ALBANY — Proponents of a pair of bills that would overhaul the state’s parole system renewed their push for change Wednesday as lawmakers held a hearing on the measures.
Advocates are pushing for the passage of Elder Parole and the Fair & Timely Parole, two long-sought measures that would streamline the parole process and make it easier for older inmates to become eligible for release.
“This is a matter of life and death. We can talk about bills and statistics. I work with many people who are facing death by incarceration,” said Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY Law School. “With thousands of people facing life sentences, New York State is an epicenter of the crisis of mass incarceration.”
According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, more than 4,700 people in state prisons are considered older adults, meaning they are 55 or older.
The Elder Parole bill would allow the State Board of Parole to conduct an evaluation for potential release for incarcerated people aged 55 and older who have already served 15 or more years.
“Long prison sentences without a meaningful chance for parole don’t keep New Yorkers safer or deter crime,” said bill sponsor Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan). “This reality is especially egregious for New York’s elder prison population, which has tripled since 2008.”
Last year, the Vera Institute of Justice reported its review of 168 Parole Board hearing transcripts showed that most people who come before the board show significant signs of rehabilitation.
Roughly 10,000 people a year appear before the Parole Board. About 60% of those people are denied parole.
In roughly 90% of those denials, the Vera report said, the board refuses parole at least in part based on the original crime or vague concerns about public safety.
Fair and Timely Parole, would change the standards of parole, centering release on a person’s rehabilitation while incarcerated, not on the original crime.
Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), lead sponsor of the bill, said the measures have broad support and would make a significant difference for those who have rehabilitated themselves behind bars.
“The Fair & Timely Parole and Elder Parole bills are necessary steps toward creating a system of justice that values human transformation, redemption, and the dignity of all people, and one that will put an end to intergenerational incarceration, bring families together, and empower communities,” she said.
Backers of the bills argue that passage when lawmakers return to Albany in January would be especially important for minority communities since the overwhelming majority of prisoners in New York are Black or Latino.
“The biggest threat to public safety in New York State is the double standard of justice,” said Jose Saldana, director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign. “One standard of justice prioritizes compassion for the rich and those in power. The other standard prioritizes revenge and perpetual punishment for Black, Latinx, and poor people.
“This latter standard is what perpetuates poverty and other inequities in our society, which in turn create the conditions for violence and insecurity,” he added.
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