Today in news that won't go viral because it's not an off-the-wall conspiracy theory implicating Hillary Clinton in child trafficking, a bracing example of how the criminal justice system is stacked against people of color. No, not that one. We're talking about today's investigative report in the New York Times, analyzing racial disparities in New York state's parole system.
The paper pored over thousands of parole decisions since 2013, and found that fewer than one in six black or Latino men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.
The paper's report outlines the assembly-line nature of the proceedings—inmates usually get fewer than 10 minutes to plead their cases—and the understaffing that prompts parole commissioners to sometimes confuse inmates, pre-write decisions without hearing prisoners' cases, and conduct interviews by video conference.
Parole board members, patronage appointments by the state legislature, tend to come from upstate, from law enforcement backgrounds, and, if you can believe it, be white, which critics have argued contributes to the bias that leads to the racially unequal outcomes of nonwhite people spending more time behind bars for the same crimes.
There are the two convicted burglars that the Times found, in their 30s with substance abuse problems, each with a prior prison sentence and in-prison disciplinary history. Both were serving a six-year maximum sentence, but at his first hearing, the white guy was sprung by the board. The African-American man had to do two more years.
The paper found that, overall, white inmates serving 2-4 years for a specific burglary charge, third-degree burglary, were released on average 80 days faster than black offenders. On the same charge, a relatively low-level felony, the parole board released 30 percent of white inmates at their first appearance, compared to just 14 percent of black and Latino prisoners.
Also, black men are punished for disciplinary infractions in prison at rates twice that of whites, worsening their odds at parole hearings, but even disciplinary history did not explain the disparities.
The pace of parole hearings is swift, with only 13 of 19 commissioner slots filled, and commissioners only meeting twice a week, sometimes doing as many as 40 interviews in a day, and conducting 12,000 in a year.
One former commissioner told the Times some commissioners come prepared with four or five different prewritten decisions that they may tweak slightly to fit the various cases.
Time and again, the paper found that similarly situated inmates of different races had different outcomes that could not be easily explained by any variable but race. The state has never studied race as a factor in parole outcomes.
Commissioners do consider an automated score from a software program called COMPAS that is supposed to predict recidivism risk among a set of factors when ruling on whether to grant parole. In the cases the Times reviewed, reporters found that the score seldom seemed to be the decisive detail, and that's probably a good thing, or at least it isn't necessarily negative.
That's because, as Pro Publica reported this spring, when race is isolated as a variable, the COMPAS formula used by courts around the country to make bail, sentencing, and parole decisions falsely flags black defendants as future criminals at almost twice the rate of white defendants, and mislabels white defendants at low risk more often than black defendants.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for more diversity in the commissioners' ranks, nominated a handful of minority commissioners, and proposed requiring detailed written decisions if commissioners depart from COMPAS recommendations. The state Senate's corrections committee, controlled by Republicans, has ignored him on these so far.