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Legislation would offer parole opportunity to aging prisoners

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    The entrance into the Coxsackie Correctional Facility off Route 9W. A bill is being considered that would give older prisoners a chance at parole, even if they have not yet served their minimum sentence. Contributed photo
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    A bill being considered in the state Assembly and Senate could make more older prisoners eligible for parole. (William Widmer/The New York Times)
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    Coxsackie Correctional Facility off Route 9W in Coxsackie. C-GM file photo
April 25, 2019 10:01 pm

Lawmakers in the state Assembly and Senate are considering legislation that would make parole possible for inmates age 55 and older who have served at least 15 years of their sentence, but Republicans are having none of it.

The law would not grant the immediate release of the inmates, but would provide for a hearing and leave the final decision to the parole board.

“If the board determines that there is a reasonable probability that, if such person is released, he or she will live and remain at liberty without violating the law and that his or her release is not incompatible with the welfare of society, then the board shall release the person to community supervision even if the person has not served the minimum sentence imposed by the judge,” according to the text of the Assembly bill.

John Woodbury, who was visiting Hudson from Tennessee, said he supports the death penalty and opposes early release for older prisoners.

“Hardcore criminals should get the death penalty. What good are they to society? Are you going to let them out so they can kill again?” Woodbury said.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, opposes the legislation.

“Here comes another bill down the pipeline highlighting the Assembly Democrats’ pro-criminal agenda. Fast-tracking parole to aged inmates over 55 opens the door to all manner of criminals to be released back onto our streets,” Tague said. “While it doesn’t order their release, it’s a foot in the door for those who commit some of the most heinous crimes to be let loose, even if they haven’t served their minimum sentence. It’s frankly unbelievable.”

The legislation was introduced by state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, a week before parole was granted to Judith Clark, 69, who served 37 years on a conviction for her involvement as the getaway driver in a deadly armored truck robbery in Rockland County in 1981. Two police officers and a security guard were killed.

Clark was sentenced to 75 years and was paroled April 17.

Hoylman and New York City inmate advocate Jose Saldana said the number of older inmates in state prisons has grown dramatically.

The number of inmates aged 50 or older rose by 46 percent, to more than 10,000, according to a 2017 report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on New York’s prison population, but the state’s overall prison population fell by 30 percent.

The cost of incarcerating a growing number of older individuals is rising, according to the report.

Various studies have concluded that costs associated with older inmates are higher due in large part to an increased need for medical care. Overall health care costs for inmates in New York prisons have increased in recent years, reaching nearly $381 million in fiscal year 2015-16.

Jose Saldana is the director of the advocacy group Release Aging People in Prison, based in New York City. Saldana served much of his adult life in prison and said inmates should be judged based on who they are now, not when they were convicted.

“We have to value their worth for who they are today. This provides an opportunity for people who have been given long sentences to have the chance to appear before a parole board to determine if they are fit to return to society, and will be based on who they are today, not who they were maybe three or four decades ago,” Saldana said. “It’s not automatic — it’s just an opportunity.”

Dave George, associate director of the advocacy group, said the bill offers hope to inmates who have been incarcerated for many years.

“We support the parole bill because we believe in and value redemption, and think it offers hope to people who have been sentenced to die in prison and who have sentences that otherwise don’t allow them a meaningful opportunity for release,” George said. “We think people in prison, and especially those who have served a long time, should have a meaningful opportunity for release based on who they are today, realizing that people grow and change in prison.”

Sherman Lane, of Catskill, said the issue should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“If you kill someone, you shouldn’t be let out,” Lane said. “For minor crimes it could be okay, but not for serious crimes. Every case is different.”

State Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-43, strongly opposes the bill and wants to see justice for victims of crimes.

“The Senate Majority is determined to give more criminals get-out-of-jail-free cards. Is public safety even a consideration anymore?” Jordan said. “This ridiculous, criminal-coddling legislation is more political pandering and, even worse, poses a threat to public safety. I do not support this bill. Crime victims deserve justice and that means convicted criminals actually serving their sentences.”

The bill comes immediately after Clark’s release, state Sen. George Amedore Jr., R-46, said, and he called the legislation “ridiculous.”

“Right on the heels of the parole board releasing a cop killer, here comes another bill that does nothing to help keep New Yorkers safe,” Amedore said. “The idea that an inmate’s age should have anything to do with their parole eligibility is ridiculous — judges set a sentence to fit the crime, and criminals should serve that minimum sentence before being considered for parole.”

Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-107, was not available to comment.