[Pnews] Can Police Opposition Overturn Parole Reform?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Mar 27 11:35:21 EDT 2018


  Can Police Opposition Overturn Parole Reform?

Victoria Law - March 27, 2018

On March 14*,* Herman Bell learned that after 45 years behind bars, he 
would soon be released from prison. The 70-year-old former Black Panther 
was convicted in the 1971 shooting deaths of two New York police 
Since 2004, he appeared before the state’s parole board 
<http://www.doccs.ny.gov/ParoleBoard.html> seven times; each time, he 
was denied parole because of the nature of his crime*.*

“There was nothing political about the act, as much as I thought at the 
time,” Bell said during his March 1 interview with the parole board. “It 
was murder and horribly wrong … It was horrible, something that I did, 
and feel great remorse for having done it.”

Though the parole board said that Bell’s crime “represents one of the 
most supreme assaults upon society,” two of the three commissioners 
nonetheless voted to grant Bell parole 
In their vote, they cited his age, near-perfect prison record, college 
degrees, wide network of supporters and, perhaps most significantly, a 
letter of support from Waverly Jones Jr., the son of one of the slain 
officers. “The simple answer is it would bring joy and peace as we have 
already forgiven Herman Bell publicly,” Jones wrote in his letter to the 
“On the other hand, to deny him parole again would cause us pain as we 
are reminded of the painful episode each time he appears before the board.”

Bell’s parole comes after years of advocacy by formerly incarcerated 
people, their family members, and activists to change the state’s parole 
process. In 2011, an executive law directed parole commissioners to 
assess a defendant’s probability of recidivating rather than basing a 
decision on the nature of the crime. But in the following years, 
commissioners continued to hold 10-minute hearings before denying parole 
based on the defendant’s crime rather than their rehabilitative efforts 
in prison. That’s what happened to 70-year-old John MacKenzie in 2016 
when he was denied parole during his 10th hearing; nine days later, he 
died by suicide 
becoming a symbol of what critics called a “broken” parole system 

Advocates, including formerly incarcerated people who faced multiple 
parole denials, have pushed to change the composition of the parole 
board. Because commissioners are appointed by New York’s governor for 
six-year terms, advocates pressed Governor Andrew Cuomo not to reappoint 
commissioners with punitive track records; they also urged him to 
appoint commissioners with backgrounds outside of law enforcement. 
(Potential commissioners must have a college degree and five years’ 
experience in criminal justice, sociology, law, social work, or medicine.)

Advocates also pushed for changes to parole regulations, which now 
require the board to issue individualized reasons for denial 

In June, Cuomo chose not to reappoint three commissioners 
and appointed six new commissioners. Since then, says Steve Zeidman, 
director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law, 
parole hearings last longer than 10 minutes, commissioners’ questions 
have focused more on the defendant’s rehabilitation, and release rates 
have increased. In the following months, parole approvals rose from 24 
percent to 37 percent. Two of these new commissioners served on Bell’s 
parole panel (though only one voted for his release).

Unsurprisingly, the decision to parole Bell has been blasted by the 
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD commissioner 
Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Diane Piagentini, the widow of the other 
slain officer in the case. The PBA, along with several Republican 
lawmakers, are demanding that Cuomo fire the commissioners 
who approved Bell’s parole. Cuomo’s office has not returned a request 
for comment about these demands.

And even though the parole board voted to grant Bell his freedom, they 
can still rescind his parole should information emerge that 
commissioners had not been presented. That’s what happened to 
58-year-old Shua’Aib A. Raheem who was sentenced to 25 years to life for 
a 1973 shooting in which one police officer was killed and two others 
wounded. In 2007, after Raheem was granted parole during his sixth 
hearing, the PBA fought to allow one of the injured officers and family 
members of the dead officer to submit victim impact statements. At a 
rescission hearing 
<http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ny-supreme-court/1501792.html>, the board 
rescinded his release. Raheem spent another three years in prison before 
being released on parole after another hearing in 2010.

Zeidman, however, cautions that such rescissions are rare; he told /In 
Justice Today/ that he can count the number of rescissions he’s seen in 
his 25-year career on one hand. Opponents can go to court to block 
Bell’s release, said Zeidman, but they are unlikely to find any relief. 
Indeed, in December 2017, the New York State Troopers’ Union filed a 
to block the release of 74-year-old John Ruzas, who had been imprisoned 
since 1975 for fatally shooting a state trooper and had been denied 
parole 10 times. The judge, however, dismissed the case and Ruzas was 
released that month.

Still, the backlash about the parole board’s vote on Bell — “Law 
Enforcement Rages Over Cop Killer’s Parole” blared a /New York Post/ 
the day of the decision — could influence its future decisions, 
particularly regarding defendants convicted of murder. “The intent 
behind the pressure is to make people afraid” of granting parole in 
controversial cases, Zeidman noted. He points to the fallout following 
the 2003 parole of Kathy Boudin 
a former Weather Underground member who participated in a 1981 robbery 
of a Brink’s truck that left a security guard and two police officers 
dead. The two commissioners who granted her freedom were not reappointed.

“It sends a message that, even if you follow the law, you’ll be fired if 
it’s an unpopular decision,” Bell’s attorney Bob Boyle told /In Justice 

Against the backdrop of such repercussions, “what the parole board did 
[in granting Bell parole] was courageous,” said criminal defense 
attorney Zeidman. “Most people would say that they just followed the 
law, and that’s true. But they haven’t been following the law before. 
And they knew that there was going to be this kind of backlash and this 
kind of attack.”

Waverly Jones Jr. wrote in a statement to the media that he, too, is 
concerned by the resistance parole commissioners have faced for their 
decisions. “Particularly upsetting is the attack on the Parole 
Commissioners who made the decision to release him,” Jones wrote. “The 
fact is that Mr. Bell has taken responsibility for his actions, has 
expressed genuine remorse, is 70 years-old*, *and has been in prison for 
45 years. In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and 

“There’s been a sea change,” reflected Zeidman. “Whether this [backlash] 
has the power to stop this in its tracks is what people are afraid of.”

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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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