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