Be careful of what you wish for on elder parole reform


COVID-19. The New York Health Act. Climate change. The quality of our schools. Housing affordability.

Those are just a few of the issues facing us here in the Bronx, and all New Yorkers.

After reading recent Points of View by Jessica Woolford (re: “Lawmakers must finally make elder parole reform,” Feb. 10) and a group including Madeline Ritter (re: “Dinowitz  needs to take fresh look at elder parole reform,” Feb. 17), one might think that the number one issue facing our state is the continued incarceration of individuals convicted of heinous crimes.

While I certainly do believe that there are reforms needed in our parole system, I do find it surprising that some people — including one of my opponents in the upcoming primary election — have seemingly decided that parole reform is more urgent and important than any of the issues mentioned above.

Ms. Woolford and Ms. Ritter’s group focused on two issues in their letters: “elder parole” and “fair and timely parole.”

Although I have neither endorsed nor opposed these two bills at any time, I think it is important to clarify what seems to be a misunderstanding or misrepresentation about what exactly these bills would do.

The so-called “elder” parole bill would make those who have been incarcerated for at least 15 years, and who reach the age of 55 — which I personally believe is not at all “elderly,” but I digress — eligible to be considered for parole.

For example, if someone is incarcerated for murder in the first degree — such as could be charged for an individual who kidnaps, rapes, tortures and murders a 15-year-old kid — they would automatically become eligible for a parole hearing under elder parole after they turn 55, if they have served at least 15 years of their 20-to-life sentence.

The fact is that anyone who receives a prison sentence long enough to qualify for elder parole has been convicted of an extremely serious crime. The types of crimes with this length of sentence are almost always Class A or Class B felonies, such as murder, rape, rape of a child, organized crime, arson, terrorism, kidnapping, trafficking, and more.

Many of my colleagues — including myself — have very serious concerns that the elder parole bill does not address the type of crime in any way.

The so-called fair and timely parole bill would require the parole board to release prisoners into community supervision with their minimum sentence of incarceration has been served, unless the board determines they pose a public safety risk. It would explicitly remove language that currently allows the parole board to consider whether releasing a prisoner would “deprecate the seriousness of (their) crime as to undermine respect for the law.”

In other words, such as those of the Parole Justice New York coalition currently advocating for this bill, “parole commissioners would no longer be able to deny release based solely on the crime for which the person is convicted.”

When you consider both of these two bills together — as my opponent and Ms. Ritter’s group have advocated for — it would mean that people who have committed some of the most heinous crimes would automatically be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years of a life sentence, and the parole board would be prohibited from denying parole based solely on their original crime or victim impact statements.

I believe that imprisonment has two purposes: punishment and rehabilitation. How one determines whether such a person has been successfully rehabilitated and poses no danger to others is a question that is hard to answer, and a responsibility that most of us would not want. And we should assuredly be looking at how to improve our state parole board to ensure that those decisions are made by the most qualified people available.

This being said, the idea that somebody who committed a heinous crime — such as kidnapping, torturing and raping a child — is actually a victim is absurd. While I certainly feel for those families of these individuals convicted of serious felonies, the person responsible for the separation of these families is the person who committed the crime — not the parole board. Not the state. And certainly not me.

I must also correct a mistake by Ms. Ritter, who seems to have included quotation marks around things that are not actually quotes from me. I never have said that I don’t co-sponsor bills. What I said is that I don’t have to co-sponsor a bill in order to vote for it.

I also think it would have been appropriate if Ms. Ritter found room in her lengthy Point of View to disclose that she is a supporter of — and generous financial contributor to — my opponent.

Parole reform is one of many issues that merits discussion in Albany, and I did co-sponsor an important parole reform that became law last year known as “Less is More.” As a legislator and chair of the Assembly Codes Committee, I take my responsibilities very seriously, and these bills are certainly part of the conversation.

However, I don’t take positions based on who screams the loudest. Everyone needs to be willing to have a serious discussion about these serious issues, and that needs to reflect the reality that there are many New Yorkers who do not support letting people out of prison early who were convicted of vicious crimes.

The author is the Assemblyman representing the 81st district, which includes Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Van Cortlandt Village, Kingsbridge Heights and Marble Hill

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Jeffrey Dinowitz,