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The Problems with Parole: Sentencing Inequalities

For many who have gone through New York State’s penal system, being paroled is one step closer to freedom.

But as New Yorkers United for Justice Executive Director Alexander Horwitz tells it, sentencing inequalities along racial and socio-economic lines lead to problems in post-release supervision.

“New York’s parole system is costly, it is broken and it is racist," he said.

NYUJ is a bi-partisan criminal justice reform coalition.

“New Yorkers spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a system that fails to deliver on its actual purpose,” Horwitz said. “Which is to safely bring home people from incarceration, permanently.”

The coalition launched a statewide public campaign to urge the state legislature and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make parole reform a top priority for the 2021 legislative session.

These calls for reform come at a time when the entirety of the criminal justice system is being critiqued, and reformers are quick to point to what they feel are systemic flaws in the system.

According to a 2018 study by the Prison Policy Initiative, New York State, which by many standards is considered progressive when it comes to incarceration, still has an incarceration rate of 443 per 100,000 people.

As the executive director of PeacePrints Western New York, a non-profit re-entry service organization for men and women going through the criminal justice system, Cindi McEachon said there are inequalities across the board.

“Oh, there’s absolutely inequalities,” she said. “When you look at access to resources, access to counsel. That is certainly not equitable on any level. “

And those the inequalities cut along racial lines.

Credit The Prison Policy Initiative

Black, Brown and Indigenous People make up the vast majority of inmates in New York jails and prisons, with Black inmates being the majority of those three groups.

“You see disproportionate numbers of folks who are Black or Brown filling our prison system," McEachon said.

For people of color, who are on average of lower socioeconomic status as compared to whites, a lack of money results in a lack of resources to help navigate the system.

“Individuals are often appointed court-appointed attorneys that are balancing case volumes that are incredibly high,” she said. “Their access or ability to really learn about their clients sometimes is that day, and we’re talking about the fate of these individuals.”

Without adequate legal representation on the front end, people are more likely to take shorter jail sentences on a plea bargain.

Access to counsel or, as National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Executive Director Norman Reimer said, no counsel at all is a common concern.

“Right from the very beginning of the parole process, which is an appearance before the parole board, there is no right to counsel,” he said. “And the inability to have someone speak on someone’s behalf, to answer questions and to present them in a light to have a better chance of getting parole is critical.”

Critical because New York’s recidivism rate hovers around 40%.

“It is that lack of due process which makes the parole system an engine for re-incarceration," Reimer said.

Part 2 of our series will take a look at some of the solutions being proposed by reform coalitions.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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