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Changing Parole Boards Is One Step Toward Weakening Mass Incarceration

New York State shifts away from permanent punishment.

After recently voting to release former Black Panther Herman Bell, the New York State Parole Board has come under fire from law enforcement and some elected officials, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In addition to calling for the Board to reverse its decision so that Bell dies in prison, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) — the largest municipal police union in the world that represents thousands of New York Police Department officers — and some state elected officials are calling on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fire the commissioners who used their legal authority in favor of Bell’s release.

Beyond the case of Bell, PBA President Pat Lynch and New York State Assembly member Brian Kolb, the GOP minority leader, recently called for the removal of a newly appointed commissioner — who didn’t interview Bell — because of her connection to a formerly incarcerated loved one. Lynch stated, “There are completely misguided, unreasonable people sitting in judgment on these Parole Boards.”

The PBA and their allies express concern that the Board is changing: releasing more people and no longer catering to their #BlueLivesMatter agenda that calls for death in prison for people like Herman Bell, who have been convicted of killing police officers, regardless of their age, rehabilitation or current public safety risk. The truth is, the Board is indeed changing, and that is a good thing.

For decades, the Parole Board was almost exclusively comprised of people with law enforcement and prosecutorial backgrounds. This meant that years and decades after being detained, arrested and prosecuted, parole applicants were tasked with pleading for their freedom from the same people who put them in prison in the first place. Unsurprisingly, this was reflected in the Board’s release rates, which were nationally recognized as dismally low during Gov. George Pataki’s tenure and undoubtedly contributed to mass incarceration in New York.

In addition to their punitive professional backgrounds, commissioners’ personal backgrounds often differed greatly from those of incarcerated people. While the large majority of current and former parole applicants are people of color from New York’s biggest cities, commissioners were mostly white people from rural and suburban New York.

In June 2017, after community advocacy efforts, Governor Cuomo and the GOP-majority Senate appointed and confirmed six new parole commissioners with experience in social work, psychology and other professional backgrounds that allow them to better assess who a person is today and how they have changed over time. During the same period, Cuomo chose to not reappoint three of Board’s most punitive commissioners whose six-year terms had expired. Two additional commissioners resigned over the last year, both of whom were former prosecutors. Such changes — in addition to the modernization of the Board’s regulations that better assess parole applicants for release based on who they are today — have increased parole releases at no cost to public safety. New Yorkers should not only celebrate these changes, but also demand more from the governor and legislature.

Instead of firing commissioners who rightfully release people who pose no meaningful risk to public safety, the governor should remove those who haven’t evolved into the Board’s modern era. Cuomo doesn’t have the cause needed to fire those the PBA is quick to criticize, but he does have more than enough evidence to fire commissioners such as W. William Smith and Marc Coppola, who embody an obsolete “tough-on-crime” era that permanently punishes people in prison and their families.

In September 2016, Smith infamously defied a New York State judge’s contempt of court order that barred him from interviewing former parole candidate John MacKenzie. Smith sat on MacKenzie’s parole panel and denied parole to the 70-year-old, who had been denied on nine previous occasions after 40 years in prison. MacKenzie died by suicide just days later.

Commissioner Coppola’s conduct is similarly egregious and irresponsible. A December 2016 exposé by The New York Times documented Coppola complaining at a Parole Board monthly business meeting that he had trouble keeping track of which incarcerated person he was interviewing. The Times piece also highlighted that Sen. Patrick Gallivan — a former sheriff of Erie County and former Parole Board commissioner who is the current chair of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime, and Corrections — supported the appointment of Coppola, his former deputy sheriff.

It’s time for Governor Cuomo to fully embrace a positively trending Parole Board by firing commissioners Coppola and Smith, and fully staffing the Board to 19 commissioners who believe in individuals’ ability to transform.

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