New York’s new Democratic-led State Senate is still working to comprehensively reform the state’s criminal justice system. Transforming an expensive and ineffective system that has led to unjust mass incarceration is complex. But we can start by fixing the parole system to send home incarcerated elderly people, who are more costly to house and less likely to return to prison upon release than all other age cohorts.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.3 million inmates, but also the largest population of those aging behind bars. There are 288,000 people who are 50 and older in U.S. prisons, and New York is one of five states with more than 10,000 elders in prison — a number that more than doubled since 1999 even as the state’s overall prison population fell 27 percent. This increase is largely due to longer prison sentences and fewer opportunities for release. The problem is so stark that today, almost 20 percent of women in New York prisons are elders; many are grandmothers.
It costs New York taxpayers up to $240,000 annually to incarcerate one older person, compared with the average $69,000 per incarcerated New Yorker. There are 785 Long Islanders in state prisons who are 50 and older, 56 percent of whom are people of color. Reforming parole in New York would allow for the safe release of incarcerated elders at a tremendous savings to all of us.
Despite the debate over how much time an inmate should serve after completing a mandatory minimum sentence, one fact is clear: Those who appear before the parole board should receive a fair hearing. Yet New York’s parole board denies the majority of all parole-eligible people whose cases it reviews. One issue is the board’s understaffing. The board, with a staff of 12 commissioners instead of the 19 the law allows for, interviews more than 11,000 people a year — roughly 60 hearings a day — mostly via videoconferences. Understaffing leads to rushed interviews, overworked commissioners and an overall unfair parole process. The board must be fully staffed, with 19 commissioners who are social workers, psychologists, nurses and other professionals who embrace mercy, redemption and rehabilitation.
The board also needs new goals. Two pieces of legislation in Albany would offer it new guidance.
One bill in the Senate would ensure that parole release is based on who someone is today, and also calls on the board to release people unless they pose a reasonable public safety risk. This approach allows parole commissioners to make safe and individualized decisions. A second bill would grant parole consideration to people 55 and older who have served 15 years or more in prison. With the rate of older New Yorkers in prison at 20 percent — for Long Islanders it’s 22 percent — this bill would help unravel a nationwide culture of punishment that created long sentences with minimal benefits to public safety.
The low risk that older people pose to public safety and the high financial costs associated with keeping them behind bars are two reasons why these initiatives make sense. Beyond that, allowing people to eventually re-enter society makes communities whole and is a necessary step toward restorative justice. It’s time for lawmakers to make this re-entry possible and stop the despairing and dying via New York’s new death penalty — death by incarceration.
Serena Liguori is executive director of the nonprofit organization New Hour for Women and Children of Long Island in Brentwood.