[Pnews] Why should we keep murderers in prison until they die?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Mar 20 12:25:48 EDT 2018


  Why should we keep murderers in prison until they die?

By Bruce Western Bernard E. Harcourt - March 20, 2018

The New York state parole board has come under fire last week for 
granting release to Herman Bell , who was convicted of the murder of two 
police officers, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini, in Harlem in 1971. 
Bell had been sentenced to 25 years to life and is now scheduled for 
release from prison at age 70, nearly 50 years after the crime.

Bell’s release could come as early as April and follows seven earlier 
applications for parole. His latest, successful, application follows 
policy changes last year that express a shift in philosophy whose merits 
should not be lost in the fraught conversation about this particular case.

For many years, two considerations determined parole release in New 
York: the seriousness of the original crime and the parole applicant’s 
criminal history. People who had committed serious crimes and were 
convicted of very long sentences were seldom released. New York’s prison 
system became home to a growing number of old men who had committed 
crimes decades earlier, in their 20s.

Last September, the parole board adopted new rules that look forward 
rather than backward. Instead of considering only past crimes, the board 
now also considers the institutional record of the inmate, including 
their academic achievements or vocational training, the reentry plan for 
transition back into the community and the risk a person might pose if 
released from incarceration.

The seriousness of the original crime and criminal history are still 
factors to consider, but they are now weighed alongside the chances of a 
successful return to society.

For many years, our only response to violence was harsh punishment 
embodied in long prison sentences. From the early 1970s, when Bell 
committed his crimes, until today, the incarceration rate has grown 
fivefold; the United States now has the world’s largest prison 
population. Increased sentences for violent offenses — mostly murder, 
robbery and rape — account for about a third of the historic increase in 
the scale of the penal system.

Just as the problem of violence was most serious in disadvantaged 
communities, most of the increase in incarceration has been concentrated 
among low-income black and Latino men. Which is to say, all the weight 
of criminal punishment and the disruptions of long terms of 
incarceration has been focused on those with the fewest resources.

Very long sentences, common in the United States, are almost unknown in 
other Western democracies. While tens of thousands of people in U.S. 
prisons are serving life-without-parole-sentences and will never be 
released, so-called natural life sentences in Europe number about a dozen.

In Bell’s case, 40-plus years of hard time should not be considered a 
light sentence. In most civilized countries, it would amount to extreme 
punishment. When Bell went to prison, there were no personal computers 
or cell phones. Walter Cronkite was the anchorman for the “CBS Evening 
News” — and that’s how we got our news. A whole universe of time has 
passed since then.

New York’s new parole rules bring the state more into line with 
international standards and acknowledge a reality uncovered by 
criminologists. Criminal offending declines with age, and virtually all 
people convicted of crimes ultimately cease their involvement in crime 
at some point in their lives. With very long prison sentences, we 
inevitably incarcerate people who pose no risk to society.

Just as important as the research evidence, the new parole rules 
acknowledge that unending terms of incarceration do too little to heal 
the pain of communities and families harmed by serious violence. The new 
parole rules express a belief that debts can be paid, and those who have 
caused terrible pain to others, like Bell, are nevertheless worthy of 

The state’s parole board has an unquestionably difficult job, and that 
is why its decisions are guided by sensible and transparent principles. 
Politicizing its work undercuts its ability to play its required role in 
the administration of justice. To second-guess the parole board is 
unfair to the men and women who are tasked with such a weighty 

By following its rules in this most difficult of cases, the parole board 
has taken one step towards an important new principle of justice and has 
chosen a vision of re-integration and inclusion over lifelong exclusion 
and incarceration.

/Western is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal 
Justice Policy at Harvard University and the co-director of the Justice 
Lab at Columbia University. Harcourt is the Isidor and Seville 
Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and 
director of the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights 
at Columbia University./

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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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