Advocates, Lawmakers Hope To Reform Parole In 2021 Session

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ALBANY, NY (WSKG) – Criminal justice advocates say they hope to build on victories in recent weeks, like the legalization of marijuana, to gain more reforms for Black and Brown New Yorkers who are incarcerated at higher rates than white residents.

Advocates and progressive-leaning Democratic lawmakers hope that, in the remaining weeks of the legislative session, they can also see passage of measures that reform the state’s parole system.

Auburn Correctional Facility. CREDIT SOLVEJG WASTVEDT / WSKG NEWS

One of the bills, known as Elder Parole, would require the state’s parole board to take into account the health of a prisoner aged 55 or older who has already served a significant amount of their sentence.

Many of the 10,000 or so inmates in this category suffer from chronic diseases, and some have died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nawanna Tucker is with the group Release Aging People from Prison, known as RAPP. Her husband has been incarcerated for 33 years. She said that, at age 55, he deserves a chance to be home with his family.

“My husband has two children of his own,” Tucker said. “Two grandchildren he has never met.”

Tucker’s husband was convicted of weapons possession, robbery, and murder in the 2nd degree. He pled innocent and is trying to overturn his case in court.

Tucker and others say the state’s criminal justice system should also offer a chance of redemption for those who have served their time.

“When the parole board in the State of New York does not grant the paroles that so many deserve, and you allow them to die in prisons, you have now become a murderer yourself,” Tucker said. “This has to stop.”

Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa, D-Manhattan, sponsors the bill. She said she represents a community adversely affected by the federal war on drugs and the state’s former harsh Rockefeller Drug laws.

Many of the men she grew up with are now serving long prison terms because of those laws, she said.

“When they get before the parole board, they are not judged based on any transformation or any system of restoration,” De La Rosa said. “They are judged, basically, on one point in time that they can never change.”

Another bill would require parole board members to take into consideration other factors besides the original crime, like how a person may have changed for the better while in prison.

Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, who sponsors the Elder Parole bill in the Senate, urged advocates to talk to other lawmakers who may  still be on the fence in the final weeks before the Legislature adjourns for the summer.

“I’m so focused on doing that before the end of June,” Hoylman said.

Lawmakers and advocates are also calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to change the make up of the state’s parole board. Cuomo appoints the 19 parole board members, and there are currently three vacancies.

The advocates want Cuomo to fill the vacancies with commissioners who come from communities adversely affected by high rates of imprisonment, and consider appointing social workers, nurses, and those who work in services that help inmates reenter society.