Dinowitz needs to take fresh look at elder parole reform


Thank you, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, for spending time with us recently at the People Campaign for Parole Justice/Release Aging People in Prison Virtual Advocacy Day — the latest conversation many of us have had with you about parole reform since early last year.

Since our time was limited during those meetings, we are writing to follow up on several remarks you have made that we find troubling.

To review, what follows are summaries of the parole justice bills we support:


The Fair and Timely Parole Act

This would provide meaningful parole reviews for incarcerated people who are already parole-eligible by directing the standard of parole away from primary consideration of the original crime, and toward a focus on the person’s rehabilitation while incarcerated, and on their current risk of violating the law.

Passage of this bill will be a meaningful step toward ensuring fair parole hearings, increasing New York’s dismally low parole release rate, and reducing the number of New Yorkers behind bars.

This bill will not take away parole commissioners’ discretion, and requires the board consider the nature of someone’s crime and victim impact statements in their release decisions. Instead, it will bring the statute in line with the original purpose of parole, which is to identify a person’s readiness for release.


The Elder Parole Bill

This would provide that a person 55 or older who has served at least 15 years of a sentence will have an interview with the parole board to determine whether they should be released to community supervision.

If release is not granted, the person will have a subsequent interview no more than 24 months later.

The bill addresses the rising number of older inmates in New York state facilities, even as the total inmate population is falling.

Longer minimum sentences and lower parole release rates have led to the aging of the prison population, a pattern that will worsen unless this bill passes.

Our prison system now finds itself treating elderly incarcerated people suffering from dementia, diabetes, heart disease, and other physical and cognitive disabilities related to old age — an expense the carceral system need not bear.

Furthermore, older inmates present the lowest risk of recidivism relative to other incarcerated individuals.

The remainder of this open letter addresses several remarks you have made during our meetings with you, which we take issue.

“I’m older than 55, and I don’t consider myself old.”

We’re not sure why you think this is relevant to the discussion. More to the point, many incarcerated New Yorkers 55 and older exhibit the medical vulnerabilities of the elderly because they may have entered the prison system with pre-existing health or substance abuse issues, and because health care in prison is substandard.

Experts believe people age faster in prison. Elder parole will free some people from years of facing the health consequences of incarceration, and reunite them with their families.

“I’ve done an unscientific survey, and approximately 95 percent of my constituents oppose this legislation,” from your remarks made to the Ruth Mullen Riverdale Huddle on Dec. 12.

“I’ve done an unscientific survey, and my constituents oppose this legislation 2-to-1,” from your remarks made at the People’s Campaign Parole Advocacy Day on Jan. 11.

Taking your words at face value, we see that opposition to the two bills decreased from 95 percent to 60 percent in a month. We might take credit for effective community education on the issue, but our experience with one-on-one conversations with constituents has led us to believe that, from the start, people in the Bronx understood the goals of the criminal justice system include the rehabilitation of offenders, the deterrence of new crimes, and a sense of fairness for victims.

When we have asked residents of your Assembly district to sign postcards urging your support for the legislation, we have encountered enthusiastic support from almost everyone we approached. Quite simply, we do not think you have the pulse of the community on this issue.

We suspect that the wording of the questions in your constituent poll may be part of the “unscientific” nature of your research. Nowhere in the legislation is there language that refers to prohibiting parole determinations based solely on the original sentence or crime, and yet that is how you framed questions regarding this legislation.

“I don’t believe that everyone who has spent time in prison gets rehabilitated.”

This remark seems disingenuous to us. As you know, neither of the two bills suggest “everyone” be granted release, but that qualifying individuals deserve due process parole hearings, and that those hearings should focus on the acceptance of responsibility for the original crime, rehabilitation, and considerations of likely recidivism.

By opening your conversation with us on Jan. 11 with the above observation, you appear to focus more on punishment than rehabilitation, the effect of which is to warehouse prisoners who are disproportionately Black and Latinx.

“I will not co-sponsor these bills because I don’t co-sponsor bills. I have not stated either opposition or support for these bills.”

This statement is simply inaccurate. We have found that you have co-sponsored hundreds of bills in 2021 alone.

Assemblyman Dinowitz, we need compassionate leadership on this issue — leadership that looks at the lives of long-term incarcerated individuals, and that recognizes the possibility of redemption.

More people have died in state prisons in the last decade than the total number of people executed during the 364 years of capital punishment in New York.

We urge you to support the Fair and Timely and Elder Parole bills. We urge other readers of this letter to put pressure on Assemblyman Dinowitz to support these bills, and to do everything in his power to ensure these bills reach the floor of the Assembly.

The author represents Bend the Arc: Jewish Action-Riverdale, and writes on behalf of Ryan Acquaotta, Ellen Chapnick, Laura Daigen-Ayala, Janette Colon, Karly Rodriguez, Kathy Solomon and Aaron Stayman

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Madeline Ritter,