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The importance of who sits on parole boards


What you’ll read today 

  • Spotlight: The importance of who sits on parole boards

  • It is now even harder for trafficking survivors to get visas

  • Notoriously brutal, racist plainclothes policing makes a return in Baltimore

  • Justice in America Episode 5: Excluded from democracy

  • Judge who jailed woman for eating in courtroom resigns

  • Police officer who fatally shot a woman with mental illness is suspended for one week

  • Oklahoma lawmaker calls for new hearing for man on death row

In the Spotlight

The importance of who sits on parole boards

A report published this month describes major problems with the staffing and performance of the New York State Parole Board. Every year, the board considers around 12,000 people for release. It rejects the vast majority of them, consigning thousands of people eligible for release to more time in prison. [Release Aging People in Prison and Parole Preparation Project]

The report, from the Parole Preparation Project and the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, points to “staffing issues of catastrophic proportions” that make it impossible for the board to do its work effectively. By law, the governor is permitted to appoint up to 19 members. Currently, the board only has 12. The result is an enormous workload leading to unprepared commissioners, rushed hearings, frequent postponements, and frequent two-person (rather than three-person) panels, which too often lead to no decision and cause delays. [Reuven Blau and Stephen Rex Brown / Daily News]

The document also highlights the unprofessional and illegal conduct of two of the 12 commissioners and calls for their removal by the governor. One of them, W. William Smith, is known to berate, mock, and humiliate the parole applicants who appear before him. He routinely votes against release, based exclusively on people’s original crimes of convictions, which advocates say is in violation of parole board guidelines and the law.  [Release Aging People in Prison and Parole Preparation Project]

The report also points to the political donations and connections that contributed to the commissioners’ appointments, including the nearly $17,000 that Smith donated to the campaigns of the state senator who leads the committee that holds confirmation hearings for commissioners. [Reuven Blau and Stephen Rex Brown / Daily News] A 2016 New York Times investigation into how racism affects the parole process described state Senate confirmation hearings, saying, “These hearings sometimes sound like reunions of upstate law enforcement veterans.” [Michael Winerip, Michael Schwirtz, and Robert Gebeloff / New York Times]

Across the country, critics of how parole operates have expressed disquiet about the background of parole board members and how this might affect their decisions to release people. In Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2015, how the parole board had “become a plum place for former lawmakers to land since term limits went into place.” [Jesse Bogan / St. Louis Post-Dispatch] This year, the editorial board of the Star-Ledger, in an editorial calling for parole reforms, described how New Jersey’s parole board has become a “patronage pit” to which former Governor Chris Christie had once appointed his chiropractor. [Star-Ledger Editorial Board] All too often, boards are dominated by those with law enforcement backgrounds. In Illinois, where the board is responsible for making parole decisions for a small number of parole-eligible people in prison rarely grants release, its membership is dominated by former police officers and prosecutors. [Emily Hoerner and Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch]

Despite recent changes to parole board guidelines in New York, commissioners routinely base their decisions solely on the nature of a person’s convictions, ignoring years or even decades of evidence of rehabilitation and remarkable accomplishment. New York has an unusually high proportion of people with life sentences in prison—over 18 percent. [Sentencing Project] It also has an aging prison population: 20 percent of the people incarcerated in New York State are over 50. [Osborne Association]

Thanks to vigorous advocacy, there have been some positive developments over the past year. In September 2017, the parole board issued revised guidelines that the report says “require the board to be more detailed, thorough, and fair in their decisions.” Advocates have also been partially successful in changing the composition of the board. And release rates have improved since last September: An informal analysis shows them at 37 percent now, including for people serving life with parole sentences, up from 24 percent. [Release Aging People in Prison and Parole Preparation Project]

New York is far from alone in needing significant parole board improvements. A 2015 investigation by the Marshall Project and Washington Post looked at the functioning of such boards across the country. A revision of the Model Penal Code that year concluded that the boards were “failed institutions.” [Beth Schwartzapfel / Marshall Project and Washington Post]

Nationwide, parole boards are highly risk averse. It was not always so. In 1981, the median time served for people convicted of murder was five years. As with so much else, everything changed in the 1990s. For example, in the early 1990s, New York’s parole board voted for release in over 60 percent of the cases it considered. This release rate went into rapid decline over the next two decades, and was under 20 percent in 2010. In that pro-incarceration era, the Michigan parole board celebrated its transformation into “a Parole Board that is much less willing to release criminals who complete their minimum sentences—and much less willing to release criminals at all, forcing many to serve their maximum sentences.” [Beth Schwartzapfel / Marshall Project and Washington Post]

A countrywide review also revealed crushing workloads. A 2008 survey of parole boards revealed that the average state board considered 8,355 people for release each year. [Beth Schwartzapfel / Marshall Project and Washington Post] Yet this was still lower than the 12,000 cases on average that the New York parole board considers each year. [Release Aging People in Prison and Parole Preparation Project]

Stories From The Appeal

Activists protest President Trump’s immigration policies. [Spencer Platt/Getty Images]               

It Is Now Even Harder for Trafficking Survivors to Get Visas. Local advocates are struggling with a new immigration memo that makes it more difficult to support these survivors. [Melissa Gira Grant]

Notoriously Brutal, Racist Plainclothes Policing Makes a Return in Baltimore. After the Gun Trace Task Force scandal rocked the police department, plainclothes policing was spurned. But a recently resigned commissioner championed plainclothes units, a decision the department seems to be sticking with. [Larry Smith]

Justice in America Episode 5: Excluded From Democracy. A deep dive into the history and future of disenfranchising people who have been convicted of felonies. [Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith]

Stories From Around the Country

Judge who jailed woman for eating in courtroom resigns: In 2015, an Oklahoma judge sent a woman to jail on $50,000 bond for contempt of court for eating sunflower seeds in the courtroom. He released her four days later only after she said “she had learned her lesson.” Since 2016, elected district court Judge Curtis DeLapp jailed more than 200 people for contempt of court, according to a petition that the chief judge of the state’s highest court filed, seeking DeLapp’s removal. The petition alleged that DeLapp ignored people’s right to due process, violated Oklahoma’s code of judicial conduct, abused his position, and falsified court documents.  DeLapp, who was a district attorney before he became a judge in 2003, chose to resign rather than go on trial before the state’s judiciary court on Oct. 15. [Antonia Noori Farzan / Washington Post]

San Antonio police officer who fatally shot a woman with mental illness during a ‘welfare check’ is suspended for one week: Officer Crystal Estrada went to Kristen Kloppe’s home in January in response to a call from Kloppe claiming that she was being stalked. While there, Estrada announced that she would place Kloppe in custody for “emergency detention,” leading to Kloppe barricading herself in a closet with a handgun. Estrada forced the door open and shot and killed Kloppe in what police say was a struggle to disarm Kloppe. The only discipline Estrada has faced is a weeklong suspension for breaches of protocol, down from a monthlong suspension that was shortened to conform with the police union’s collective bargaining agreement. [Fares Sabawi / mySanAntonio.com]

Oklahoma lawmaker calls for new hearing for man on death row: In 1999, 19-year old Julius Jones was charged with murder. Jones was sentenced to death after a trial that featured the testimony of longtime police informants turned state witness, whose identity and resulting favorable treatment the prosecutor did not disclose. During Jones’s trial, the judge did nothing after a juror disclosed that another juror, using the N-word,  had told her that the trial was a waste of time and they should take Jones out and “shoot him behind the jail.” George Young, a state representative, calls on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to grant Jones a hearing “on whether the juror’s use of the N-word infected the trial.” He writes: “For the public’s faith in the criminal justice system, to show the courts aren’t complacent about racism in a juror, and to make sure an innocent person isn’t executed, Mr. Jones needs a new day in court.” [George Young / Tulsa World]

Clarification: An article in Tuesday’s newsletter misstated Cynthia Nixon’s endorsement by the Democratic Socialists of America in her campaign for New York governor. Nixon was endorsed by the New York City chapter of the DSA, not the national electoral committee of the DSA.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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