Building Bridges

The monthly newsletter of the Prison Action Network

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Sunday, April 03, 2016

April 2016


Welcome to the site of Building Bridges, Prison Action Network's newsletter 

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Posted April 22 by Prison Action Network - re: Voting legislation

I hope all our readers in NYC will attend this news conference to show their support!


WHAT: Assembly Member Luis Sepúlveda and Senator Rubén Diaz to hold a news conference to announce they will introduce legislation to make it a felony for boards of elections to dump or archive voters from registration rolls, requiring that such removals only be made upon confirmation either of the death of a voter or the out-of-state relocation of a voter, and to require boards of elections to notify voters by email, whenever possible, of changes in in polling sites. Sepúlveda and Diaz will also announce their support of legislation to provide for automatic registration of voters when they apply for or renew their driver’s license or non-driver ID (with the option for persons to opt out of becoming registered) and to allow voters to change party registration as easily and under the identical criteria applicable for new voter registration. 

WHEN: 
11 a.m., Tueday, April 26

WHERE: City Hall steps (NYC)

WHO: Assembly Members Luis Sepúlveda and Senator Ruben Diaz






Building Bridges April 2016

Dear Reader,   Disappointing news on April 20.  What is it with NYS with its low turnout at primaries and problems with the polls when people do show up  to vote?!  (My voting place was totally lacking in signs directing voters to the building where voting was taking place.  I had difficulty finding it, and I wondered as I searched, how many others would be as persistent).

The game is not over!  It is still possible for Bernie to win.  Don't give up!  A drastic change in our unfair and dysfunctional economic system is not going to be easy to accomplish, but it's absolutely necessary.  At the very least we must show future generations that we did everything possible to create a better world.

Do you want a President that will work WITH us, as Bernie has promised, “for a world eight years from now where nobody who works 40 hours a week lives in poverty, health care is a right for all Americans, kids of all backgrounds can go to college without crushing debt, there is no bank too big to fail, no banker too powerful to jail, and we've reclaimed our democracy from the billionaire class.”?  If we stand together, we win. If we are divided, the big-money interests win.

Bernie Sanders has been working - often alone (as the only Independent in the Congress) - for our benefit all of his adult life; not just to win this election, but because that’s what he wants more than anything else. He’s fought against great odds, and he’s won important battles.  When he says he doesn’t take campaign money from big corporations, he’s not hiding anything.  No one has found anything about him that is not consistent with what he says. We know that in a world he will help us build, there will be fewer prisons, and our families will be able to thrive, instead of merely survive!  As Bernie reminds us, “Real change comes about when large numbers of ordinary Americans speak, vote and get involved in the democratic process. If we stand together, we win. If we are divided, the big-money interests win.

He’s not perfect.  (Do you know anyone who is?)  But he’s honest, genuine, and committed to our wellbeing, and if we work with him, we’ll get a lot closer to the world we want.  If you’re dreaming only of being part of the wealthiest 1% someday, then you probably won’t be able to count on his help.  But I hope most of our readers want to join in building a new world, by demanding a new politics that invites everyone to play.  We owe our children nothing less.
,
The Editor 

Table of Contents

  1. Parole News:  February release rates, update on Terry Losicco’s fate, and can you trust in the Governor’s clemency project?
  2. Legislative Report:  15 bills pass out of the Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee, and 5 others passed in the Senate, (next, maybe a Scarlet Letter for sex offenders?), two have been newly introduced by Senator Montgomery; 13 bills passed out of the Assemby’s Correction Committee.
  3. The Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act: Notes from the March’16 Parole Justice-NY meeting.on advocacy efforts.
  4. First time in 11 years Prisoners Are People Too cancel a meeting.      
  5. NetWORKS addresses the question most asked of advocates for the SAFE Parole Act and other parole reforms, “What about the Son of Sam?”

1.  Parole News - February 2016 Release Rates, and more.....
February PAROLE BOARD RELEASES - A1 VIOLENT FELONS DIN #s through 2001  
unofficial research from parole database
February 2016 - Interview Summaries
Total 
Total Seen
# Released
# Denied
Rate of Release
Year-to-Date Release Rate
Initials 
20
5  (1 medical)
15
25%
24%
Reappearances
64
23  (5 de novos)
41  (7 de novos)
36%
34%
Total 
84
28
56
33%
32%

February 2016 - Initial Releases
Facility
Age @ hearing
Age @ Commitment
Sentence
Charge
# of Board
Fishkill
67
50
18-Life
Mrd 2
1
Green Haven    (medical)
65
29
50-Life
Mrd 2
1
Woodbourne
49
26
25-Life
Mrd 2
1
Woodbourne
61
37
25-Life
Mrd 2
1
Woodbourne
59
38
22-Life
Mrd 2
1

February 2016 - Reappearance Releases   

Facility
AGE
Age @ CMT
Sentence
Charge
# of Board
Fishkill
59
20
15-l
Mrd2
16?
Fishkill
40
22
15-l
Mrd2
4?
Franklin
52
22
25-l
Mrd2
4
Franklin
52
24
20-l
Mrd2
6
Franklin
42
20
20-l
Mrd2
3
Franklin
43
22
15-l
Mrd2
5?
Gowanda
35
19
9-l
Jo Mrd
9?
Gt.Meadow
43
21
23-l
Mrd2
2
Green Haven
50
22
25-l
Mrd2
4
Groveland
53
22
20-l
Kid1
7
Marcy
57
27
20-l
Mrd2
7?
Orleans
39
19
1-Nov
Jo Mrd
8?
Orleans
51
19
25-l
Mrd2
5?
OTHER AGENCY
54
21
20-l
Mrd2
8
Shawangunk
57
28
17-l
Mrd2
8?
Shawangunk
45
18
25-l
Mrd2
2
Shawangunk
62
22
25-l
Pre 74 Mrd
12
Sullivan
64
36
25-l
Mrd2
3
Ulster
40
20
15-l
Mrd2
4
Woodbourne
37
22
15-l
Mrd2
2
Woodbourne
55
25
20-l
Mrd2
7
Woodbourne
49
23
25-l
Mrd2
2
Woodbourne
41
23
17-l
Mrd2
2

? we assumed there were one or more hits for less than 2 years.      Jo Mrd means the person was charged as a juvenile.

February 2015 - Ages at Commitment
Age Range
Total Seen
Released
Denied 
Release Rate
Year-to-Date Release Rate
16-20
21
7
14
33%
30%
21-25
25
13
12
52%
47%
25+
38
8
30
21%
23%
Total
84
28
56
33%
32%

February - Over 60 Age Summary
Age Range
Total Seen
Released
Denied 
Release Rate 
Year-to-Date Release Rate
60-69
16
5
11
31%
26%
70-79
4
0
4
0%
20%
80+
0
0
0
0%
0%
Total
20
5
15
25%
25%


Update on the fate of Terry Losicco (Back story is in the March issue, part of article 2 on p.5):

Terry Losicco was released from prison on Thursday, March 10th;  the victim’s grandson is still claiming the NYS Board of Parole violated the law and wants to see them punished.  Losicco was released to a “community supervision area office” where he was fitted with a GPS monitor, and will be continuously tracked to ensure that he is under direct and constant supervision.  He will be under supervision for the remainder of his life.  The victim’s grandson said the Parole Board is an organization that operates in the shadows and is hostile to scrutiny. He is demanding accountability and transparency.” Prison Action Network feels the same way.  As we have always maintained, the system fails everyone.

Clemency: commutations and pardons; standard pardons and pardons for conviction at 16&17.

Readers have reported that certain groups of prisoners are being interviewed for eligibility for Executive Clemency.  Some of our sources are suspicious because we reported in a prior issue of Building Bridges that the Governor’s Clemency program did not apply to people in prison.  Apparently that not the case.  Although there are so many exceptions and eligibility requirements that it probably takes a lawyer to figure it out.  So for our readers who are lawyers, we offer what we found on the Governor’s and Executive Clemency Bureau’s websites:

The Governor of New York has the power to grant clemency in the form of reprieves, commutations, and pardons.

Clemency applications commonly come in two forms:  sentence commutations  and pardons.  In general, a commutation is a sentence reduction and a pardon provides unique relief for individuals who have completed their sentences but remain disadvantaged by their criminal history.

The Executive Clemency Bureau is a unit within the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that assists the Governor’s Office with clemency applications. It serves three primary functions:
  • To screen candidates for satisfaction of the Executive Clemency eligibility requirements as set by the Governor's office;
  • To gather materials concerning clemency applications; and
  • To respond to letters from applicants and others regarding clemency applications.
Interested applicants should apply for either a pardon or commutation and submit their entire completed application package to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Executive Clemency Bureau as outlined below.

For Pardons
  • Fill out either a Standard Pardon form or a Pardon for Convictions at 16 & 17 form.  Optional: Provide letters of support from family, friends or community members
  • A Pardon for Convictions at 16 & 17 is offered to applicants who committed a non-violent crime at age 16 or 17. If you meet all requirements, you are eligible to be recommended for a pardon. If you receive this pardon, the New York State Office of Court Administration has stated that it will restrict public access to your criminal history, meaning that it will not be available to private employers, landlords or other companies that seek this information.

    Pardons may be considered only if no other adequate administrative or legal remedy is available:
  • To permit a conviction to be set aside where there is overwhelming and convincing proof of innocence not available at the time of conviction;
  • To relieve a disability imposed upon a conviction (this is rarely used since relief may generally be obtained by means of a Certificate of Good Conduct or Relief from Disabilities
  • To prevent deportation or to permit reentry into the United States.

For Commutations

Except in extraordinary circumstances, a case will be reviewed for possible commutation if
  • Your term or minimum period of imprisonment is more than one year;
  • You have served at least one-half of the minimum period of imprisonment;
  • You will not become eligible for release on parole within one year from the date of your application for clemency.
  • You are not eligible for release on parole in the discretion of the Board of Parole.

  • No request form is necessary.
  • Write a letter describing your need for a commutation and examples of rehabilitation and provide positive accomplishments since your conviction (for example: program completion, community involvement, education achievements, employment history and volunteer service).
  • Provide proof of such accomplishments (for example: certificates of completion, commendation letters, proof of degrees attained, etc).
  • Include the applicant's Social Security number, Departmental Identification Number (DIN) if available, NYSID Number, FBI Number, or Alien Registration Number for immigration cases.
  • Optional: Provide letters of support from family, friends or community members.
The Board of Parole is an independent body charged with the duty of determining which inmates sentenced to imprisonment and eligible for release on parole may be released, when they may be released and under what conditions. 
The Governor will, therefore, not intervene in such matters by considering for clemency any inmate who is eligible for parole release.

A two-page document entitled "Guidelines for Review of Executive Clemency Applications" is on file in the law library of each correctional facility for your reference.

Please send your application letter and supporting documents to:
NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Executive Clemency Bureau
The Harriman State Campus, Building 2 1220 Washington Ave,Albany, NY 12226-2050


2.  Legislative Report:  
Explanation: In bill numbers, S stands for Senate, A stands for Assembly. If a bill has a sponsor in both chambers we identify it with a slash mark between the two numbers (A.1234 / S.5678) and primary sponsors: (Kavanagh/Parker). For Assembly bills, the first name is the Assembly Member and for Senate bills the Senate sponsor is listed first.  If a bill is “reported” or “referred”, it means it passed out of the Committee to another committee (from where it may go to the entire House for a floor vote). In short,  3rd Calendar and 3rd reading mean that the bill is in line to be presented to the full house. Before any of these bills become law they have to be passed in both houses, where changes can be made from the floor before a final vote. If passed, the Governor has to sign them before they can become the law.  
On March 23rd, fifteen bills were passed out of the  NYS Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee, chaired by Senator Gallivan.


Bill # and Action
Sponsor/s
Purpose
S.845 / A.75
12 yay, 1 nay
Referred to finance
Robach/ Simanowitz
Provides educational outreach to schools, community groups and clergy on issues related to sex offenders
S.869 /no same as
9 yay, 4 nay
3rd reading
Ranzenhofer
Assigns guilt to any person who knowingly harbors, houses or employs a defaulting sex offender and fails to contact law enforcement
S.1085/ A.1762
8 yay, 2 w/r, 4 nay
Reported to finance
Marchione/ Tedisco
Requires legislative approval for the closure of correctional facilities and institutions
S.1474/ A.6540
8 yay, 1w/r, 4 nay
Reported to finance
Rivera/ Crespo
Establishes a pilot project for the placement of inmates close to home

S.1520/ A. 5165
10 yay, 3 nay
3rd Cal.
Klein/ Sepulveda
Prohibits sex offenders whose victim was a child and level 3 sex offenders from knowingly being within 1,000 feet of a facility where pre-kindergarten or kindergarten instruction is provided
S.1833/ no same as
11 yay, 1w/r, 1 nay
Amended and sent to Finance
Richie
Requires the commissioner DOCCS to establish a staffing plan for all uniformed and non-uniformed employees; further requires adequate staffing at correctional facilities. 
S.2042/ A.5931
10 yay, 3w/r
Reported to Finance
Hassell-Thompson/ Ortiz
Increases access to substance abuse programming for prisoners whose first language is not English. 
S.2386-A/ A.6984-A
12 yay, 1 nay
Reported to finance
Advanced to 3rd reading
Gianaris/Simotas
Requires sex offenders to appear annually, within thirty days of the anniversary of their initial registration date, at the agency having jurisdiction, to have a photograph taken; requires disclosure of the date that the photograph was taken. 
S.2885/ A.4254
8 yay, 2w/r, 3 nay
Advanced to 3rd reading
Ranzenhofer/ Kearns
Prohibits sex offenders, who are required to be regis-tered pursuant to the Corrections Law, from residing in a  community residence.
S.3388/ A.7217
10 yay, 1w/r, 2 nay
Died in assembly Reported to finance
Lanza/ Cusick
Requires local law enforcement be notified
when a person is delinquent in reporting to their parole officer and that law enforcement agency apprehend the absconder to protect the public from being harmed by the person.
S.3667/ A.4065
13 yay
Advanced to 3rd reading
Savino/ DenDekker
Enables victims and relatives of victims to view parole hearings via closed circuit television or a secure online website. 
S.4153/ A.5636
7 yay, 5w/r, 1 nay
Advanced to 3rd reading
Lavalle/ Thiele
Prevents a sex offender from serving as a trustee, principal, officer, or member of a board of education of any public school in any BOCES, city, union
free, common or central school district or any charter school.
S.5978-A/ A.8306
9 yay, 2w/r, 2 nay
Advanced to 3rd reading
Gallivan/ Tedisco
People with the most serious crimes are required to have a correction officer or law enforcement officer to be present when they are in the company of civilians and they will no longer have the privilege of wearing civilian clothing.
S.6088/ A.8396
11 yay, 2w.r
Advanced to 3rd reading
Little/ Woerner
Washington County Correctional Facility may also be used for the detention of persons under arrest being held for arraignment in any court located in the county of Washington. 
S.6849/ Uni.A.9369
11 yay, 2w/r
Advanced to 3rd reading
Farley/ Butler
Fulton county correctional facility may also be used for the detention of persons under arrest being held for arraignment in any court located in the county of Fulton. 

Of the Senate bills reported in last month’s edition of Building Bridges, several have been passed by the House:
S.22, S.712, S.1583, S.1943, and S.3818. {see March 2016: Article #4, pp. 6-7]

Two bills introduced by Senator Velmanette Montgomery, long time champion of community ready men and women and their families - S.968 and S.978 - have not been introduced to the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee for a vote.  Just like the SAFE Parole Act, which is in the same situation, they are very important bills:

S968-A  MONTGOMERY, No same as
Co-sponsors:  Comrie, Krueger.
Alters the composition of the state board of parole to include members who shall adequately reflect the composition of the prison population in race, age, and geographic area of residence and who are selected in consultation with the Correctional Association of New York. 

S978-A  MONTGOMERY  No same as
Co-sponsors: Comrie, Krueger
To distribute the appointing authority of the state board of parole among the Governor, Senate and Assembly. On and after January 1, 2017 the Parole Board shall consist of 19 members. Of such members nine shall be appointed by the governor, three shall be appointed upon recommendation of the temporary president of the senate, three shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the speaker of the assembly, two shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the minority leader of the senate and two shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the minority leader of the assembly.

On March 22, 7 bills were passed out of the Assembly Correction Committee, chaired by Daniel O’Donnell
Bill # and Action
Sponsor/s
Purpose
A.0670/no same as
3rd reading
O’Donnell
Clarifies Medical Parole in that the role of the Board of Parole is to make a determination of the danger presented to the public, after considering the applicant’s medical eligibility certification 
A.2119/no same as
Referred to Codes
O’Donnell
Amends Exec. Law 259 to remove the phrase “so deprecate the seriousness of the crime as to undermine respect for the law” from consideration of discretionary release.
                                       [See Article # 5, 2nd paragraph for why this matters]
A.3287/no same as
Reported to Ways and Means
Peoples-Stokes
Provides an inmate, upon his or her discharge, with educational information about the prevention of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), instructions about how to obtain free HIV testing and referrals to community-based HIV prevention, education and counseling resources.
A.7407/ no same as
Reported to Ways and Means
Joyner
Authorizes NYS DOCCS to conduct a study of the treatment of aging prison populations and make recommendations for ensuring humane treatment of such populations.
A.9239/ no same as
Passed Assembly
Englebright
Requires the Division of Criminal Justice Services to notify local law enforcement of the change of residence of sex offender in no more than forty-eight hours.
A.9421-A/no same as
Amended and resent to Ways and Means
O’Donnell
Removes inmates diagnosed with mental illness to a residential mental health treatment unit.
A.9559/no same as
Reported to Ways and Means
Aubry
This bill changes the definition of serious mental illness in the correction law to match the definition in the mental hygiene law.



On March 29,  6 bills were passed out of the Assembly Correction Committee, chaired by Daniel O’Donnell
Bill Number
Primary Sponsor/s
Purpose
A.0238-A/ S.1016
Reported to floor
Rozic/ Montgomery
Requires DOCCS to place incarcerated parents at correctional institutions and facilities closest to their children's home
A.1690/no same as
Referred to codes
O’Donnell
To provide complete hearing records to attorneys representing inmates in
appeals of prison disciplinary hearings and other related legal
proceedings.
A.2508/ S.3042
Reported to Codes
O’Donnell/Espaillat
The bill establishes a temporary state commission, to be known as the NYS Commission on Sex Offender Supervision and Management, to examine, evaluate, and make recommendations concerning factors that impact the risk of recidivism, and lead to the concentration of sex offenders in certain residential areas.
A.3235-A/ no same as
Reported to Ways and means
Aubry
Requires birth certificate or certification of birth and social security card to be kept in the inmate records until the inmate is released from custody when such birth certificate or certification of birth and social security card shall be provided to the inmate.
A.9210-A/ no same as
Reported to floor
Mosley
Provides that state inmates transferred to a new correctional facility are able to call their families within 24 hours of arriving at the new facility.
A.9255/S.0977
Reported to Ways and Means
Richardson/Montgomery
Creates a New York State Criminal Justice Commission on Reentry to study issues, policies and programs important to the successful reintegration of people released from state and local correctional facilities, identify obstacles to reentry and report its findings and recommendations for legislative action to the Governor and the Legislature.


The Scarlet Letter
The House of Representatives has voted to mark the passports of convicted sex offenders with a special designation for travel. Supporters of the bill say it will help prevent international sex trafficking by alerting officials across the world to potential threats. Opponents say it’s a “scarlet letter” with dark historical overtones that sets a dangerous precedent. President Obama signed the bill into law on February 8, 2016.

“Who is going to have a unique identifier added to their passport next? Is it going to be Muslims? Is it going to be gays?” asks Janice Bellucci, a civil rights attorney who has fought against sex offender registries.

The State Department noted that there was no evidence anyone on that list had traveled in order to commit a sex crime, and that it already has the authority to deny passports to people convicted of sex tourism involving minors and those whose probation or parole terms forbid them from traveling.

 “We think the report is very misleading,” the State Department wrote. “Starting with the title, ‘Passports Issued to Thousands of Registered Sex Offenders,’ we are concerned that it conveys more ‘shock value’ than factual accuracy.”

Multiple studies have shown that sex offender registries do not prevent sex crimes and in fact can increase crime, by driving people on the registry away from legal employment, housing,and positive social networks. 

[The Marshall Projects’s Beth Schwartzapfel wrote the story from which these short clips were taken.
“No other 'crime' or 'criminal' is reduced to this. No other criminal is subjected to constant and continual punishment. No other brand or 'punishment' causes the ruin and destruction of millions of innocent lives simply by their association with the 'criminal.'”Echo Moon, on the recently approved bill to mark sex offenders' passports.



3.  The Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act
Parole Justice-NY   Report #3  March 21 2016
Present: Reps from Prison Action Network, Prisoner Justice Network, Parole Preparation Project and Milk Not Jails:
PJN: Visited legislators about supporting the SAFE Parole Act:  Met with Sen. Montgomery’s office, with a staff person, formerly incarcerated, who is very sympathetic. Thanked them for all of the Senator’s efforts on behalf of justice for incarcerated people. Discussed that PJNY would be interested in promoting Sen. Montgomery’s excellent two bills on the composition of the parole board – one that reflects the demographics of the affected population and one that requires more social services background.  (see Article 2, P. 6)
Met with Assemblymember Wright’s staff person, left a packet of materials, asked him to remind the Assemblyman that he has promised many times to sign on to the SAFE Parole Act & hasn’t done it yet. Will try to get a meeting with Wright himself. 
Dropped in on Assemblymember Michelle Titus, chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Her chief of staff was talking with Senator Comrie, who is a co-sponsor of the SAFE Parole Act.  Gave the chief of staff our packet; and at Comrie’s request we dropped one off in his office where sympathetic staffer took notes word for word on everything that we said.
Met Assembly Member Charles Barron in the elevator, also a co-sponsor of SAFE; asked him about making SAFE a priority; told him Senator Sanders had said he and Barron were going to form a committee against mass incarceration and to support the political prisoners. His scheduler was with him, produced his card, and Barron told him to schedule a future visit.    

PPP:  Seeing encouraging results: with the release of some clients with very serious crimes, it feels like change. PPP is seeking more lawyers to work with applicants on Article 78’s. Discussed a case of a someone at Otisville who got a favorable decision on his Article 78 and will soon see the Board.

PPP is interested in convening a Litigation Committee to be part of ParoleJustice -NY, to follow pending litigation that affects parole and potentially to develop coordinated parole litigation strategies. PPP will meet with RAPP  about coordinating this.  PAN suggests checking the archive on the Correctional Association website of the collected comments on the proposed Parole Board Regulations as many of the commentators are lawyers and a wide range of issues were covered by the comments. 

PPP is interested in plugging in the applicants they work with, to Parole Justice-NY – as possible advisors -as well as sending them NYS Prisoner Justice Directories.  We will look at the list of endorsing organizations to see which prisoner organizations have not yet signed. 

MNJ:  Has requested members of Project Connect to join our meetings. Will be speaking to a CUNY class about parole and the Safe Parole Act. Doing an interview about parole and reentry with a grad student.

A joint effort has been made to sort the large volume of prison mail (much of it not about the SAFE Parole Act), send a Directory to those requesting services (which we don't provide), and sending minutes of the meetings to the prison advisors, because it is impossible to answer each letter personally.  The system of including incarcerated people in meetings is not totally up and running smoothly yet, but we are working on it.

Some of us joined in a workshop on collaborative organizing against mass incarceration, at the Beyond the Bars conference several weeks ago. It was very successful, with around 60 people in attendance. The sign up sheets will be shared among the participating organizations.  


PAN: reported cancellation of the Tour Stop in Rochester originally scheduled for a date in May.  It will be rescheduled for later in the season.  
We discovered a new website set up to support the SAFE Parole Act.  https://actionnetwork.org/letters/ask-your-legislators-to-sponsor-the-safe-parole-act   On it, you can write a letter to your legislator. You don’t have to know who represents you, or even what to write.  The site will lead you through the steps. 


4.  Karima Amin reports on Prisoners Are People Too
The March meeting of PRISONERS ARE PEOPLE TOO, INC was cancelled for the first time in our nearly 11 year history! Recent car accidents, BaBa’s in January and mine in March, have sidelined our efforts to keep up with the pace of our organization’s work.  Our next monthly meeting will take place on APRIL 25th.  Please join us at 7:00-9:00pm, at the Pratt-Willert Community Center, 422 Pratt St., Buffalo, when monthly meetings will resume.  We apologize for the inconvenience.   

[You can reach Karima and BaBa at PO Box 273, Buffalo, NY 14212.]



5.  NetWORKS, 
the monthly column of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network
What About the Son of Sam?
This question, or one like it, is encountered sooner or later by all of us who are supporting the Safe and Fair Evaluations (SAFE) Parole Act or any other parole reform measures.  The person asking the question wants to know what our parole reform proposals are going to do about people, like the Son of Sam, who have committed particularly terrible crimes. 

As most Building Bridges readers know, one of the most severe barriers to dismantling mass incarceration in New York State, as elsewhere, is a Parole Board that keeps thousands of people incarcerated who are no danger to society. The current Parole Board practice, as summarized by a former Board member, is, “If they don’t like your crime, they won’t let you out.” Typical Parole Board denial language pretends to base these decisions on dangerousness to society, but offers no evidence other than the nature of the offense: “The Board finds there is not a reasonable probability that if released you will live and remain at liberty without violating the law and that your release is incompatible with the welfare of society and will so deprecate the seriousness of the crime as to undermine respect for the law.” 

The five purposes of the criminal justice system, enshrined in the laws of New York State, are deterrence, incapacitation (preventing further harm), retribution (punishment), rehabilitation, and reintegration. Most supporters of the SAFE Parole Act believe that the nature of the crime is not a predictor of current and future dangerousness, and that punishment for its own sake is not a legitimate or useful function of public policy. But many (or most) in our society, including many in the communities most harmed by mass incarceration, see some value in punishment beyond ensuring public safety, or are convinced that serious crimes are a predictor of dangerousness, or both. Some feel that perpetrators of the most serious crimes should never be released. This leads to the question, “What about the Son of Sam?”

David Berkowitz, using the name Son of Sam, terrorized the city of New York with serial killings in the ‘70s. He is now a devout Christian and well-behaved inmate in New York’s Sullivan Correctional Facility. He is so remorseful that he does not go to his parole hearings. Are his crimes so terrible that he should never get out, regardless of whether or not he is a danger to society? Or so terrible that society can never be assured that he is rehabilitated? Are some people undeserving of rehabilitation, or incapable of change?  Where do we draw the line?

Berkowitz’ continued incarceration almost certainly does not serve as a deterrent to others who might commit serial murders. The evidence indicates that deterrence lies in the swiftness and certainty of punishment, not in its length or harshness; and that for certain types of criminal behavior, driven by addiction, mental illness, or spontaneous response to a unique occurrence, no deterrent is effective.

Nevertheless, some people are a danger to society. They may try to scam the system and make themselves look good in order to be free to do harm again. But counter to what most people think, you cannot tell who is currently dangerous by the crimes they committed in the past. The vast majority of people who serve time for serious crimes cease to be dangerous, after a measurable amount of time, for a wide variety of reasons.

What, if any, is the function of imprisonment that goes beyond rehabilitation, protection and deterrence? Should there be a role for punishment and revenge in social policy? How can we tell who is dangerous?

We do not have simple answers, or any answers. These are questions our movement should think about and engage in with members of our communities. We need to be clear that our goal is the kind of justice that will help, not hurt, community safety. We support victims and survivors of violence, especially those who are least heard and least protected: people of color, women, and women of color in particular; lesbians, gay men, and transgendered folk; children and elders; the homeless, economically marginalized, mentally ill, disabled and other disadvantaged, oppressed, and disregarded populations who suffer in multiple ways from the mass incarceration dysfunction:  too many people locked up, not enough protection, abuse from the system that is supposed to protect.

Seemingly, but not actually, at odds with these overriding public safety concerns is the fate of the 86,000 people in prisons and jails in New York State. Their arrest and prosecution, the length of their sentences, and their conditions of confinement and re-entry all reflect a punishment-driven, non-evidence-based model which is harmful to both those who commit crimes and crime victims.  Some say these conditions are driven by a natural human instinct for revenge. But this “natural human instinct” appears to be different in the U.S. than anywhere else. Our system of mass incarceration is the most extreme in the world: more prisoners overall, more children and old people, disproportionately minorities, longer sentences, crueler conditions, less rehabilitation, and poorer reintegration, than anywhere else. Much of this difference has to do with the history and continuing presence of racism. The image of crime and of dangerousness has been constructed in the U.S. with a Black face. “Human nature” here is conditioned by centuries of socio-economic structures based on racial oppression – a type of “nature” that can and must be overcome. 

Given all these complicated and adverse factors, it is challenging but essential for us as a movement for parole reform to advocate equally for community safety and prisoner justice. The public desire for reassurance that currently dangerous people will not be released deserves to be taken seriously. But there is no such thing as a public policy which is 100% risk-free. The demand for the perfect risk-free system is an invitation to continue the unacceptable human and social costs of the present destructive system. 

Most people change: they get old, find religion, take psych meds, get clean; they were innocent to begin with; they were caught up in one-time circumstances; they were convicted of crimes labeled “violent” in which no one was actually hurt; they feel deep remorse and want desperately to make amends; they don’t feel remorse but they never want to go back to prison; they become grandparents --  or a thousand other scenarios that produce low recidivism for people who have served their minimum sentences for violent crimes. 

Although there is no such thing as a 100% safe policy, there are ways to predict – and to increase – the likelihood of people being non-dangerous. Education, job skills, reintegration programs, mentoring, preserving family and community ties, programs that address violence, treatment for addiction and mental illness, are indicators as well as opportunities to increase successful rehabilitation. A standardized risk evaluation instrument is currently in use in New York’s correctional system (and largely ignored by the Parole Board). More precise, fair, and individualized evaluation tools can and should be developed, with the participation of impacted communities.

Our answer to the Son of Sam questioner: As a parole justice movement, we are committed to fighting for the conditions for both prisoner justice and community safety. The current system provides neither.

Building Bridges is Prison Action Network’s way to communicate with our members.
Please contact us by one of the methods below if you’d like to join us

Don’t forget:  7:30pm,  April 14th, 15th, 16thHuman Again,  Phoenix Players Theatre Group production.  Call Auburn Public Theater to reserve your seat:  315 253 6669  Or email: info@auburnpublictheater.org  
Advance tickets: $15.  At the door: $20


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