Scores of formerly incarcerated people and other criminal justice reform activists converged on Albany on Tuesday in a bid to change the state’s parole laws.

The legislative push, which brought together reform advocates from Rochester, Long Island, Syracuse and the five boroughs, backed two bills that supporters say will make it easier for incarcerated men and women to secure parole, namely anyone over 55 who’s served at least 15 years of time and those who have demonstrated a record of improvement.

Daryl Tolbert, a member of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) who spent the day petitioning lawmakers, is 69 and was released from prison at the age of 67.

“I saw so many of my peers in the next cell, and people that I knew that died and didn’t get that opportunity,” said Tolbert.

Nearly a quarter of the state’s prison population is now over 50, a percentage that has doubled in recent years.

These individuals who were once teenagers, incarcerated, are now the elder population, and prison is not equipped to take care of these elderly individuals.

Jeannie Colon, member of Release Aging People in Prison

“These individuals who were once teenagers, incarcerated, are now the elder population,” said RAPP activist Jeannie Colon, “and prison is not equipped to take care of these elderly individuals.”

Colon’s husband Jose Colon is currently serving out a sentence of 30 years to life for a 1999 murder he committed when he was 17.

She said many people who are in prison are “discarded and they’re forgotten” but “deserve a second chance,” something the Fair & Timely Act is designed to address.

Reasons for rejection

According to a 2021 report by the Vera Institute, around 10,000 people appear annually before the New York State parole board, with an approval rate of 41% in 2020. In 9 out of 10 denials, the board cited the original crime as the main reason for rejection and as the sole reason in 6 in 10 instances.

“Current parole release criteria,” said the authors, “allows commissioners to ignore ample evidence supporting someone's readiness for release and deny parole based solely on the original crime. As a result, many New Yorkers are held behind bars based on who they were decades ago with no acknowledgment of who they are now.”

Advocates for parole reform visited Albany to draw attention to pending legislative proposals.

Advocates for parole reform visited Albany to draw attention to pending legislative proposals.

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Advocates for parole reform visited Albany to draw attention to pending legislative proposals.
Arun Venugopal / Gothamist

In New York, race is a factor in who gets parole and who gets an extended sentence -- just as it is a factor in many other aspects of the criminal justice system. A report by the Albany Times-Union found that white inmates are more likely to receive parole than Black or Hispanic ones, and half of all New Yorkers who die behind bars are Black, according to a study from Columbia University’s Center for Justice. That same study noted a 777% increase since the 1980s in the number of people who died behind bars and have served at least 15 years.

A 2019 analysis by the state Department of Corrections found that the average age of death in prison ‘from natural causes’ was 57. This compared to a lifespan of 80.5 years for the average New Yorker.

Fighting perceptions

Advocates for the two bills said they have support from a majority of state lawmakers, but no word thus far from either Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie or Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, meaning that it’s unclear if the measures will be brought to a vote before the end of the current legislative session.

In hopes of building momentum, the day began with a march through the concourse of the state capitol and a press conference, followed by meetings with lawmakers and their aides.

After one meeting, advocates discussed one of the main hurdles to getting support: overcoming the fearmongering and racism at the heart of the criminal justice system and shifting perceptions of who the stereotypical incarcerated person is to include the many men and women who are aging or even dying behind bars.