Parole Is Again a Political Football

During the Pataki years, the idea of parole became something of an inside joke.  Under New York’s indeterminate sentencing structure, a judge would sentence a defendant to a term of, say, 15 to life for an A-1 felony with the expectation that if he behaved and made some use of his prison time, he would be paroled after 15 years. 

This changed under Gov. Pataki, when the parole board began operating like a super-judge, deciding that 15 to life wasn’t harsh enough and, based solely on the nature of the underlying offense, denying parole wholesale in order to assure that defendants prison terms would run an extra 5 or 10 years beyond what the judge imposed.

According to the New York Times, our Democratic Governor, and former hard-line prosecutor, Eliot Spitzer, has no greater faith in the judiciary than his predecessor.  Inmates sued to compel the parole board to follow the law and put an end to their practice of refusing to release prisoners on parole because they decided that the judges’ sentences weren’t harsh enough.  The issue was about to be settled, when word was floated to the media.  That was the end of that.

Long-time President of the Patrolmans Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, did his job.  He went public and pushed the buttons that makes people get nervous and stupid.  Don’t blame Lynch for it, as it’s not his job to be fair to anyone other than his cops.  He never had been fair or thoughtful, and that’s what cops love most about him.

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmens Benevolent Association in New York City, who said, “Violent felons should not be eligible for parole, and cop killers should stay incarcerated for life.”

Who can argue with such logic?  Well, aside form the idea that if “violent felons” receive the same sentence as “cop killers,” then the law has provided an incentive to kill cops rather than not.  But Lynch isn’t there to promote sound sentencing policy.  He’s there to speak for the cops, and embarrass public officials into pandering to the people who can’t be bothered to think very hard. 

So, the suit against the State continues, with the inmates being given class status.

The lawsuit by the inmates charged that prisoners eligible for parole were denied their constitutional rights during the Pataki administration because of what they said was the board’s unwritten policy of rejecting parole in most of the cases solely because of the severity of the crime. The lawsuit said the board failed to also take into account, as required, the degree of remorse or rehabilitation or the likelihood that the inmate would commit another crime if released.

What is crucial in understanding the point of this suit is that it is not, as Lynch would suggest, about what sentence a violent felon or even a cop killer should receive.  The sentence is imposed by a judge, who is part of that good old third branch of government, the judiciary. 

The reason the judge is in a third branch is to protect the ability to make a reasoned determination from the transitory whims of the public that force politicians in other branches to ignore or violate the law and Constitution to appease the electorate and win their hearts of the ignorant.  They would also try to win their minds, but the prize is too small to be worth the effort.

So long before a prisoner appears before the parole board, an arm of the executive branch of government, a judge has exercised her function by imposing sentence.  It is not the job of the parole board to pass judgment on the severity of the sentence.  In fact, they are precluded from doing so by their mandate.

In the spring . . . Mr. Spitzer’s new chairman of the State Parole Board, George B. Alexander, reminded his fellow commissioners that they were obligated to consider the potential for rehabilitation, remorse and recidivism as well as the severity of the original crime.

The point of an open back-ended sentence is that there be a stick available should prisoners act badly in prison, fail to use the time to try to improve their lot and consider how their anti-social conduct affected others.  These are the legitimate objectives of a sentence, even though most people think of a sentence as merely a punishment, unrelated to any other purpose.  An “eye for an eye” approach.

So it appears that New York, by electing a Democrat, might have a chance of correcting an expensive and ill-conceived approach to this affront to the authority of the judiciary, the Constitution and the intelligence of its citizens.  Instead, we are back to a governor who feels more comfortable appeasing his old friends, the PBA and the voters who can be easily bought with some “tough on crime” posturing.  SNAFU.

It will likely be years until the class action reaches a decision.  That should bring a smile to Patrick Lynch’s face.

2 thoughts on “Parole Is Again a Political Football

  1. Leonard Marks

    The concept of parole as a reward for good behavior may make sense if your only interest is prison management but runs contrary to the concept accepted by FDR, then governor of New York State when the parole system was created in 1930 that incarcerated individuals, upon release AT ANY TIME need both watching and assistance. Too often discussion of parole is limited to a consideration of parole release which makes as much sense as a biography limiting itself to the process of birth. What happens when an individual is under parole supervision, whether the process is helpful to him or her and to society or is merely a bureaucratic procedure expensively administered by an agency unsure of what its role is in the criminal justice system, is the key question and some attention should be paid to it. I worked for the agency for over thirty years in one capacity or another and that’s what was important to me, not simply who they paroled and when and why. Consider, for a change, the simple question: what should we do post release to ensure that the individual released doesn’t go back?

  2. SHG

    You’re quite right, and it’s unfortunate that the simplistic understanding of the purposes of parole have been lost in the rhetoric and fear-mongering.   Parole has been given a very bad name, and the potential for problems in the absene of a viable parole system in huge.  Some day, politicians will be clamoring to create some system to reintroduce prisoners back into productive, law-abiding life, under the guidance and supervision of trained and supported staff.  They’ll need to come up with a name for it.  I wonder what they’ll call it when it becomes the latest fashion.

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