In New York State, parole is the system by which people serving indeterminate prison sentences obtain release.* The Board of Parole is the body tasked with determining who in this group may actually be released.
Board of Parole
Parole Commissioners, appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the New York State Senate, serve six-year terms. Though the Executive Law allows for 19 Commissioners, there are currently only 12 Commissioners. This severe understaffing has led to myriad procedural problems, over-worked Commissioners, higher caseloads, shorter parole interviews, and less time for individualized evaluations of parole applicants.
The Board of Parole is also a highly political body that has historically taken a punitive and “tough on crime” approach to the parole release process. The Board’s decisions are heavily influenced by the policies of the reining gubernatorial administration, and special interest groups like law enforcement and the state prosecutors’ offices.
The Board’s overall release rates range from 5% to 35%, although in recent months, as a result of heightened pressure from advocacy groups like PPP, release rates remain above 30%. Despite this, 65% or more of people appearing before the Board are denied parole and remain locked up.
Parole Process & Impact
Most people appearing before the Board have accepted full responsibility for their crimes, undergone deep personal transformations, and have solid release plans. However, the Board systematically disregards the many accomplishments of applicants and their often categorically low risk for recidivism, instead citing the nature of a person’s crime in their denials.
Many applicants appear before the Board multiple times before they are granted release, forcing them to languish in prison many years longer than their minimum sentence. These practices have an especially devastating consequence for the nearly 9,000 people serving sentences with a maximum of life (almost 20% of the prison population), leaving this group subject to potentially indefinite confinement, as they have no other path to release. Many people serving life sentences have lost hope of ever obtaining freedom. Many believe they will die in prison, and in reality, some will.
Although the Board does not legally have the power to impose new sentences, it effectively serves as a re-sentencing body, doling out longer punishments than the courts perhaps ever intended in a manner largely hidden from the criminal legal system that originally arrested, convicted, and sentenced the applicant.
People Most Affected
The Board’s practices also exemplify nationwide criminal justice policies that are rooted in retribution and racism. As with the criminal legal system at large, people of color, and more specifically Black men, are profoundly and disproportionately impacted by parole policy. Aging and elderly people are also deeply affected. Many people serving life sentences are over the age of 50, with some entering their 60s and 70s, and their release rates remain intractably low despite the statistical fact that criminal conduct decreases substantially with age and infirmity.
An indeterminate sentence is a prison term imposed by a sentencing court that does not specify the exact number of years to be served within the range imposed (for example, 2 to 4 years or 25 years to life). People in prison serving these sentences become eligible for parole release when they reach their minimum sentence.