ALBANY — Wednesday’s extraordinary legislative session had a strict agenda at the governor’s behest, but that did not deter advocates from rallying outside the Capitol hoping to get criminal justice reforms that did not pass before scheduled session concluded in June to the floor.
Seven lawmakers joined more than a dozen advocates outside the state Capitol before convening to extend the state’s eviction and foreclosure moratoriums to show support for passing two bills — Elder Parole and Fair and Timely Parole — to make inmates over 55 years old who served 15 or more consecutive years automatically considered for release and require the state Parole Board to evaluate incarcerated people based on current merit and behavior instead of past crimes.
“For years, I never saw myself free,” said Mark Shervington, a New Yorker who spent nearly 30 years behind bars.
Shervington, a member of the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice, was denied parole nine times before his release based on his history of violent crime.
“It has not and will not ever change,” he said. “What did change was me. The only thing changed was my age and my dedication to accomplish even more and more, even in the most toxic environment imaginable. Now multiply me by quite a few thousand — those are the people that I left behind who deserve to be standing here with me today.”
Elder Parole died in committee in both chambers during regular scheduled session, which ended June 10. Fair and Timely Parole was not brought to the floor for a vote.
Republican lawmakers have harshly criticized the attempts to reform the state’s parole system, arguing it would impede public safety and further elevate violent crime rates that have skyrocketed in urban areas since the start of the pandemic.
Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, D-Queens, recalled a visit to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility — a Westchester County all-women maximum security prison — with Assemblymembers Amanda Septimo, D-Bronx; and Zohran Mamdani, D-Queens.
“What we’ve heard behind those bars is atrocious,” González-Rojas said Wednesday, recounting speaking with a woman who went to a parole hearing without being told she had one.
“She was not prepared, she was not given resources to defend herself,” the assemblywoman added. “That meant she did not get granted parole. There’s so much work to be done.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul called the Legislature to convene an extraordinary session — the name for when the governor calls lawmakers to return — Wednesday to accomplish three tasks: To extend the expired moratorium for evictions and foreclosures, to temporarily amend the Open Meetings Law to allow officials to hold virtual meetings and appoint the chair of the state Cannabis Control Board and executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management.
Hochul called lawmakers back to Albany as opposed to legislative leaders to keep the agenda focused, she said Tuesday.
No other topics or legislation were addressed Wednesday, but advocates with the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice, Release Aging People in Prison and Center for Community Alternatives rallied standing with lawmakers for an hour hoping their calls for a vote would be answered.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx; or Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, would have to reconvene the Legislature in a special session to address other issues.
Studies and data from the United States Sentencing Commission and other organizations shows releasing incarcerated people over age 55 have low rates of recidivism.
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted clemency to a handful of New Yorkers before he left office in disgrace last week, but was not known to support the proposed parole reforms — the most progressive of any state in the nation.
Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, D-Manhattan, said Wednesday the clemencies were not enough to bring real societal change.
“We need real reform — we need parole justice,” he said. “We have a clear roadmap to the future. We have a roadmap that says we must think about decarceration, we’re thinking about releasing our elders, and what does that do for our society? ... We know that roadmap is there, so we are all calling on the new governor, Gov. Hochul hear our cry. We need parole justice now.”