Should elderly inmates be considered for early parole―even if they have been convicted for violent crimes?
New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman believes that prisoners who can show they have successfully completed education and counselling programs and no longer represent a threat to society deserve a “second chance.”
“Prisons are not nursing homes,” said Hoylman, a Democrat who chairs the senate judiciary committee.
Hoylman has introduced a bill that would give New York inmates aged 55 and older a chance for parole, regardless of their crime, as long as they have served 15 years of their sentence.
Describing his perspective in an interview with The Crime Report, Hoylman said his bill was part of the nationwide “rethinking” of the harsh approach to sentencing during the tough-on-crime era, which led to a massive increase in incarceration.
Earlier versions of the so-called “Elder Parole Bill” have been introduced in previous sessions in both the state assembly and senate in 2018, but the bill died in committee.
“Data show that people over the age of 50 are very unlikely to return to prison for new crimes,” he said. “Nationally, arrest rates are around 2 percent for people older than 50 and are functionally zero for those over 65.”
Inmates are considered “elderly” at 55 because many enter prison with health or substance-abuse issues that correspond to the medical vulnerabilities of older citizens.
The crucial question at the core of such reforms, Hoylman said, is whether the purpose of a prison is to rehabilitate or to punish—leaving thousands of aging prisoners effectively warehoused.
According to The Sentencing Project, over 200,000 U.S. incarcerees were serving life sentences in 2016, including over 50,000 who will never receive a chance for parole. In recent years, there has been an increase in the amount of people sentenced to life in prison in addition to delays in parole hearings, causing inmates to remain locked up indefinitely.
New York, in particular, has the second-highest number of people in prison serving a parole-eligible life sentence in the country and is one of five states with more than 10,000 incarcerated older adults. As the prison population continues to age, overcrowding has become problematic, increasing the cost of taxpayers of keeping so many people behind bars―particularly because of the rising cost of correctional health care.
But saving taxpayers money is not the only reason why the bill needs to be passed, according to Sen. Hoylman.
The bill could be an added motivation for other inmates.
Maksim Gelman, an inmate currently housed in Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York, says he’s tracking the bill’s progress from his cell with a sense of “hope.”
Gelman, who is ten years into serving a 225-year sentence for murder, said in a recent interview that he has already committed himself to “positive, productive growth.”
“I have completed a paralegal program, anger management, a drug abuse program, and many Bible study courses,” he said.
“If this bill becomes law, it would give me a light at the end of the tunnel,”
Parole Date in 2218
Currently, Gelman’s parole date is scheduled for 2218. However, if the Elder Parole Bill is passed, he would go before a parole board when he turns 55 in 2043.
By that time, he would have spent 32 years in the prison system.
Some opponents may argue that it is still not enough time to “pay” for such a serious
crime as murder.
But Hoylman counters that people should not be judged on the “worst things they have ever done…everyone is entitled to a second chance.”
“It’s also really important that we have our elders who were incarcerated back in the communities, sharing their stories and mentoring young people,” he said.
Nevertheless, the larger challenge is changing public perceptions about prisons from places of punishment to places where rehabilitation is possible.
That, Hoylman argued, takes more communication about “success stories.”
He cited the story of Jose Saldaña, the director of Releasing Aging People in Prison (RAPP), who was imprisoned for 38 years and went through four parole board denials before finally being approved for parole in January, 2018.
“[Jose’s story] really moved me,” Hoylman said. “During his time inside, Jose earned an Associate Degree and mentored others, and founded restorative justice programs.”
Such stories help “humanize the incarcerated,” he said. “It puts a face and a voice to issues we like to hide [behind] bars.”
Ultimately, the prison system should be transformed into a “more restorative model that keeps people in their communities with their families and doesn’t cause the mass destabilization the prison system currently causes,” he said.
Simply releasing people at the age of 55 without any kind of real preparation to return to society would be counterproductive, reformers concede.
That work should begin inside the prison itself, they maintain.
A “restorative” model within prisons would include more access to mental health treatment, educational resources, and job skills, said Hoylman, who added that developing such programs was essential to successfully implementing the bill.
“If you were incarcerated 15 years ago, the world will look very different to you now,” said Hoylman. “If you’re going to be competitive in the workforce people inside need training on the latest technology.
“We also need to ensure people are housed upon release and have the skills that can help them secure a job. We need to “ban the box” in New York State and stop employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.”
And for those who worry about the rising cost of incarceration, Sen. Hoylman argues that his bill represents a long-term investment.
“As we lower the number of people the prison system is taking care of, that money can be reallocated to programs that prevent incarceration and improve rehabilitation services for those currently incarcerated,” he said.
Maria DiLorenzo, based in Brooklyn, NY, has written for various publications, including the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Flea, Real Crime, and VTPost.com. She is currently working on a true crime novel about the life and crimes of Maksim Gelman, and recently started a blog called Beyond the Crime, which shares stories of those incarcerated for murder to gain a deeper understanding of criminal behavior and the criminal justice system.