Why Crime Victims Joined the Fight for Parole Justice in New York
Survivors’ needs and opinions vary—and many have not found justice when they turn to the criminal legal system.
On Feb. 22, the New York Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction passed the Fair and Timely Parole Act, which would require that the parole board grant release to an applicant unless there is a “a current and unreasonable risk” that the person will violate the law if released. It’s the first time since its introduction in May 2017 that the bill has gotten this far in the legislative process—and that happened in part because crime victims and incarcerated people joined forces to push for it.
The next day, Stanley Bellamy heard the news at Green Haven Correctional Facility, in Beekman, New York. “I felt ecstatic,” he told The Appeal. Other men at the prison asked what it meant, so Bellamy spent the day explaining the bill and the legislative process to his peers.
A couple weeks later, on March 9, the Assembly’s corrections committee passed its version of the bill, sending it to the codes committee. The Senate version is awaiting a full Senate vote.
Although there isn’t yet a date for either vote, the progress that the bill has made is the first success of the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice, an advocacy group that launched in January. The People’s Campaign emerged from a year of coalition building among criminal justice advocates, current and formerly incarcerated people, crime victims, and victim advocacy groups. Its goals include the passage of the Fair and Timely Parole Act as well as the Elder Parole Act, which would require a parole interview for people 55 and older who have served at least 15 years of their sentences. Bellamy, who has been in prison since 1987, is a core member of the People’s Campaign, and at age 58, he also fits the category of “elder” prisoners.
The People’s Campaign is both a response to the status quo of a faulty, racially biased parole process and to the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic. In New York, over 6,000 state prisoners have tested positive for the disease and 34 have died. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans to close three prisons this year; the men within will be transferred to other prisons, which will make social distancing even less possible. In 2020, New York’s parole board held 2,000 fewer parole hearings than the prior year, though the proportion of releases granted remained at around 46 percent of applicants. So far during the pandemic, Cuomo has granted only 12 commutations.
To many, crime victims and people incarcerated for violent crimes may seem like unlikely partners. But Luz Marquez, an advocate who works with abuse survivors and a member of the People’s Campaign, argues that these groups are precisely who ought to be involved in crafting policies. “We’re actually in the nucleus,” Marquez said. “What people don’t understand about crime is that things like child sexual abuse and sexual assault can lead someone into violence.”
For example, Marquez, who is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, noted that the mainstream movement to end violence against women is often used to justify denying people parole or other forms of release because of the violence they committed decades earlier. “What happened to me should not be used as an excuse for continuing to increase incarceration in the state of New York and across the country,” Marquez said.
What happened to me should not be used as an excuse for continuing to increase incarceration in the state of New York and across the country.Luz Marquez, Advocate, The People's Campaign
In 1987, Bellamy was sentenced to 62 and a half years to life after shooting two men, one fatally. In 1991, four years into his sentence, Bellamy was finally able to acknowledge what he’d done, recognize the devastation he caused for his victim’s family, and say the victim’s name. Facing a long sentence, Bellamy also vowed to use his time in prison to help other incarcerated people reflect on and take responsibility for the harms that they caused.
Jose Saldana, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1980, was also dedicated to this end. Saldana and Bellamy met in Sullivan Correctional Facility and worked together to develop and facilitate programs that challenged men to change both their values and behaviors, such as the Community Restorative Project and A Challenge to Change.
After Saldana was released on parole in 2018, he joined the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, first as a community organizer and then as its executive director, advocating for those he left behind. RAPP has been one of the main advocates for the Fair and Timely Parole bill and the Elder Parole Act, bringing together formerly and currently incarcerated people as well as their family members to lobby their legislators. Saldana invited Bellamy to join RAPP’s efforts, and he quickly became one of the group’s incarcerated leaders, relaying information about legislative and advocacy efforts to the men inside.
RAPP spent much of 2019 advocating for both bills. That year, the Fair and Timely Parole Act passed the Assembly’s corrections committee and the elder parole bill was passed by both Senate and Assembly committees. But both bills stalled in the next committees; legislators, reeling from the blowback from the 2019 bail reform law, chose not to consider them.
Saldana and other RAPP organizers realized that, as a small organization, they needed to build people power to pass these bills. They reached out to other organizations and advocates—including victim and survivor advocacy groups—to build a larger coalition to support parole justice. Saldana’s experience with developing programs to help incarcerated men recognize, take responsibility, and try to make amends for the harm they’ve caused others has prepared him for the task of working with survivors of violent crimes and advocacy groups for victims’ rights. The organizing efforts behind the People’s Campaign represent a striking example of disparate interest groups coming together for a common cause.
One of those organizations that joined the People’s Campaign is the Crime Victims’ Treatment Center, which works with New Yorkers who have survived violence, including violence that occurred in prison. Rachel Herzog is the coordinator of the center’s Prison Rape Elimination Act program, which provides services for sexual abuse victims in the state’s prisons. “There’s a narrative propagated that criminal justice reform is always in opposition to the needs of survivors of violence,” Herzog said. But in her work, she has found that survivors’ needs and opinions vary—and that many have not had their needs met when they turn to the criminal legal system.
Luz Marquez’s experience shows that crime victims are not a monolithic group only interested in revenge. As a child, Marquez felt hurt and betrayed when her older brother began sexually abusing her. But, not wanting him arrested or imprisoned, she did not report his actions to either her family or the legal system. “I never regretted not going to the criminal justice system,” she told The Appeal. It was the same system that she saw devastating the people in her Harlem community.
As an adult, Marquez became involved in organizing to end violence against women and, from years of organizing, knows that she’s not the only survivor who did not turn to the legal system to protect her from abuse. But, in a movement dominated by white women from more affluent communities, she has seen firsthand that voices like hers are often marginalized in mainstream anti-violence discussions. Women of color are rarely the faces of the anti-rape and anti-abuse movements; many become targets themselves of the criminal legal system.
“I want to use my voice to end further harm and abuse,” she said. She also identifies nearly lifelong sentences, such as Bellamy’s, as another form of violence and harm and wants to end the perception that survivors’ safety hinges on imprisoning people until they die.
Herzog and the Crime Victims’ Treatment Center also see parole as a potential accountability tool. The adversarial nature of the court process dissuades defendants from admitting, let alone taking responsibility for, the violence they inflicted. “Parole is one of the few places in our criminal justice system where that happens,” she said.
It is also an opportunity to shift funding from lifelong incarceration, which becomes more expensive as people age. During campaign meetings, Herzog and others from the treatment center share their experiences with victim advocacy—and victims’ needs, including financial and healing needs, that remain unmet by the criminal legal process, leading to discussions about how money could be diverted from incarceration to creating more services and resources for survivors.
“Many people advocating against criminal justice reform are claiming to speak for survivors,” said Herzog. The treatment center never claims to speak for all survivors, but in representing and raising the issues encountered through decades of work, the center’s advocates are “trying to complicate the narrative” that normally pits the two groups against each other.
That effort was evident during the People’s Campaign’s virtual rally in January, when Marquez spoke about being a survivor of child sexual abuse. Commenting in the Zoom chat box, others disclosed that they too had survived sexual violence and they supported parole justice because they did not believe that lifelong sentences equated safety. That chorus has led Marquez to organize a virtual Survivors’ Town Hall to examine survivors’ roles in parole justice efforts.
In prison, Stanley Bellamy is encouraged that the Fair and Timely Act has come this far. And he’s still actively working toward policy changes and to help his peers. Through weekly calls with advocates, he learns the latest news and then shares that information with the men around him, urging them to get their families involved. “I’m the kiosk,” he explained. “I get off the phone and they come plug into me for information.”
Even if the Fair and Timely Act is signed into law, Bellamy won’t be eligible for parole for another 27 years unless the Elder Parole Act also passes. “In four months and 17 days, I will turn 59,” he reflected in late February. “We have to believe people can change.”