After two major parole reform bills stalled in New York's legislative session, criminal justice advocates say they are now looking to regroup until after the November elections.

Advocates had been building momentum over the last year to pass a package of reforms, including giving incarcerated people 55 years old and older, who have already served 15 years in prison, a chance to go before a parole board.

Another measure would highlight a person's rehabilitation while incarcerated, rather than the convicted crime, as a standard for granting parole.

Both bills failed to advance in either chamber. Although reform groups claimed they had the backing of lawmakers, some said attitudes around rising crime and election-year politics prevented the bills from getting voted on.

“I felt like there was fantastic momentum, particularly earlier in the year in getting these issues on the table, getting them discussed,” said Carol Shapiro, a prison reform advocate and former member of the New York state parole board who quit the panel in frustration in 2019.

Shapiro said that initially, “there was generally a lot of support” for the bills from state legislators, but that the likelihood of passage dropped as parole reform was conflated with the far more toxic issue of bail reform and concerns about rising crime.

“It’s politics as usual,” she said. “It's an election year.”

It was unclear where top Democratic lawmakers stand. Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie nor Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins responded to requests for comment.

I think it was truly a lack of political will, mostly by leadership.
TeAna Taylor, co-director of policy and communications for Release Aging People in Prison

“We will continue to discuss legislation to make our justice system fairer while supporting public safety,” said Carolina Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the New York Senate Majority Conference.

For the family members of incarcerated men and women, however, the failure of parole reform was deeply personal.

“I think it was truly a lack of political will, mostly by leadership,” said TeAna Taylor, the co-director of policy and communications for Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP, and the daughter of Leroy Taylor, who is serving a sentence of 22 years to life for second-degree murder.

“I think there's absolutely no excuse for these bills to not be put to the floor, given how much support they have across the state by community groups, but most importantly by legislators, knowing that we have the number of votes to pass these bills both out of committee and on the floor,” Taylor said.

A racialized issue

The decision by Heastie and Stewart-Cousins to not allow a vote on either bill was especially frustrating to some advocates, who noted that both elected officials are Black and that racial disparities pervade the parole system.

According to an analysis by New Yorkers United for Justice, Black New Yorkers are five times more likely to be incarcerated for a parole violation than white New Yorkers, and 41% of white applicants for parole were approved compared to 34% of Black applicants and 33% of Hispanic applicants.

Additionally, there are currently 4,704 people in New York state prisons over the age of 55 who are incarcerated, of whom 47% are serving life sentences, according to Release Aging People in Prisons. Half of this aging population is Black.

“It weakens me to know that these two people are people of color who can help their people,” said Theresa Hardy, whose 68-year-old husband has served 18 years of a 40-year sentence for attempted murder.

Rodriguez, the spokesperson for the New York Senate Majority Conference, noted that Senate Democrats had passed the Clean Slate Act, which would seal the felony records of someone who has served their sentence.

Hardy said her husband, who is incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility, was suffering from multiple ailments, including asthma, diabetes and problems with his kidney.

“He’s an elder who may die inside before he can get home,” she said.

Tanvier Peart, a steering committee member for the People's Campaign for Parole Justice, said advocates were intent on making parole reform “a priority at the start of next year's session.”

“A person incarcerated in a New York State prison dies every three days,” she said, referring to a study from Columbia University, which also noted that half of all New Yorkers who die behind bars is Black. “We've been in a crisis hiding in plain sight for far too long and will continue to lose people if we don't take swift action.

Allen Roskoff, the president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, said the failure to achieve parole reforms was a “great disappointment” but also the political reality, given the fact that the state Assembly primary is June 28th (August 23rd for the state Senate) and the general election is in November.

“We have to wait ‘til after November to resume,” he said.

Crime in the news

Republican contenders for governor have zeroed in on crime, with one candidate, Lee Zeldin, arguing that no one should receive parole unless the parole board gives unanimous approval. But Democrats have been taking swipes at each other as well, with gubernatorial candidate Tom Suozzi arguing that New Yorkers are “not safer” under Gov. Kathy Hochul.

In an interview with Gothamist, Shapiro noted that the two parole reform bills were “not radical.”

“The data, the research is incredibly clear that the people we're talking about are the one of the lowest risks for re-offending,” she said.

“It's not rational,” she said of the political inertia. “We are an incredibly punitive country.”

Nonetheless, Shapiro said she remains hopeful.

“I’m almost 68 years old,” said Shapiro, “and for whatever reasons I seem to have a tiny core of optimism that in my life something's going to change.”