For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System

Michael Winerip, Michael Schwirtz and Robert Gebeloff, For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System. Part 2. The New York Times, 4 December 2016. “An analysis by The New York Times of thousands of parole decisions from the past several years found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men. It is a disparity that is particularly striking not for the most violent criminals, like rapists and murderers, but for small-time offenders who commit property crimes like stealing a television from a house or shoplifting from Duane Reade — precisely the people many states are now working to keep out of prison in the first place.”

Update: Michael Schwirtz, Michael Winerip and Robert Gebeloff, Governor Cuomo Orders Investigation of Racial Bias in N.Y. State Prisons. The New York Times, 5 December 2016. “Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced on Monday that he was ordering an investigation into racial bias in the state prison system after an investigation by The New York Times found that black inmates were punished at significantly higher rates than whites, sent to solitary confinement more often and held there longer. “I am directing the state inspector general to investigate the allegations of racial disparities in discipline in state prisons and to recommend appropriate reforms for immediate implementation,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement issued on Monday, calling the report “disturbing.””

Since 2006, white inmates serving two to four years for a single count of third-degree burglary have been released after an average of 803 days, while black inmates served an average of 883 days for the same crime.

The racial disparity in parole decisions in the state is perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of a broken system. Intended as a progressive tool to promote good behavior, parole has devolved into a hurried, often chaotic procedure. Inmates typically get less than 10 minutes to plead their cases before they are sent back to their cells.

The parole board has not been fully staffed for years and rarely sees a prisoner in person. Inmates are usually glimpsed from the shoulders up on a video screen.

Commissioners — as board members are called — often read through files to prepare for the next interview as the inmate speaks. The whole process is run like an assembly line. They hear cases just two days a week and see as many as 80 inmates in that time.

Board members are mainly from upstate, earn more than $100,000 annually and hold their positions for years. They tend to have backgrounds in law enforcement rather than rehabilitation. Most are white; there is currently only one black man, and there are no Latino men.

In short, they have little in common with the black and Latino inmates who make up nearly three-quarters of the state prison population….

While it is not possible to know whether race is a factor in any particular parole decision, a pattern of racial inequity is clear when the data are examined on a large scale. The Times analyzed 13,876 parole decisions for male inmates over a three-year period ending in May.

The analysis included only first-time appearances before the board, which take place after inmates complete their minimum sentence. The Times took into account such factors as an inmate’s crime, age, race and previous stints in state prison….

If there is one factor that drives the selection of commissioners, it is politics. Spots on the board are prime patronage gifts. Many board members have given generously to campaigns.

Diversity is seemingly an afterthought….

In 2014, a state judicial commission recommended the elimination of New York’s parole board, but the political leadership in Albany has taken no action.

New York State officials over the past 20 years have adopted a hybrid system of release that is less reliant on parole. About half the state’s inmates, including most drug offenders, now receive what is called a determinate sentence, a fixed period of incarceration with limited opportunity for early release. Instead of getting a two- to four-year sentence for selling drugs, an offender may receive a sentence of three years.

The Times analyzed a decade’s worth of state prison data and found that doing away with parole eliminated the racial disparity in release rates. But it also kept inmates of all races in prison longer — which makes determinate sentences unpopular with inmate advocates.

A central purpose of parole is to give inmates an incentive to rehabilitate themselves, said Jack Beck, a director of the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog group empowered by the state to monitor prison conditions.

“Determinate sentences undermine the whole philosophy that incarceration should be a time for people to prepare themselves to integrate back into society,” Mr. Beck said.