For roughly the past year, seven of the nineteen seats on the New York State Parole Board have sat vacant. Tasked with overseeing about 12,000 parole hearings a year, commissioners are saddled with a heavy caseload, and may only speak to each candidate for a few minutes. Parole hearings are generally conducted by video and each panel is supposed to include three commissioners, who determine parole eligibility by majority vote.
On Thursday afternoon, a few dozen people gathered in front of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office to demand he immediately fill the vacant seats on the board with commissioners from rehabilitative professional backgrounds. At the rally, which was organized by the Release Aging People in Prisons (RAPP) Campaign alongside the Parole Preparation Project and other groups, speakers highlighted how significantly the composition of the parole board affects the lives of incarcerated people, as well as Cuomo’s newfound political freedom to appoint commissioners committed to parole reform.
According to RAPP, the board’s low staffing levels means that many prisoners have faced two-person panels and received split decisions, forcing them to plead their case again within a matter of weeks.
“I went to the Parole Board five times in seven months,” said Lawrence Bartley, who was arrested at the age of 17 and became eligible for release 20 years later.
“If there were three people there, maybe it wouldn’t have been a split decision. I’ll let you decide,” Bartley told the crowd.
RAPP has also called for the dismissal of two current Board members, W. William Smith and Marc Coppolla, on the grounds they are unsuitable for office. In 2016 The New York Times characterized spots on the board as “prime patronage gifts.” Board members, who earn over $100,000 a year, have made donations to legislators, including Republican State Senator Patrick Callivan, according to the New York State Board of Elections.
“There are no more excuses,” said David George, RAPP’s associate director. “We need a fully staffed parole board with commissioners who embrace the concept of change and transformation.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees the board, did not immediately return a request for comment.
The rally came just days after the Governor and the New York State Legislature finalized a $175 billion budget that incorporates a number of progressive criminal justice initiatives, including the elimination of cash bail for most nonviolent crimes and substantive changes to the state’s discovery and speedy trial laws. Democrats gained control of the State Senate in November, giving them full control over the state government and the opportunity to pursue legislative initiatives that had been stalled for years.
Since the State Senate must approve the Governor’s appointments, the new composition of the chamber also gives Cuomo new leverage to appoint commissioners who come from restorative justice backgrounds, said George.
In 2016, 70-year-old John Mackenzie died by suicide after being denied parole for the tenth time. During his 41 years in prison he had mentored several men and earned a number of certificates and degrees but was seen as unfit for release based on the nature of his crime. RAPP members and other advocates say they have secured a number of important wins in the years after Mackenzie’s death.
In June 2017, when the Board was also facing vacancies, the governor appointed six new individuals from a relatively broader range of professional backgrounds. Several months later, in September, the Board published revised guidelines to the regulations that govern their practices, which require commissioners to focus more on the individual’s rehabilitative efforts and current risk to public safety than their crime of conviction. Since 2017, some commissioners have had their terms expire, some have retired, and one has died.
While significantly more prisoners were approved for release after Cuomo’s 2017 appointees became active and the new regulations were enacted, the racial disparity in rates of release actually widened.
A data analysis provided by RAPP compared release rates from September through January of 2017 to rates during the same period in 2018, after the new members had been appointed and the new regulations were in place. Forty-three percent of white parole applicants were released from 2017 through 2018, compared to 35 percent of Black applicants. From 2016 to 2017, 27 percent of white applicants were granted parole, while just 22 percent of Black applicants were released.
“I think there’s a misconception that because they have more minorities on the Parole Board, that there’s no race, that racism no longer exists at the parole board,” said RAPP Director Jose Saldana, referring to the six commissioners of color on the board.
Saldana is an African-American man who was granted release by the parole board in January 2018 after being denied four times. “If they still promote the same racist system, it doesn’t matter what color they are,” he said.
A spokesperson for the governor told Gothamist that “Governor Cuomo has filled vacancies on the Board of Parole at the same level and pace as previous governors have for the past several decades.”
The spokesperson noted that there is funding for 17 board members in the new budget, and that the governor “continues to engage with the legislature” on additional appointments, and added that “the Governor has also supported additional reforms to the parole system.”