Parole reform aims to put a stop to a ‘culture of punishment’
With historic criminal justice reforms set to sweep across New York State in January, advocates and formerly incarcerated people gathered in lower Manhattan on Tuesday to call on the state legislature to pass two bills that would reform the state’s parole system.
The advocates — with Release Aging People in Prison and the Parole Preparation Project — demanded that New York lawmakers pass the Fair and Timely Parole bill as well as the Elder Parole bill. The first bill changes the standard of parole, centering release not on the original crime but on the person’s rehabilitation while incarcerated. The second bill would allow any 55 year-old who has served at least 15 years in prison to come before the parole board — no matter the length of their sentence.
“Men and women in New York State’s prison system are growing old, sick and dying because of the culture of punishment perpetuated by the New York State Parole Board,” said Jose Saldana, who served 38 years in prison for attempted murder and now runs the RAPP campaign. Saldana himself was recently released on parole .
“The Fair and Timely Parole would establish that [the Parole Board] must consider the person that is appearing before them today.”
Both of the bills were before the State Senate and Assembly during the 2019 session, when bail reform and discovery reform passed, but neither of the parole bills made it to the floor of either chamber for a full vote.
“As it stands now, up to 10,000 New Yorkers who are elder are incarcerated,” said State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who sponsors the elder parole bill in the State Senate. “In effect, our system is death by incarceration. So many of these men and women will never see the light of day based on our parole system.”
Parole reform could impact Brooklyn especially, as the borough makes up nearly 20 percent of the state’s prisoners serving life or virtual life sentences.
“The justice system is broken, and right now my husband has been missing 15 Christmases,” said East Flatbush resident Emmanuella Pierre, whose Canarsie husband is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder.
“I’m hoping that when he is up for parole that these bills have been signed that he can be judged on what he has accomplished while he is serving his time,” she said. “He is changed. He deserves to be judged by the person he is today not when his alleged crime was committed.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez threw his support behind elder parole last session — while Queens and Staten Island prosecutors panned the bill as “outrageous and idiotic,” according to the New York Post.
Former Parole Board Commissioner Carol Shapiro — who was one of the commissioners who voted to parole Saldana — joined the advocates Tuesday, calling the two bills “imperative.”
“We have to understand what the purpose of parole is… Our focus must be: are you prepared to go home? What are you proudest of that you’ve accomplished while in custody?” Shapiro said. “We have an addiction to punishment in this country, and New York is certainly part of that.”
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