Even after Gov. Andrew Cuomo met Judith Clark and was so struck by her “exceptional strides in self-development” that he commuted her sentence, New York parole commissioners voted in 2017 not to release her from prison. They refused to move on from Clark’s former life as a young revolutionary and getaway driver in a 1981 Brinks truck robbery that left a security guard and two cops killed. She had since apologized to her victims and renounced her crime, and her warden said Clark had changed “into one of the most perceptive, thoughtful, helpful and profound human beings I have ever known.”
Finally, in April, a three-member board granted Clark parole at age 69. While one commissioner dissented, the majority wrote that “[i]n view of thus evidence of transformation and serving 38 years in prison, we no longer believe that your release would so deprecate your offense as to undermine respect for the law.”
Now criminal justice reform advocates want commissioners to conduct similar comprehensive case reviews and hearings for some 10,000 more elderly men and women who remain in prison, often long past the time they are eligible for release. They say the simplest way to make this happen is for Gov. Cuomo to fill seven empty seats on the 19-member parole board. In February, two commissioners were sick — leaving the board with the lowest staffing numbers in its history.
“We are calling on Cuomo to fully staff the board with commissioners who believe in redemption and value rehabilitation and transformation,” said Jose Saldana, director of Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP). “Because it makes no sense to have a fully staffed board of punitive commissioners.”
Saldana was 66-years-0ld when a 3-member review board granted him parole 16 months ago. Like Clark, he had spent 38 years in prison, and his three-member review panel included one of six commissioners Cuomo added to the board in 2016 who have more diversified professional backgrounds than past members who tended to come law enforcement.
“She questioned me for 40 minutes as opposed to the usual eight minutes, not about my crime in 1979, but about what I’ve been doing throughout those decades since,” Saldana recalled. “After that long interview she determined I no longer posed a risk to public safety and they released me. That is the difference it makes to have a commissioner who can measure whether the person is a threat to public safety or isn’t.”
Low staffing levels have resulted in short interviews, and frequent postponements when review boards reduced to just two members come to a split decision. Last month the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus in the Legislature wrote in a letter to Cuomo that these “conditions have devastating consequences for incarcerated New Yorkers, as many seeking parole are aging and infirm and cannot afford to wait any longer for their appearances.”
Lawmakers already approved a state budget that funds 17 of the parole board’s 19 seats, but Cuomo has yet to fill them even though Democrats control the Senate and are expected to approve his appointments.
“Our message to Cuomo is no more excuses,” Dave George, Associate Director of RAPP, told The Indypendent. He says lawmakers should find additional funds in the state’s $2 billion prison budget to pay the other two commissioners.
Anyone Cuomo appoints must be vetted by two Senate committees, and RAPP wants the hearings to start now in order to ensure public input and transparency, instead of rushing through them in the final days of the legislative session next month.
A rally organized by RAPP scheduled for May 14 in Albany is set to bring hundreds of people from across the state to meet with legislators and urge Cuomo to act.
“It all is teed up of him to move forward,” said George. “This is a chance for Cuomo to continue what he says is a legacy of criminal justice reform. We think he needs to do more and this is an easy way for him to do it.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (center) tours Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, N.Y. Credit: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.