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Parole Remains Unfixed

The heady days of George Floyd protests and progressive prosecutors brought a number of “reforms,” most of which have proven, as expected, to be simplistic, misguided and unsustainable. It wasn’t enough to be filled with passion, but to also think long and hard about what would work and what was based on shallow fantasies. Granted, some changes have been important, like holding cops criminally culpable for the commission of crimes, something that almost never happened before. Others have wrought more crime and suffering, despite the good intentions.

But one reform that was desperately needed but received little attention was parole reform, the routine denial of parole to prisoners who had been sentenced for their crime to an indeterminate sentenced of imprisonment with a minimum, after which they would be eligible for parole, and a maximum sentence of life. Life in prison is the slow death penalty.

Scientists have found that most cells in our bodies regenerate every seven to 10 years, on average. This includes certain cells in the heart and brain. Can we assume, then, that our moral and emotional compasses are also capable of transforming over time?

With this unfortunately flawed non sequitur, former New York State parole commissioner Barbara Hanson Treen raises the important issue that so few have thought about and even fewer have considered worthy of addressing.

When I was a commissioner, from 1984 to 1996, it was unusual for me to meet a parole candidate over the age of 50. Now there are more than 7,500 incarcerated people age 50 or older in New York, or about 25 percent of the state prison population. In fact, from 2008 to 2021, the overall prison population declined by half, yet the population age 50 or older increased, with ballooning health care costs crowding out other budget priorities. The state spends $100,000 to $240,000 on incarcerated people who are 55 or older, according to one of the reform measures before the State Legislature; for others, the figure is about $60,000.

The indeterminate sentencing structure in New York for serious crimes would include a minimum sentence with a max of life. For example, murder would carry a sentence ranging from 15 year to 25 years minimum, after which a defendant could be granted parole, and life should parole be denied. It would be up to the sentencing judge to determine where, between 15 years and 25 years, the defendant’s parole eligibility began.

This is not to say that every defendant who completes his minimum sentence should be paroled. Some will not be capable of re-entering society without harming others. No, the generative cells have nothing to do with it. Some are just bad dudes, and will always be bad dudes. There may be a list of reasons why they’re bad dudes, but the person on the other end of their club doesn’t really care and deserves not to be beaten to death because their killer had a terrible life.

But many are decades past their criminal years. Many have used their time inside to change their evil ways, to become very different people than when they entered. They pose no threat to anyone and have “paid their debt to society,” They are elderly. They are sick. They can no longer take care of themselves in prison and prisons are extremely bad at taking care of them. They are very expensive to keep in prison, particularly when there is no good reason to do so. Yet, there they remain.

Why? Because parole board appointees have decided, based upon the original crime for which they were sentenced and for which a judge decided on a minimum sentence after which they would be eligible for parole, that the punishment wasn’t harsh enough. Sure, 25 years is a very, very long time, but not if you’re a parole commissioner who first considers the crime 25 years after a judge imposed sentence.

Who should be released on parole? The parole board is supposed to consider the transformation the applicant has undergone in prison, the risk he or she would pose if released, any statement made by the victim or the victim’s representative and the seriousness of the offense. As a commissioner, I considered applicants’ prison records, their truthfulness when answering difficult questions such as what insights they gained into why they committed their crimes and what they have done to address those underlying issues. I even assessed body language. Most of all, I looked for credibility. Could I be confident in this person’s intention to safely and successfully re-enter society? To be sure, I met people every day who were not ready to be released. Whether they would ever make the changes inside to become ready was up to them.

By definition, prisoners have already been sentenced by a judge who heard their case, heard argument on sentence and, while the crime was fresh in mind, imposed sentence. The proper role of parole commissions, a political appointee whose decision is unreviewable, is not to pass judgment on the judge, on whether the original sentence was harsh enough, but on what the prisoner has done since sentence.

Parole provides an incentive to do better, to learn, to correct behaviors and attitudes and to change so that some day, a prisoner can return to society as a law abiding citizen. Somehow, that got lost in the sauce of sexier reforms that those of us who toiled in the trenches knew would fail. But for all the passion of the ignoratti in the streets, nobody paid much attention to the old folks in prison and why they were still held long past their parole date. This was a reform that was desperately needed, but was never cool enough to happen.

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