Campaign targets state parole system reform

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Reform, rehabilitation and restoration of families and communities are just some of the goals for the Peoples Campaign for Parole Justice. The campaign hopes to see change soon, with the passage of two bills. 

In 2015, approximately two-thirds of individuals who appeared before the state parole board for an initial hearing were denied release, the New Yorkers United For Justice reports. The rate fell in 2018 to below 50 percent, but in 2020 parole denials jumped to 52 percent, despite the need to reduce the number of people in prisons in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Te’Ana Taylor, the policy and communications associate for Release Aging People in Prison, works diligently alongside the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice to raise awareness on the issues surrounding the parole system such as discrimination and racial bias as well as helping incarcerated people and their families have their voices heard. 

With the current system in place, Taylor says many families are left with little hope of seeing change in the parole justice system and of seeing their loved ones back home and in their communities. Hundreds of families are affected by the choices made by the parole board and are pushing for change. 

Created in 2020, the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice set out to de-carcerate New York and combat the crisis of aging and dying in prison. Its goal is to help make the parole system fair and transparent as well as to create change in the system to benefit incarcerated people so that they can rehabilitate and re-enter their communities. 

The People’s Campaign—with the support of more than 300 organizations, with 17 of them a part of the coalition—is hoping to pass two legislative bills: the Elder Parole Bill and Fair and Timely Parole Bill

The Fair and Timely Parole Bill would require the parole board commissioners to look at a person holistically when determining if they can be released on parole supervision. The Elder Parole Bill would allow incarcerated people who are 55 years or older and have done at least 15 years of their sentence to be eligible for a parole board review. Working work hand in hand, both bills would help people in prison get meaningful parole board reviews and a real chance of integrating back into their communities. 

“The point of parole is to see if people are fit to be released; instead, (parole board commissioners) have transformed into a resentencing body where they are extending people’s sentencing by years and sometimes decades,” Taylor says.

Often, incarcerated men and women are left to rehabilitate themselves while serving their time. Many earn degrees, and mentor other young, incarcerated people to ensure they do not continue down the path of criminality and violence, creating careers and movements all behind bars, proving to be influential and positive forces in their communities. 

“Some of these people have created whole programs to face the crisis of AIDS behind bars, some of these people have come up with anti-violence programs, some of these people have come up with gun buyback programs. So, they’re actually taking guns off the street while inside of prison and they have done it while they have been incarcerated,” Taylor says. “A lot of these men and women have jobs lined up, they are ready to be released, they gave gotten degrees and created careers for themselves.”

NYUJ maintains the parole board has been historically understaffed and often fails to meet demands due to high caseloads. As of December 2020, there were only 16 sitting parole board commissioners.

“When the board is fully staffed, each commissioner oversees an average of 526 cases per year,” NYUJ states. “In reality, each board member can take on upwards of 1,000 cases per year.”

Understaffed and overwhelmed, parole board members aren’t able to efficiently go through their caseloads, leaving incarcerated people waiting longer for a chance to advocate for themselves. 

“With these extremely long sentences that people are getting it doesn’t allow for a person’s redemption or rehabilitation to be considered and so the Elder Parole and Fair and Timely (bills) work to end some of that racism that is keeping Black and brown folk locked up for a disproportionate amount of time,” Taylor adds.

The two bills would ensure that a person’s accomplishments, and not just the color of their skin or the nature of their crime, would be used to determine their eligibility for parole. The People’s Campaign hopes to get these bills passed in the Legislature this month.

Taylor has a personal connection to this fight. For 17 years, her father has been incarcerated and he goes before the parole board soon. Currently obtaining his second degree, he has dedicated his life to rehabilitating himself and trying to do better for his children and his community by making combating violence in their community a priority in his life. 

“For me, the fairly and timely parole bill gives me hope that my father will be released when he deserves to be released,” Taylor says. “That my father will be looked at for who is he is today when he goes before the parole board and not solely the nature of his crime.”

She adds: “I’ve been wishing and hoping that he would be able to just be here physically with me for years. For me, my hope is that the legislators and lawmakers do what’s right and they pass these bills this session and that Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo does what’s right and signs the bill and that I’ll get to see my father free.” 

Johairy Delacruz is a freelance writer.

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