by Christopher Zoukis
An investigative report issued in August 2018 by two advocacy groups, Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) and the Parole Preparation Project (PPP), found significant problems with the New York State Board of Parole’s (BOP) policies, practices and political dynamics that have led the board to deny release to a majority of parole-eligible offenders.
New York currently has about 22,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences. Of those, around 12,000 appear before the BOP each year for parole eligibility determinations. Although 19 positions are authorized, the BOP operates with only 12 commissioners, each appointed by the governor to a six-year term. Overworked commissioners with large caseloads make hasty and uninformed parole decisions, the report said, with “devastating consequences for people in prison and their loved ones.”
Finding that the BOP “systematically fails to properly consider the age and rehabilitation” of prisoners eligible for parole, the report noted the board instead focuses almost exclusively on the nature of the prisoner’s crime in making parole decisions – disregarding “the many accomplishments of the applicant and their often categorically low risk for recidivism,” and instead denying their freedom “based on a single, unchanging moment that occurred decades ago.”
This approach thwarts “the very purpose of parole: to release people who have served their minimum sentences, demonstrate a readiness for release, and pose little to no risk of recidivism,” the report concluded. Two BOP commissioners were singled out for exhibiting how the board’s practices were “rooted in retribution, racism and inhumanity.”
The report called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to immediately dismiss those two commissioners, Walter William Smith and Marc Coppola, for “frequently engag[ing] in racist, unlawful and repugnant behavior.”
Smith, a BOP member for over 20 years, has donated more than $20,000 to local, state and national political campaigns since 2000. Of that amount, $16,997 went to state Senator Patrick M. Gallivan, who chairs the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee. The report also highlighted Smith’s “unprofessional, condescending, and humiliating” language recorded in parole hearing transcripts.
Examples included “slamming his hands down on the table, shuffling through a parole packet ‘like a deck of cards,’ shrugging sarcastically, groaning when applicants are speaking, making hand gestures that imply ‘hurry up,’ making cryptic eye contact with other Commissioners, leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his back as if relaxing, belching loudly, and other dismissive and provocative conduct.”
Commissioner Coppola engaged in similar behavior, the report said, routinely appearing for hearings “unprepared and confused,” and in one case referring to a disfigured prisoner as “a mess” and asking him whether he wanted to kill himself.
Both Coppola and Smith remain on the BOP as commissioners, with Smith being reappointed by the governor in June 2017.
BOP spokesman Patrick Bailey pushed back against the report, telling the New York Daily News that it was full of “false accusations.”
“Every day, hardworking staff help ensure [BOP] Commissioners are provided the necessary information and tools to make fair, impartial decisions and the facts show that process is working,” Bailey said.
The report found otherwise, saying the BOP “cannot continue to deny people’s freedom while projecting an air of functionality. It’s non-functional.”
As reported in 2016 by the New York Times, the BOP grants parole to black prisoners far less often than it does to white prisoners. About one in four white prisoners were successful in securing early release, while only one in six black prisoners received parole – even though the number of black and white prisoners is about the same. The state’s general population is just 14 percent black, the Times reported.
In March 2018, Herman Bell appeared before the BOP for the eighth time since he was imprisoned for the 1975 murder of two NYPD officers. Unlike his last seven appearances, this time the BOP considered not only his crime but also his education in prison, his work mentoring other prisoners, his age and his low risk of recidivism.
In April, the 70-year-old Bell was released on parole – but only after his attorneys beat back a lawsuit challenging the BOP’s decision, filed by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA). The 40,000-member union represents NYPD officers. The suit it filed in an attempt to block Bell’s release had received support from Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan called for the dismissal of the three BOP commissioners who had presided over Bell’s hearing. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.32].
Since Governor Cuomo added six new members to the BOP in June 2017 – making it majority-black for the first time – the board’s parole grant rate has climbed from 24 percent to 37 percent. But in April 2018, BOP Commissioner Tana Agostini came under fire from the PBA for her relationship with former prisoner Thomas O’Sullivan. They had married before O’Sullivan was paroled in 2013 from a 1982 sentence for the murder-for-hire of a drug dealer.
Agostini did not sit on the BOP when it heard O’Sullivan’s case. Nevertheless, PBA President Patrick J. Lynch called her marriage a “total ethical lapse of this parole board member.”
State Assemblyman Brian Kolb, the GOP minority leader, agreed, saying “the wife of a convicted murderer who once broke out of prison is a State Parole Board commissioner.” He added, “Herman Bell killed two police officers and will be walking the streets. We need a top-down review of the system because this isn’t merely irresponsible – it’s malpractice.”
A New York City public defender, Bina Ahmad, condemned such rhetoric as “thinly veiled calls for vigilante justice.”
“It sends the message that the rule of law is a flexible thing, bending and shaping itself to whoever is in power, with groups like the PBA deciding when the law applies, and to whom,” Ahmad said. “The PBA is attempting to terrorize parole board members into submission, with threats to their careers. All sense of fairness and justice becomes a farce when you have a group like the PBA saying, essentially: If you anger the NYPD in any way, God help you.”
Legislation introduced in January 2017, the Safe and Fair Evaluations Parole Act (A.4353/S.3095A), would require the BOP to inform prisoners who are denied parole what steps they need to take before they will be released. The bills remain pending in committee.
Current New York BOP members include chairwoman Tina Stanford, Walter W. Smith, Joseph Crangle, Ellen Alexander, Marc Coppola, Otis Cruse, Tana Agostini, Erik Berliner, Tyece Drake, Caryne Demosthenes, Charles Davis and Carol Shapiro.
Sources: www.nydailynews.com, www.rappcampaign.com, www.nypost.com, www.rewire.news, www.timesunion.com
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