New York State

To end mass incarceration, New York needs a fully staffed parole board

While New York state law allows for up to 19 commissioners on a parole board, there are currently only 12 seated commissioners. These seven vacancies leave the board in a state of crisis, writes New York state Senator Luis Sepulveda.

The outside of a prison.

The outside of a prison. josefkubes/Shutterstock

Last week, colleagues and I in the New York state Legislature took historic steps to end mass incarceration and promote justice for all New Yorkers. Working with advocates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other stakeholders, we made critical changes to state laws concerning bail, discovery and speedy trial. These amendments ensure more due process and fundamental fairness for people detained pre-trial in local jails.

While these reforms are significant, we must go farther by fully staffing the New York State Board of Parole with qualified commissioners. While state law allows for up to 19 commissioners on the parole board, there are currently only 12 seated commissioners. These seven vacancies leave the board in a state of crisis.

Forty percent of New Yorkers in prison – roughly 20,000 people – are serving a parole-eligible sentence, which includes a minimum and maximum term of incarceration (e.g., 25 years to life) The remaining 60% are serving determinate sentences in which their sentence is definitive (e.g., 10 years flat). When an individual serving a parole-eligible sentence completes his or her minimum term of imprisonment, the Board of Parole evaluates that person’s suitability for release and either denies or grants parole. Parole commissioners – appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate – make these critical determinations. We must make sure the board is staffed to capacity with qualified commissioners who uphold values of fairness and justice.

With only 12 commissioners determining the freedom of roughly 12,000 parole applicants annually, incarcerated people, their families and the board itself face myriad problems. The board does not have enough time for thorough and individualized assessments of parole files, parole interviews are often only staffed with two commissioners (as opposed to standard three-person panels), and parole interviews are frequently postponed, leaving the freedom of incarcerated people hanging in balance.

In March 2019, my colleagues on the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus issued a letter to the governor, calling on him to swiftly appoint seven qualified commissioners to the board. We emphasized that appointees must embrace notions of rehabilitation, mercy and redemption, and come from professional backgrounds that align with these principles. We want social workers, therapists, physicians and others qualified to make independent assessments about the people appearing before them and how they may have changed over time.

The process by which commissioners are appointed and confirmed to the Board of Parole must also be thorough, timely and taken seriously. During the 2017 legislative session, legislators had only the last two days of session to vet and confirm appointed commissioners who hold the power of determining another person’s freedom. It would benefit all stakeholders to have more time and opportunity to interview candidates and assess them based on their professional credentials and relevant experience.

The Board of Parole must be fully staffed with commissioners who will uphold the law, and be guided by principles of fairness and justice. With the state budget now finalized, I am committed to fulfilling my legislative duty as the chairman of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee by leading committee hearings to confirm appointed commissioners who meet the above criteria.

New York has an incredible opportunity to lead the nationwide effort to end mass incarceration, promote public safety, and uphold values of fairness and justice. Let’s continue it by fairly and fully staffing the New York state Board of Parole.