Even as New York politicians wrangle over efforts to water down the state’s historic new bail reform law, some lawmakers are pushing for even more fundamental justice reforms.
Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who represents Bronx, N.Y., neighborhoods in the state senate, wants lawmakers to consider ways to release elderly prisoners back to their families and communities if they have demonstrated personal growth and genuine “repentance” for their crimes.
Touching on an issue that is gaining traction among reform advocates elsewhere, Sen. Rivera introduced a bill entitled the Fair and Timely Parole Act, requiring the state parole board to make it easier to release older prisoners by removing “harmful language that allows….the Board to effectively re-sentence people, regardless of growth or repentance while incarcerated.”
In an op ed for the New York Daily News, Rivera said his bill would end “parole injustice” by ensuring that “decisions are based on who people are today rather than who they were years or decades ago.”
The bill requires the Parole Board to give incarcerated people a “thorough and individualized evaluation not solely based on the nature of their crime,” Rivera wrote.
“Though our state’s prison population has decreased almost 30 percent between 2000 and 2016, some 45,000 New Yorkers remain in the system — encompassing a prison population today that is more than double what it was in 1980.”
Many of them are elderly, reflecting what some criminologists call the “graying” of America’s prisons. Criminologists regard inmates over 50 as “elderly,” reflecting the fact that many are suffering ailments more common to older individuals outside prison.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, the population of prisoners aged 50 and above was five times as large in 2008 as it was in 1990 and represents about 12 percent of the then-incarcerated population of 2.3 million.
In 2017, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 200,000 people aged 55 and older were behind bars.
While some states offer “compassionate release” for elderly, sick inmates, few offer provisions for taking age into account in parole decisions.
Rivera said his bill was inspired by one of his constituents, a former incarceree named Mujahid Farid, who co-founded the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign in 2013.
Farid was convicted in 1977 for killing someone outside a Manhattan bar and for the attempted murder of a New York City police officer, and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. During his time in prison, Farid earned four degrees, including two Master’s degrees, and learned sign language to support those with hearing difficulties.
He also co-founded an educational program for people in prison on preventing HIV and AIDS which is now taught in prisons across the state, Rivera said.
“When Farid first appeared before the Parole Board, the commissioners attached little value to his transformation and denied his release exclusively based on the nature of his crime,” Rivera wrote.
“They ultimately denied Farid eight more times, adding 18 years to his 15-year minimum sentence. Instead of being released in his 40s, Farid served 33 years and was released as an elder adult.”
Seven years after being freed, on Nov. 20, 2018, Farid died in his Bronx apartment. He was 69 years old.
“My community lost a tremendous leader who benefited Bronxites through his service and dedication to human rights,” Rivera wrote. “Had our parole system worked fairly, we would have had more time to reap the benefit of Farid’s character.”
Rivera said Farid, “knowing that others like him languished in prison until older age, sickness, and death because of long prison sentences,” educated him on issues facing incarcerated older adults.
Rivera argued that Rivera’s life and death posed a “moral” challenge to the U.S. prison system.
“Do we believe in redemption?” he wrote. “Does our desire for vengeance and punishment outweigh our value of transformation? Do those notions change based on race?
“Do we believe that some people should be thrown away, no matter how they change their lives or benefit our state?”