Fast-Tracking Second Chance: Increasing Odds for Parole on Life Sentences
To close out 2019 the Justice Roundtable Assembly gathered a coalition of more than 100 organizations for a quarterly discussion on federal criminal justice policy. Gathered at the Public Welfare Foundation in Washington, D.C., advocates, legal scholars, and stakeholders filled a large conference room to start the assembly. The meeting was scheduled roughly a year after the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan initiative that led to sentence reductions and the release of approximately 3,000 people from federal prisons. Among the released population were 342 individuals approved for the elderly home confinement pilot program, the demographic discussed during the roundtable.
Among the featured guests of the roundtable were:
- Jackie Craig-Bey, case manager for the Freddi House domestic violence shelter, released from prison after serving 15 years
- Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project
- Stanley Mitchell, released from prison after serving 38 years under the Maryland Unger decision
- Jose Saldana, Director of RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), released from prison after serving 38 years and four Parole Board denials
- Charlie Sullivan, Executive Director of CURE National (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants)
Within the dialogue, formerly incarcerated people relayed their experiences and voiced their outrage about the parole process in the United States.
Aging in Prison
A great debate has surrounded access to healthcare and the diminishing quality of life for Americans. Life expectancy is continuing to decline in the U.S. Even more dire, people living in confinement, with limited resources, unpredictable medical treatment, and perpetual stress, are expected to lose two years from their life expectancy with every one additional year lived behind bars. Quality of life in prisons depreciates so rapidly that in 15 states “elderly” is defined as 50 years of age, while the National Commission on Correctional Health Care uses 55 years as its threshold. The Urban Institute found that there was a 330% increase of prisoners age 50 or older between 1994 and 2011, making this the fastest-growing age group in the federal prison population.
Early death is so common that Jose Saldana recalled losing multiple friends who were serving life sentences with non-parole periods of up to 15 and 20 years. He described the lives lost, among them individuals who mentored, supported, and helped a younger generation transform their lives. Jose begs the question,
“Why would you keep someone like this in prison?”
Mechanics and Limitations of Parole
To answer Jose’s question, we need to step back and consider the history of parole, the intended purpose of parole, and the actual operation of parole in the United States correctional system.
Historically the intent of granting parole was to allow an individual who has been reformed the opportunity to be released from confinement and into community supervision. In deciding whether someone has been reformed, parole boards have a lot of discretion, particularly for those with violent convictions. In many states, parole boards have the authority to reevaluate the original sentence, even after the individual has served the required sentence. Furthermore, in the decision-making process, the board places emphasis on unchangeable characteristics of parole applicants, like the nature of the offense, instead of dynamic factors that reflect transformation while confined.
Why is the nature of the offense given so much weight?
The composition of parole boards and the appointment of board members are integral to answering this question. Typically, a state’s governor is responsible for selecting and influencing the designation of parole board members. This means that if a parole board’s decision were to receive bad press, it might compromise the governor’s re-election, which subsequently could cost a board member a job. The consequence: while many individuals are eligible for parole, if their records include violent crime they are unlikely to receive a parole hearing. Robert Dennison, a former parole board chairman, explains that given the political risk there is a perverse incentive not to hear cases of violent offenders.
In three states, there is an additional barrier — the governor has the final word on whether a person should be released. Given this, in Maryland, Oklahoma, and California there is even less incentive to holistically review an individual’s chances at receiving parole.
“Because the parole system is so flawed, it’s impossible to make parole. You can be what they call a model prisoner, they still will not bring your case because the Governor needs to sign off.”
— Stanley Mitchell
Opportunities for Reform
In the state of Maryland, the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the parole system to remove the responsibility of the governor, specifically in cases where a person was sentenced to life as juveniles. In MRJI v. Hogan, the ACLU argues that due to the rarity of parole — for over two decades no juvenile lifers in Maryland had been granted parole — the sentence of “life with parole” actually operates as “life without parole.” In 2017, when the state attempted to dismiss the case, plaintiffs were able to garner a full courtroom of stakeholders, family members of individuals eligible for parole.
Among the supporters was former MD Governor Parris N. Glendening who now regrets his role in denying early release to prisoners with life sentences. “If I was in office right now, I would [work] with the legislature to change that process including removing the governor from it,” former Governor Glendening stated.
Ultimately, the U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander rejected the State’s attempt to dismiss the case and the federal lawsuit is pending.
To supplement the lawsuit and approach the issue of liberty with urgency, a bill has been drafted for consideration in the Maryland General Assembly next year that would effectively remove the governor's authority over parole. Current Governor Larry Hogan is opposed to the bill, stating that “there is no reasonable justification for removing gubernatorial oversight from the parole process.”
In the state of New York, Senate Bill S2144 has been introduced to change the criteria for parole eligibility, such that a person aged 55 or greater who has served at least 15 years will be provided a parole hearing. This bill is capable of curbing the rapidly increasing population of individuals in prison aged 50 and older — between 2007 and 2016 there was 46% growth in this age group — whose incarceration makes them increasingly vulnerable to developing and worsening chronic illness, which currently accounts for the overwhelming rate of death in prison.
The more expedient the parole process, the better the chances are for a someone to increase their life expectancy. There are many accounts of people returning to communities, discovering serious illnesses that had been undiagnosed and untreated for years, and immediately requiring medical care. Jose Saldana of RAPP recalls his coordinated effort post-release to consume nutritious foods, exercise, and actively attend to his mental health. Stanley Mitchell shares a similar experience,
“It’s been a struggle. But I found that if you come out and do what you’re supposed to do, and try to get back to the community and to others that you left behind, you can [live] out there.”
Saldana and Mitchell emphasize the importance of familial, communal, and structural support during the adjustment process. Lacking such support often results in few years of freedom, as many individuals die shortly after release, including the co-founder of RAPP, Mujahid Farid. A major tangible deficit often experienced is housing insecurity — the Prison Policy Institute finds a positive relationship between the rate of homelessness and the age of formerly incarcerated individuals. Among the existential deficits, many individuals recount returning home and attempting to rekindle relationships only to find the years of missed memories to be an insurmountable challenge. Chronic loneliness, Saldana believes, worsens health and leads to premature death.
In 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB260 into law, which applies to people sentenced in adult court for an offense committed before 23 years of age. The law instituted a special parole process in response to a political climate that brought to a halt the granting of parole. Roughly 162,000 individuals confined in California prisons were left without sight of achieving freedom. In 2019, of the 5,000 individuals eligible to sit before the parole panel, 1,074 were granted parole.
The parole hearing itself is formulaic, asking individuals to narrate the circumstances leading to the offense, referred to as “pre-commitment factors;” explain their remorse, and portray responsibility taken for the offense committed; and includes steps towards rehabilitation taken while incarcerated, referred to as “post-commitment factors.”
“It rewards those who can make sense out of senselessness, connecting the dots between childhood troubles and adult crimes… Those explanations are seen as a kind of inoculation against future misdeeds: If you understand it, you can prevent it from happening again.”
— Dashka Slater
At the federal level, H.R. 4018 was introduced last year by Congressman Theodore E. Deutch [D-FL-22] to amend language in the Second Chance Act of 2007, which would change the eligibility criteria for early release for individuals aged 55 or older. The bill would reduce their prison terms by the amount of “good time credits” earned while confined. This change would be pivotal, given that currently parole is disproportionately focused on the nature of an offense.
The qualities an individual is able to foster while incarcerated — like RAPP co-founder Mujahid Farid, who earned four college degrees, launched the first peer-education campaign on H.I.V. and AIDS, and developed a widely acclaimed state-wide program called PACE (Prisoners AIDS Counseling & Education) — would become more central to the process, making parole a fairer and more attainable goal.
Beyond making the federal parole process more just, this amendment has the potential to resurrect the hope that confined people and their families have lost after experiencing multiple arbitrary and politicized parole denials.
State Medical and Geriatric Parole Laws
A recent approach that has been adopted by 45 states is to allow individuals with certain serious medical conditions to be eligible for parole. The process to be granted parole varies from state to state, and typically depends on the assessment of a medical professional. Commonly the severity of a medical condition, whether the person is deemed a threat to public safety, and whether the medical condition has a projected time frame of death are included in the assessment for parole.
While states are actively attempting to release individuals with a limited life expectancy, they should take the subsequent step of assuring a coordinated effort of social services and health care, to ensure individuals are able to live a quality life.
Charlie Sullivan speaks to an effective example launched in New York, the Parole Preparation Project. The project, among other activities, trains volunteers to assist individuals returning home on parole from life sentences with their transitions and provides them with access to services and supportive communities.
A list of state laws pertaining to medical and geriatric parole can be found here.
Jacqueline Lantsman is currently receiving her Masters of Public Health, with a focus on health policy, at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health. She takes a cross-sectoral approach to advancing quality of life. Her former experiences include policy research and programmatic work at the Brookings Institution, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.