. The court found the decision was ‘irrational bordering on impropriety’.”

In the case of Mercer v. NYS Board of Parole, the judge stated, “Here the Parole Board relied almost entirely on the nature of petitioner’s crime in denying parole. While his institutional accomplishments and release plans were discussed, the Board focused on the circumstances of crimes committed twenty five years ago. When it evaluated petitioncr’s release, it employed past-rhetoric and not future-focused risk assessment analysis . . . Such reasons cannot sustain a rational determination of the inquiry at hand: whether there is a reasonable probability that if such inmate is released he will remain at liberty without violating the law and that his release is not incompatible with the welfare of society . . . The court finds the Board’s decision denying parole in this case to be arbitrary and capricious, irrational and improper based upon the Parole Board’s failure to articulate any rational, non-conclusory basis, other than its reliance on the seriousness of the crime why the petitioner’s release could not meet the criteria.” (information on Mercer supplied by Cheryl Kates Esq.)

Statistics from a Hudson Link report on the value of educating prisoners verifies that it costs the state of New York an average of $54,000 per year to house one prisoner. Thus, it is a waste of taxpayer dollars to house rehabilitated prisoners who have served their time. It is also a waste of space that could otherwise be used to house deserving criminals. Moreover, it deprives communities of the priceless contribution rehabilitated citizens are capable of making, including their influence over other would-be criminals, compelling them to not follow a path that may lead to prison.

It is a travesty of justice when America—the country that some of these prisoners have served in the military and risked their lives for—has a system that deprives them of their rights after they have redeemed themselves, served their time, become rehabilitated and met all of the necessary requirements. In those cases the laws in which we trust, the country for which they fought, and the system of balance which is supposed to make us a civilized nation has failed them. Furthermore, taking into account the alarming number of prisoners who were overcharged for their crime, and even worse, wrongly convicted, this becomes a true horror story of the worst sort.

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It is time to “End The Trend” now! Victims and their families must always be the priority. Neverthcless, once justice is served, not following the process of stage 3 creates more victims and defies what the laws of a civilized nation are supposed to stand for.

Considering how often we hear about violence being committed upon innocent victims, it is easy to understand why law-abiding citizens overlook the way the system abuses violent felons. However, one should not overlook the fact that once a person serves his or her time and has diligently engaged in the process of rehabilitation—unless there are serious mental issues—they can no longer be considered the same person (threat) they were when they committed the crime.

After all, imagine if every adult was judged solely by the worst mistake they’ve ever made . . . for the rest of their life.