New York’s Broken Parole System
(by The Editorial Board, The New York Times, February 16, 2014, Link)
But how does society determine when someone is ready to take that step? This difficult job is entrusted to parole boards, which should weigh, among other things, a person’s behavior behind bars and the likelihood that he or she will not commit another offense if released.
In New York, the parole board rarely seem to consider these factors in any meaningful way, denying parole even to low-risk inmates with exemplary records in prison. Even after the state’s adoption of a new data-analysis program called Compas, to measure and predict inmates’ risk of reoffending using factors like an inmate’s education level, age when convicted and what sort of home he or she would return to, the board seems to follow the practices of an outdated era.
Inmates are repeatedly denied parole long after they have served their minimum sentence, not because of misbehavior or any concern for public safety but because of the “seriousness” of the original offense. As one former chairman of the board told The New York Law Journal last year, “If the Parole Board doesn’t like the crime, you are not going to get out.”
This attitude may be predictable from a body made up of political appointees, but that doesn’t make it just or protective of public safety.
In 2011, legislators amended the state law to require that the board consider a prisoner’s future along with his or her past. So far it hasn’t made much of a difference. While New York has reduced its overall prison population by more than 15,000 since 2000, release rates — the board granted just over one-third of the 16,000 applications it considered in 2012 — have actually gone down.
Prisoners’ rights advocates and those who have gone through the process — which involves a brief, often intimidating interview — say parole decisions are inconsistent and largely unrelated to what a person has accomplished while incarcerated. Recently, some state judges have been scrutinizing, and reversing, the board’s denials, which use boilerplate language and in some cases fail even to acknowledge an inmate’s Compas results.
In December, the board finally complied with the 2011 amendment by proposing new regulations to guide its work, but it continues to resist any meaningful change.
Its obstinacy is all the more lamentable because programs like Compas have been proved to work. At least 15 states have used similar data-based risk-assessment tools in recent years, with good results. A three-year study in New Jersey found that parolees were 36 percent less likely to return to prison for new crimes than inmates who served full sentences. The key was post-release supervision: parolees get it; those who “max out” do not.
The study also suggested reducing the number of parolees sent back to prison for technical violations, like a missed appointment or failed drug test. In New York, such violations account for three out of four parole revocations.
Lasting reform of New York’s parole system will require a fundamental reworking of both the board’s process and its culture. For low-risk inmates, early release into parole should be the default, and the board should have to articulate a good reason to keep them locked up.
If the board is worried that some parolees might commit new crimes, it could start by releasing older inmates, who represent one of the fastest-growing and most-expensive segments of the prison population and yet are by far the least likely to reoffend. (Elderly prisoners convicted of first-degree murder have among the lowest recidivism rates of all.)
For parole to have any value, it must serve as a meaningful incentive to personal growth and rehabilitation. “No one can ever change the past,” a prison chaplain wrote to the board last month. “But we don’t have to remain prisoners of it.”