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Can parole decisions be freed from law enforcement’s outsize influence?


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Can parole decisions be freed from law enforcement’s outsize influence?

  • The Appeal presents: Raided

  • The Appeal Podcast: The Baltimore Police Department’s troubled homicide unit

  • Landmark Illinois Supreme Court decision says sentence over 40 years for youth constitutes ‘life’

  • ICE Out of Courts victory in New York

  • City of Columbus blames teen’s friends for his death in police shooting

In the Spotlight

Can parole decisions be freed from law enforcement’s outsize influence?

For too long, parole boards have given disproportionate weight to law enforcement opposition when making parole decisions. Release decisions are supposed to assess people’s rehabilitation while incarcerated and whether they would pose a threat to public safety if released. Prosecutors and police unions instead look backward, sometimes decades back, to the crime for which a person was convicted. The voice they have been allowed to have in parole proceedings has contributed to a situation in which people are warehoused for decades for reasons that have nothing to do with safety, and the number of aging, ailing people in prison has gone up sharply over the past several years.

Two recent developments in New York raise the hope that there is a movement in another direction.

The first is the adoption of new policies by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. DA Eric Gonzalez has announced that his office will no longer reflexively oppose parole release for those who have completed their minimum sentence. Instead, in cases of people who entered guilty pleas, the office will consent to parole release “absent extraordinary circumstances and subject to their conduct during incarceration.” For people 23 or younger who were convicted after trial and received lengthy sentences, the office will also consider supporting their release on parole. [Tom Robbins / Marshall Project and The City]

In an interview, Gonzalez was frank about the way in which opposition to parole release has typically been pro forma, expressed in letters drafted by prosecutors after trial, years before the person convicted would even become eligible for parole and without any opportunity to consider who they would be by then. For those in prison via plea deals, the letters opposing release were often drafted by interns. Opposition to release was just second nature. Prosecutors, he said, “were still putting over-emphasis on the nature of the crime in ways that are unfair because the person can never do anything about the nature of the crime.” [Tom Robbins / Marshall Project and The City]

If the office really does support parole release for the majority of candidates, it could have significant effects, both on reform efforts elsewhere and on absolute numbers; more than 10 percent of the people currently in state custody were sent to prison on convictions out of Brooklyn. [Tom Robbins / Marshall Project and The City]

Although reforms like those in Brooklyn can make the parole process more fair and meaningful, there is still the question of why prosecutors have a role in the process at all. In a recent article for the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, professor R. Michael Cassidy advocates legislation that would limit their role and calls for prosecutors to participate only when they have “highly relevant, post-conviction information unavailable from documentary materials or the testimony of victims.” [R. Michael Cassidy / Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law]

The second major development was the parole board’s decision this week to grant release to Judith Clark. Clark was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 75 years in prison for her role in 1981 as a getaway driver in the Brink’s truck robbery during which two police officers and a guard were killed. She became eligible for parole in 2017, after she received a rare clemency grant from Governor Andrew Cuomo that reduced her minimum sentence to 35 years. [Michael Gold / New York Times]

The governor said about his decision: “We call it the ‘correction’ system. I think the situation is corrected as it is ever going to be, unless you can bring a person back to life.” He also said he knew his decision would be denounced by law enforcement, and it was. [Jim Dwyer / New York Times]

Clark went before the parole board for the first time shortly after being granted clemency and the board denied her release in a decision that the Daily News editorial board recently described as “lawless.” This time, with much the same extensive evidence of her remorse and her service to others in prison, the board arrived at a different decision.

The New York Times reported that Clark’s supporters included 70 elected officials who “sent a letter to the parole board arguing that the state’s correctional system should not exist solely for retribution, but also for rehabilitation, and that Ms. Clark had served a long sentence, accepted responsibility for her crime and shown genuine remorse.” [Michael Gold / New York Times]

As one of Clark’s attorneys wrote in the Daily News: “Law enforcement representatives, criminal justice reform advocates and public officials have all lent their voices to her cause, not just because she deserves parole, but because they know this case is a true test of whether New York’s parole system is a functioning one.” [Michael Cardozo / Daily News]

For too long, law enforcement opposition to parole release—in some instances facilitated by the parole board itself—was the norm in New York, and law enforcement voices had disproportionate influence. This distorted a process meant to look beyond a person’s crime of conviction to their development while in prison and their potential if released. But recently, the parole board has begun to assert its independence. [Natasha Lennard / The Nation]

Judith Clark is just one of many older New Yorkers still incarcerated for crimes committed decades earlier. Legislation pending in the state legislature would create the possibility of release for people over the age of 55 who have already served 15 years or more in prison.

The Republican lawmakers who oppose it are the same ones who—along with law enforcement—opposed Clark’s release. But as Senator Brad Hoylman, sponsor of the legislation said, arguing for the reform: “There are so many more Judith Clarks out there—elder, incarcerated New Yorkers who have honestly confronted their crimes, taken responsibility, served their time, and worked to change the path of their lives.” [David Lombardo / Times-Union]

Stories From The Appeal

The Appeal Presents: Raided. A new documentary explores the notorious ‘Bronx 120’ raid—and what it says about the evolution of policing in New York City. [Simon Davis-Cohen]

The Appeal Podcast: The Baltimore Police Department’s Troubled Homicide Unit. Appeal contributor Amelia McDonell-Parry discusses a recent lawsuit and the wholesale lack of accountability in the department.  [Adam H. Johnson]

Stories From Around the Country

Landmark Illinois Supreme Court decision says sentence over 40 years for youth constitutes ‘life’: In a case of a man sentenced to 50 years for a fatal shooting committed when he was 16, Illinois’s highest court has decided that sentences of 41 years or longer must be treated as life for purposes of applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. Dimitri Buffer’s attorneys argued that the trial court had not adequately considered his age before imposing the sentence of 25 years for murder (above the mandatory minimum of 20) and 25 years (the minimum) for personally discharging a firearm. The court’s decision was unanimous and upheld that of the intermediate appellate court. The state attorney general’s office had urged the court to draw the line at 50 years or more, noting that there are more than 44 cases pending before the court in which young people sentenced to more than 43 years are challenging their sentences as life sentences. [Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch]

ICE Out of Courts victory in New York: New York State’s court system has banned ICE from making arrests in courthouses without a judicial warrant or order. Previously, ICE officers were allowed to operate in courts with administrative warrants issued by their agency. Between 2016 and 2018, ICE operations in New York’s courthouses went up by 1,700 percent. The directive issued by the state this week is believed to be the first of its kind in the country and is a huge victory for the ICE Out of Courts coalition. The coalition cautions, however, that the directive still permits ICE activity in areas immediately around courthouses, endangering immigrants entering or leaving. The Protect Our Courts Act, pending before the state legislature, would go further, restricting all ICE activity in as well as around courthouses. [Lauren Cook / amNewYork]

City of Columbus blames teen’s friends for his death in police shooting:  A Columbus, Ohio, police officer shot and killed 13-year-old Tyre King in 2016. His grandmother filed a federal lawsuit against the city and the police department. A judge has now granted the city’s request to add King’s four friends who were with him at the time of the shooting as third-party defendants in the lawsuit. “The Columbus City Attorney’s office said the city’s position is that the four teens, as well as King, acted in such a way that King’s death was a consequence of their actions,” reports the Columbus Dispatch. King’s family does not believe the teenagers should be held financially responsible. A grand jury did not indict the officer who killed King. [Bethany Bruner / Columbus Dispatch]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.

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