Building Bridges

The monthly newsletter of the Prison Action Network

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

From the Editor:

I write this to share my experience attending the following discussion. If you were there and have something to add or correct, please send to prisonaction@hotmail.com, and I will update the report below.

The discussion, "Restoring Fairness to Parole," which was held at the House of the Association on West 44th Street in NYC on the evening of February 15th and sponsored by the New York Bar Association, was interesting but did not provide any new (to me) information about the topic.

John Caher, staff writer for the New York Law Journal,  spoke about how he first became aware of the unfair parole policy by covering the Second Circuit Court and hearing the ever increasing multitude of  parole appeals, all saying essentially the exact same thing, and then hearing Judge Sheridan's ruling in the ground-breaking Chan decision, in which he cited a pattern of unfair decisions that suggested the parole board had clearly "gotten the message" from the Pataki administration, and ruled in favor of a  re-hearing for Mr. Chan, further directing the board to base its decision on permissable factors only and to take into consideration Mr. Chan's considerable rehabilitative accomplishments in prison. At the time, this fair and brave decision was a lone voice in the wilderness. 

Judge Sheridan was, in fact, also in attendance this evening and he spoke about this clearly emergent pattern of illegal parole decisions, and the fact that the parole boards were in essence duplicating the judges' role in the sentencing process while disregarding their intent and usurping their authority as well. Besides the fact that this blatant abuse was way outside the bounds of their legal discretionary authority, Judge Sheridan also pointed out that the parole commissioners lacked the necessary training to perform such judicial/sentencing functions.  He mentioned that there is nothing in the law that says the "nature" or inherent "seriousness" of any crime precludes parole release (as the board in Chan had held). 

Vernon Manley, a former parole commissioner who sat on many parole boards, gave an insider's view of the entire dysfunctional parole mess of the last 12 years, which totally supported our very worst suspicions of what we'd already witnessed from our outsider's perspective: The boards get very little training; and, out of the two or three sitting members at any given parole hearing, those who are not asking the interview questions are skimming through the file of the next case, paying little if any attention to the parole candidate in front of them.  He also complained about the rude, bordering on abusive, manner in which many board members address parole candidates.

Eve Rosahn, Supervising Attorney of the Legal Aid Society's Parole Revocation Defense Unit which provides representation for people whose parole has been revoked, spoke about the many people paroled to situations that are actually a set-up for failure, such as the NYC shelters, where for people with substance abuse issues, it is almost impossible to not fall back into addiction and a related criminal life style.  She mentioned that Governor Spitzer had amended the laws that govern parole violation appeals, and now instead of holding people at Rikers Island, they are sent back upstate to wait for their hearing (yet they must legally still be presumed innocent unless or until a final hearing adjudicates otherwise), and the revocation hearings themselves are now conducted BY VIDEO!!

Al O'Conner, a defense lawyer for the NYS Defenders Association, pointed out that this present administration must be held accountable for fair parole policies, that judicial oversight should be ennacted to ensure compliance with the legislative criteria--and Judge Sheridan strongly concurred with this assessment.
        
William Eric (EZ) Waters,  who came before three parole boards, spoke about his own experiences as a jailhouse lawyer and his personal experiences at the parole hearings.  Unfortuantely, because of time limitations he never mentioned what the Osbourne Association (which he represents) is presently doing in the area of parole reform. 

 At the conclusion of the guests' presentations there was a period of questions, and many in the audience who were either on parole or who were there to get info for others facing a parole hearing soon, asked very good questions and made some poignent statements (I had the sense that although the people on the panel were all very enthusiastic about reforming parole practices, many of them are blind to the racism that pervades their own speech and actions, even in the context of this meeting, and several comments pointed to that fact).

The morning discussion I also attended, "Criminal Justice in the Spitzer Era,"  presented by the Center for NY City Affairs, Milano The New School of Management and Urban Policy and The Correctional Association of NY had some interesting bits of information, especially for those of us wondering what we can do to bring about the much needed positive changes in policy.  Jo Ann Page, President of the Fortune Society, was in the audience and told us that there are presently several things that Governor Spitzer can do with a stroke of the pen.  I believe we should use our pens to put pressure on him to do these things:

1. Make Medicaid enrollment possible before release, so that there is no gap in medical coverage.  In many cases, Medicaid would be suspended upon incarceration, not terminated, and just prior to release it would be reinstated.

2. Provide mandatory government-issued ID immediately upon release.

3. Exempt indigent people from the fees they must pay for fines, fees, surcharges, etc. involved in their incarceration and parole.

4. Give the vote to parolees.

5. Require the NYS Dept of Health to monitor DOCS medical care.

* Vernon Manley in the evening session suggested restoring Work Release programs to presently ineligable prisoners as another stroke of the pen action that could immediately be taken by Governor Spitzer.