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]