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August 30, 2016

Lameting modern parole practices while making a case that "Jailing Old Folks Makes No Sense"

The quoted title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times op-ed authored by Geraldine Downey and Frances Negrón-Muntaner.  But, as these extended excerpts from the commentary highlight, the piece is mostly focused on problems with modern parole decision-making:

In 1980, the methadone clinic that had been treating Gloria Rubero as an outpatient dropped her. She was soon desperate for drugs. In August that year, she and an associate took part in a burglary that went wrong and led to the murder of an elderly neighbor.  Ms. Rubero was arrested three days later, and was eventually convicted of robbery and second-degree homicide.  The judge at Ms. Rubero’s trial gave her an indeterminate sentence of 20 years to life.

At the start of her jail term, Ms. Rubero felt suicidally depressed.  But over time, she devoted herself to helping others.  In 1985, she became a founding member of the Youth Assistance Program and logged more than 200 hours of speaking to at-risk youth on the harshness of prison life.... Ms. Rubero also got an education: earning, first, her G.E.D.; and then, between 1992 and 1993, an associate in arts and a bachelor of science from Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She even made the dean’s list. [S]he also joined the maintenance staff, and excelled at electrical and plumbing work [and later] was accorded the very rare privilege of carrying tools like craft knives, screwdrivers and wire cutters.

Despite this record of rehabilitation, she was denied parole five times in a period of six years.  Each time, the parole board concluded that Ms. Rubero could not be granted parole because the “serious” and “violent” nature of her crimes made her release “incompatible with the welfare and safety of the community.”  In 1999, Ms. Rubero suffered several major strokes, and at a subsequent parole board hearing, she was unable to walk or talk. Yet she was still considered a danger to the community, and her application was denied. Ms. Rubero gradually recovered, and finally, after her sixth hearing, was granted parole and walked out of prison.  She was 56 and had spent 26 years behind bars.

Many incarcerated people would be the first to acknowledge the pain and loss their crimes caused.  But if prisoners older than 50 have served decades-long sentences and have shown evidence of rehabilitation, the only rationale for holding them appears to be endless punishment and retribution.

The problem is growing as the American prison population gets grayer.  By 2012, there were almost 125,000 inmates age 55 and older out of a total population of 2.3 million. Even as the overall prison population continues to decrease, it is estimated that by 2030, there will be more than 400,000 over 55s — a staggering increase from 1981, when there were only 8,853.  The numbers are rising despite recognition that continuing to lock up older prisoners not only does nothing to reduce crime, but is also expensive and inhumane.  More and more aging people are becoming seriously ill and dying in prison.  Prisons are not equipped to be nursing homes.

And there is mounting evidence that there is little, if any, public safety benefit to keeping people like Ms. Rubero in prison for so long.  According to recent studies, a vast majority of people over 50 who are released from prison in the United States, including those with convictions for violent offenses, are much less likely to commit a crime than younger people who have never been incarcerated.  Nationally, rearrests occur for only 2 percent of former prisoners over 50, and hardly at all among over-65s.  Most people simply age out of crime.

If older people in prison pose so little danger, why not free them?  As Ms. Rubero’s experience suggests, a major reason is a resistance to granting parole.  The criteria of parole boards in states like New York include assessments of a prisoner’s possible threat to public safety and her chances of reintegrating into society.  Yet boards primarily base their decisions to deny on the seriousness of the crime for which the person was convicted.

Overlooking the fact that elderly people who have served long sentences are not a public safety risk, parole boards focus instead on the past criminal behavior.  In effect, they prefer to resentence the prisoner rather than make a judgment about the individual’s growth since entering prison.

What can be done to change course and stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars to keep people behind bars for excessive lengths of time ? An immediate first step would be for parole boards to give more weight to a prisoner’s transformation since entering her incarceration. Indefinitely locking up prisoners who pose no security risk once they have served their minimum term and who could contribute more outside is an inexcusable waste of money and human potential.

August 30, 2016 at 01:31 PM | Permalink

Comments

This article reflects a common, disturbing problem.

The innocent elderly burglary/murder victim had no one to tell his or her story, so we are left with that of the poor burdened criminal.

Justice was never a part of the story, as one would have to include the life and accomplishments of the innocent victim, which seem so easy for folks to erase, as was done, here.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Aug 31, 2016 7:27:21 AM

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