ALBANY — Measures aimed at enhancing the chances inmates get approved for parole would allow the state to save $520 million annually while giving elderly and transformed prisoners a fresh start, advocates say.
With progressive Democrats having a substantial say in Albany's agenda, proposals aimed at easing up on what activists call "mass incarceration" are headed to the front burner for the final two months of the legislative session.
The debate is expected to divide downstate liberals and upstate moderates and conservatives.
Though progressives have beachheads in upstate New York, the majority of lawmakers from the region often take positions matching those of police groups, the corrections officers' union and county prosecutors.
"I think we have as good as a chance as ever to pass meaningful parole reform this year," said David George, associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign.
A bill calling for "elder parole" would require parole consideration for inmates who have reached age 55 and have served at least 15 years of their sentence.
"It would not be blanket release at all," George said. It would simply require those prisoners receive a fair evaluation, with a review of all circumstances relating to their incarceration and consideration of victim impact statements.
"This could pass and literally zero people could be released from prison," said George, noting the goal was to provide those prisoners with a ray of hope they could return to their families without dying behind bars.
One upstate Democrat, Assembly Member Billy Jones of Plattsburgh, who spent 20 years working as a state corrections officer, said he opposes the measure.
"People need to be held responsible for the crimes they commit, especially when you are talking about serious crimes," Jones said. "I realize there is a push for criminal justice reform, but this goes way too far. We need to have accountability for these crimes and think about the victims and their families."
Another proposal has been dubbed the Fair and Timely Parole Act, which would require the parole commissioners to weigh the rehabilitation efforts of inmates and whether they pose a risk to public safety instead of locking in on their crimes of conviction.
The parole board rejects release for the majority of applicants, and George said statistics show the denials are disproportionately greater for African American and Hispanic inmates.
Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, said reforming New York's parole system shouldn't wait. "There’s a sense of urgency because every day, every week, and every month that passes, our communities lose people," he said.
Also on the criminal justice front, the District Attorneys Association of New York State is throwing its support behind a variety of measures awaiting action by lawmakers.
One would deem a fare-paying passenger in a cab or other vehicle for hire incapable of engaging in sexual conduct inside the vehicle with the operator. News reports indicate numerous women across the country have been raped by rideshare drivers or men posing as drivers for Uber.
Another proposal would prohibit the intoxication of the victim being used as a defense in sex-crime cases.
Still another would expand coverage of the Sexual Offender Registry to include individuals who were found not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.