[Pnews] Will Albany Give Older NY Prisoners A Chance At Freedom?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 15 12:16:42 EST 2020


  Will Albany Give Older NY Prisoners A Chance At Freedom?

By Victoria Law - January 15, 2020

Theresa and her husband Morris have been together for 45 years, 11 of 
them married. She’s known Morris since early childhood and has stuck by 
him through multiple arrests and prison sentences, as well as his crack 
cocaine addiction. For the last 14 years Morris has been in prison, 
stemming from his participation in a group robbery, which included an 
assault and led to charges of attempted murder and a 40-year sentence.

“My husband is a very different man [than he was 14 years ago],” Theresa 
told Gothamist. (Theresa asked that the couple only be identified by 
their first names to prevent retaliation from prison officials.)

Morris is now drug-free and a grandfather. He has completed various 
programs in anger management, substance use and violence prevention. “I 
don’t see the person I used to see in the ‘80s and ‘70s,” Theresa noted. 
“He no longer talks about ripping and roaring in the streets, his old 
friends, getting back with them. He wants to go back to church—he was a 
church boy [before]. He wants to sit at home and get to know his 
grandchildren, repair his relationship with his daughters.”

Morris, who is 65 years old and will not be released until age 91, is 
one of 354 people In New York who are serving what’s known as a “virtual 
life sentence,” or a sentence that will likely exceed his lifespan.

New York has the nation's eighth highest rate of people serving life 
sentences. This includes 291 people serving life without parole 
meaning that they cannot appear before the parole board, regardless of 
their behavior or rehabilitative efforts in prison. Another 8,625 people 
have prison sentences that can last as long as their lifespans 
(such as 20 to life, 40 to life, 75 to life).

In 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the creation of an Executive 
Clemency Review Board 
<http://gothamist.com/2018/08/06/cuomo_clemency_roy_bolus.php>, which 
would identify people eligible for commutation, or a shortening of their 
prison sentence. (The other form of clemency is a pardon, usually 
granted after a person has served their prison sentence, which expunges 
a person’s criminal history.)

But Cuomo hasn’t given much hope to the families of those serving 
decades-long prison sentences.

In 2019, Cuomo’s office granted no commutations. On Friday, January 3, 
2020, Cuomo granted two commutations 
bringing his total commutations to 21 during his nine years in office.

For Theresa and other family members of the nearly 10,000 people serving 
decades-long, if not life, sentences in New York's prisons, that's far 
from enough. They're advocating for legislative changes that would 
enable their loved ones to appear before the parole board sooner, 
demonstrate their transformation, and get an opportunity for an earlier 

One of those measures is the Elder Parole Act 
(A9040/S2144), which would require an immediate parole interview for 
people ages 55 and older who have served at least 15 years of their 
sentence. The Act does not require the parole board to approve a 
release, just grant the interview.

If passed, Morris would need to wait just one year, rather than two and 
a half decades, before appearing before the parole board.

“This is part of an ongoing understanding that older New Yorkers are not 
a danger to the community,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, the lead 
sponsor of the Senate bill. “I believe that rehabilitation is not only 
possible, but a value of our penal system. When you keep 10,000 New 
Yorkers in prison until they die, that’s death by incarceration.”

That’s not the only change that Theresa and other advocates are fighting 
for. They also want to change the way that parole commissioners consider 
an applicant.

Parole commissioners frequently give more consideration to the nature of 
the initial crime than to a person’s rehabilitative efforts in the 
ensuing years. That’s what happened to John Mackenzie, who spent 41 
years in prison after being found guilty of fatally shooting a police 
officer in 1975 
Shortly after the parole board denied Mackenzie for a tenth time, citing 
the nature of his crime, Mackenzie died by suicide at age 70 

Under the Fair and Timely Parole Act 
<https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/s497>, commissioners 
would have to evaluate an applicant based on their rehabilitative 
efforts rather than the crime that they were convicted of. If passed, 
that would mean that commissioners would consider Morris’s efforts at 
rehabilitation and transformation, not solely by his actions 14 years 

That’s the chance that Roslyn Smith received in 2018. Smith and her 
co-defendant Valerie Gaiter had been the state’s longest-serving women 
prisoners. In 1979, Smith, then age 17, and Gaiter, age 21, were 
sentenced to 50 years to life for the robbery and fatal stabbing of an 
elderly couple in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

“I did a lot of work inside,” Smith, now in her fifties, reflected. “I 
did a lot of therapy and groups.” While in prison, she wrote a letter to 
the daughter of her victims. “When you commit a violent crime, you have 
to take responsibility for it. You took somebody’s life or harmed them 
in some way that disrupted their life. You have to understand the harm 
that you caused.”

In 2018, after 39 years in prison, Smith was resentenced to 25 years to 
life. She appeared before the parole board and was released that 
October. Now, she wants others to have that same opportunity. “You need 
to look at the whole person, not just the crime,” said Smith. “See if 
that person has changed their life around. A lot of times, in the 
criminal justice system, we’re defined by that one act.”

Gaiter, however, did not have that opportunity. In August 2019, four 
years after Cuomo had denied her request for clemency and 10 years 
before becoming eligible to appear before the parole board, she died at 
age 61 
Gaiter’s death saddened and outraged Smith, pushing her to become 
involved with parole justice efforts.

Smith acknowledged that the bills have an uphill battle given the 
backlash against the state's new bail reforms 
that passed last year. “It’s a hard call. You’re talking about people 
who have been convicted already. ‘Lock them up and throw away the key,’ 
that’s what everybody thinks,” Smith said.

Jose Saldana, director of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) 
campaign <http://rappcampaign.com/>, is more optimistic. Saldana was 
also denied parole based on the nature of his crime -- attempted murder 
of a police sergeant 
-- four times, but was released after 38 years in prison at his fifth 
parole hearing 

“The community is behind us,” Saldana told Gothamist. “We’re hoping to 
create a real critical voting bloc that will move the dial somewhat 
because, right now, our elected officials aren’t representing their 
communities. They’re being influenced by special interest groups like 
the PBA.”

The Police Benevolent Association (PBA) has long opposed parole reforms 
and lobbied its members to oppose parole for those convicted in the 
deaths of police officers 
The PBA did not immediately respond to Gothamist’s request for comment, 
but in 2019, PBA president Pat Lynch told City Limits 
“Aside from the fact that today, 55 years old does not qualify as 
‘geriatric’ in anyone’s book, the concept of parole based upon age is 
devastatingly flawed on several levels.” Lynch pointed to two studies on 
recidivism, but neither study focused on people over age 55, the 
population that would be eligible under Elder Parole.

On Tuesday, Saldana and other advocates brought 500 family members and 
other advocates to Albany to press their legislators to co-sponsor and 
vote for these two bills.

Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents Harlem where Theresa lives, does 
not believe in locking up and throwing away the key. He co-sponsored the 
Fair and Timely Parole Act, but told Gothamist that he does not support 
the Elder Parole Act as it is currently written.

“I support the premise,” he explained. “There are a number of folks, 
including this woman’s husband [referring to Morris], who deserve 
consideration after 15 years.” But he’s concerned that people convicted 
of sexual offenses, including sexual offenses against children, would be 
eligible for parole consideration after 15 years. “For me, that’s a big 
stickler. I have concerns about the Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein 
types. I don’t think those folks should be included.”

Melissa Tanis, one of Benjamin’s constituents and a RAPP member, 
disagrees. “It’s a /chance/ of release,” she pointed out. “It’s not an 
automatic granting of parole. Every single person still has to go 
through a process. It’s just giving more people that opportunity.”

Tanis’s own father died in a Kentucky prison at age 56; he had been 
convicted of multiple sex offenses and had already served 22 years. 
During his last weeks, there were no visits or calls because he was 
physically unable to make it to the visiting room or to the phones. But 
because of his conviction, she said, he was unable to apply for medical 
parole or compassionate release, which would have enabled him to spend 
his last days with his family. By that point, said Tanis, “it was not a 
matter of what crime he committed. If they let him come home, he wasn’t 
going to run and commit another crime again.”

Tanis has also been on the other side of sexual violence. “I have had to 
wrestle with being the victim of sexual harm, been friends with victims 
and the daughter of someone who has caused sexual harm to other people,” 
she said. “Yes, I think people should be held accountable when they 
cause harm.” But, she continues, the bill should not exclude them from 
the chance at parole consideration.

That sentiment is shared by some victim organizations 
including the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the 
Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims, and STEPS to End Family Violence, 
who co-signed a letter to legislative leaders in October urging them to 
pass the Elder Parole Act.

Hoylman noted that recidivism rates for older people are less than 10 
percent <https://osc.state.ny.us/reports/aging-inmates.pdf> (with nine 
percent for parole violations, not new crimes). The Senate bill already 
has 14 co-sponsors and he plans to speak with colleagues and others 
about their concerns during the upcoming session.

Assembly Member Carmen De La Rosa, lead sponsor of the Assembly version 
of the Elder Parole Act 
<https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/a9040>, shares 
Hoylman’s and Saldana’s optimism. “Last year, we didn’t know if bail 
reform would pass,” she said. But advocates and supporting legislators 
continued to press, garnering the votes needed to pass and, ultimately, 
the governor’s signature. “I don’t think the momentum will die from the 
progressive members of our chamber.”

As for whether the governor might eventually get on board, she replied, 
“I think there’s some willingness to listen.” (Cuomo’s office has not 
yet responded to our request for comment.)

At the same time, De La Rosa is under no illusion that Elder Parole will 
be an easy bill to pass. “Bail reform took years to come to fruition,” 
she pointed out. “We have to continue to push the conversation and 
change the narrative about people languishing in prison.”

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