Oct 21, 2010

"The Ones With Life After Their Name": An Interview with Former New York State Parole Board Member, Tom Grant

Tom Grant, Former Parole Board Member,
NY State Division of Parole 2004-2010
How do you describe the experience of serving on a panel of three individuals who have the power to grant freedom to someone serving a term of incarceration? How do you make the decision to release someone back into society? How can the decision-making process be altered to increase fairness and address public safety concerns?

These are just a few of the topics that I discussed with former Parole Board member, Tom Grant. Appointed to the New York State Division of Parole's Board of Parole by George Pataki in 2004, Mr. Grant’s concluded his six year term in June 2010. During his time on the Board, he, and up to 18 fellow Board members were charged under Executive Law §259 with the duty of making release decisions for individuals with indeterminate sentences, establishing release conditions, and making parole revocation decisions for certain classes of parolees. Inmates become eligible for release on parole following the termination of the minimum of their sentence and appear before three members of the Parole Board without legal representation. In making their decision, Parole Board members must comply with Executive Law §259-i which mandates that the Board consider a variety of factors including the inmate’s institutional record, program goals and accomplishments of the inmate, their plans upon release, the seriousness of the offense, and the individuals’ criminal history, including adjustments to previous probation and parole.

With his term on the Parole Board behind him, Mr. Grant looked back at his experience as a Commissioner and looked ahead to the future of the Parole Board.

How did you come to be appointed as a member of the Board of Parole?

Immediately prior to my appointment to the Parole Board, I was the Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Board of Parole at the Division of Parole. Prior to that, I worked in the State Legislature and in the State Senate for about 19 years. Part of my employment included working on the Senate Codes Committee which handles a lot of criminal justice issues and also on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

What is the process for receiving the appointment?

Executive Law §259-b(2) outlines the qualifications required for an appointment. The appointment is a political process; a person is nominated by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

What interested you in serving on the Board?

I had a long standing interest in criminal justice issues, but over the years I became more interested in a micro approach than a macro approach. Many times you make criminal justice policy based on trends, but I became more and more interested in individual cases. What types of situations do individuals find themselves in that lead them to incarceration? What happened in that person’s life that caused them to appear before three strangers who would judge whether they would get released or not?

What type of training do you receive as a member of the Parole Board?

There is a bit of a vetting process when you get appointed by the Governor’s Office, looking at your interests and your background. When you get confirmed by the Senate, you receive an overview of what the Division and the Board is all about and training from the Division of Parole’s Counsel’s Office and Operation’s Office. Operations outlines which programs are available to the people who come before you as an inmate and what programs will be available to them when they are released. Most important is the training given by the Counsel’s office. You learn the requirements of Executive Law §259 and the standards under the law for release consideration. There is also a lot of on the job training. You observe the interviewing process for a couple of weeks. Quite frankly, the process itself is pretty simple. The nuts and bolts of the interview are pretty much rudimentary. However, the more and more you experience from a first hand basis, the better you become as a Parole Board Commissioner.

Does the Parole Board ever have an occasion to meet with inmate or victim advocacy groups?

Bob Dennison (former Chairman of the Board of Parole) was very involved in having us do trainings like that, inviting advocacy groups to speak in front of the Parole Board. He would arrange field trips where we could go to facilities like The Osborne Association and The Fortune Society and see what they were doing. That was helpful to me because they specialize in people who have been incarcerated a long time. A difficult thing for a Parole Board Commissioner is to imagine how people will adjust. Just the technological advances! If you got sentenced in the 70s, look at the world now! You are expecting someone who has been incarcerated for 30 years to do it on their own? That is one of the things that the Fortune Society is able to do-not just help people integrate to a lawful life because most of them are done participating in illegal behavior, but get them past the culture shock of coming out into a world that is substantially different than the one they left 25, 30 years ago.

Do you remember the first individual that came before you?

Yes, it was a drug possession case. I just noticed recently that he successfully completed parole supervision, but when I first saw him, I was taken aback. I asked myself, “How can I release someone like that?” The first case you see is the worst case you see. It takes a while as a Parole Board member to get perspective on the population you are looking at, individuals who have committed felonies and are incarcerated. The longer you are on the Board, the better perspective you get. That is why I think that when people initially get on the Board, just because they have less experiential knowledge, sometimes they don’t understand some of the accomplishments an individual who comes before them was able to achieve. As you spend more time on the Board, you are able to compare and contrast people who go before you.

Sometimes, depending on your perspective when you get on the Board you might have a “lock um up and throw away the key” attitude in the back of your head. But you shouldn’t write these individuals off. The more you learn about reentry programs such as Fortune and Osborne, you realize there is room for reentry. The work that the Upper Manhattan ReentryTask Force does shows the practical benefit of reentry  to the community. Reentry improves community safety. Your work demonstrates all the positive things that can occur for formerly incarcerated individuals when they have support in the community. That’s why it is important when you first get on the Board to keep an open mind.

However, it’s the same thing from the other perspective. If you come from more of a social work background, you may look the other way and say, “Why is this guy here, this guy should have never been incarcerated.” If you come from that perspective you have to take a careful look as well and consider that the person may have been justifiably incarcerated.

Did you find that some Parole Board member clash in their philosophies?

Yes, very much so. It takes two members to grant release. The clash reveals itself in the deliberation process. After you interview someone, you discover there are tremendous differences of opinion, which is good. You don’t want to have a unanimous opinion. You want thoughtful consideration. You want thoughtful decision-making. I used to love the give and take you have in the deliberations. That was one of my favorite parts of being on the Board. Dennison encouraged dissent. Before he become Chairman, dissent was very unusual, decisions were almost always unanimous. There was a real interest in collegiality. One of Bob Dennison’s real accomplishments was encouraging dissent. He would encourage you to prepare a written dissent if you felt that strongly. I think from a lot of the unanimous decisions in the past, people would get the wrong impression. They thought the decision was basically a rubber stamp. I didn’t find that to be the case, but I can see a lot of situations where maybe there was a push to have a unanimous decision.

What do you think of criticism that the Parole Board frequently overly focuses or exclusively focuses on the severity of the crime without considering the rehabilitative accomplishments of an inmate?

I think it is vitally important to consider the instant offense, you have to. You’d often have someone come before the Board who had committed a very, very heartbreaking crime when he was 18 or 19. He had been given a sentence commensurate with that, a lengthy sentence. When I’d see him, 25 or 30 years later, I would want to compare that person with the person who committed the instant offense. How had he changed? I was one of the people who strongly considered the instant offense, but in comparison with how that person was now.

I don’t think that any member of the Parole Board should say that the instant offense is so horrendous that a person should never be released. That is not what the statute says. People who feel that certain individuals should never been released should contact their state legislators and lobby to change the statute. Everyone who appears before the Parole Board must be considered for release consideration under the law. It would be illegal not to consider someone based soley on the instant offense.

Would you advocate using an evidence-based risk assessment tool that has the capacity to assess an individual’s likelihood of reoffending as part of the release decision process?

That would be very, very important. The current Chairwoman of the Division of Parole, Andrea Evans, https://www.parole.state.ny.us/welcome.html is working on developing a risk assessment modality. Now that the statute has been switched from an indeterminate sentencing structure to determinate structure, most of the cases the Parole Board will see are the A1 violent felons. (maximum sentence is life). If you look at the research, the recidivism rate of A1 violent felons is remarkably low. I think a lot of the data is already out there through decades of research, but I think a risk assessment is useful as well.

Does the Parole Board use that research to inform its release decisions?

Just like any job, some people look to the research studies, some do not. I took the research very seriously. I took each case very seriously, but the cases I took most seriously were the ones that had life at the end of their names. If you saw a case that wasn’t life, that person was going to get out at some point either through conditional release or maxing out. If you have someone with life at the end of their name, there is the potential that life is actually life. When I was first appointed to the Board, I made an effort to take a look at the research around long-term incarcerated people and I was encouraged. The recidivism rate is very, very low. There is no reputable research that I’ve seen over the past couple of decades that would contradict that. There are always those cases out there and they get a lot of media attention as they should, but you look at the recidivism statistics of people that the Parole Board has let out, hardly anything really.

How were you able to set aside your work at the end of the day?

It is an easy job if you don’t care and you are not thoughtful about it. Its like any job-some people take it more seriously than others. I think the more thoughtful members and the more legendary Parole Board members agonize about their decisions a lot. When I was on the Board we used to go to the correction facilities (much is teleconference now), you would go to eat after and spend time talking about the case. You take a lot it home, you think about a lot of them.

Can you give me an example of the type of case that you found yourself thinking about?

I happened to see one individual twice during my time on the Parole Board. It was a heartbreaking crime that the individual committed, but he had done remarkably well inside. Off the charts, I don’t think he even had a disciplinary infraction. He had gone way past his minimum. He had been denied by two or three Parole Boards. It was a shooting and he had an accomplice. We got bogged down on the logistics because it was unclear who might have actually fired the fatal shot. We denied him. I then thought about the case for two years. I said to myself, “I’ll reexamine this, if I ever seen this guy again,” but it’s all random who comes before you so I didn’t know if I would see him again. Four years go by, and I see him and the same thing comes up. He was still doing well. In my opinion, he had no more likelihood of committing a crime than you or I. I voted to release him and the two other members voted to keep him in. He is still in. He has life at the end of his name. I still think about it. We got bogged down with the logistics. He may never go home. That is one of the ones I think about.

Do you ever get to know how someone is doing in the community?

Generally you only know if they have committed some horrible crime, but sometimes you jot their names down and see how they are doing. Particularly if they were one of the ones that were accepted to The Fortune Society, you’d hear how they were. Sometimes when you go there you’d run into someone there who was on your panel and you could get to ask how they were doing. Sometime it works out well and that is pretty gratifying.

What are reforms to the Parole Board that you believe should be made?

I think there should be term limitations for Parole Board members. Your decision making should just be based on Executive Law §259. I think in the past there may have been some Parole Board Commissioners, who, in the back of their head thought they might want to get reappointed. I am not saying this happens, but they could be influenced based on public reactions that are separate from the statute. Term limitation would take care of that to some extent.

The second amendment I would suggest is for those going in front of the Board for an A1 felony. What I would suggest the Parole Board do, and I think this would satisfy individuals from a conservative side and the liberal side, is offer the option of a hearing. That inmate would be able call witnesses on his behalf, perhaps the person who he would be living with, maybe someone from Fortune. Corrections counselors would be subpoenaed to testify so there would be no criticism that they appeared before the Parole Board on the inmates behalf. On the other side, the DA could be represented, victims if they chose could come in and talk about how they and their family have been affected. It will take longer, but it gets the issues out there.

One of the criticisms from the conservative point of view is that the inmate can charm the Board and the Parole Board might not be cognizant of all of the details that landed the inmate there. On the other side, the prisoner advocates often say the decisions are pro forma, but if you have people coming in and advocating for you, the Parole Board has more information to make a decision. It is going to take longer, but logistically you can do it. If you couple that with term limitation, I think it would encourage parole board members to take even more care in their decision making.

What is next for you?

I am a mediator. I just got appointed to the Restorative Justice Commission in the Albany Dioceses. I believe in restorative justice and parallel justice. I am active with Friends and Families of Homicide victims and also working closely with prisoner’s rights groups. There is more commonality you would think between the offenders and victims. The system right now is a good system, but sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you like. The more knowledge and groups you can get together, the better. We should be trying to repair harms. Many times punishment is appropriate, but you also want to give victims a sense of why these things happened to them and offer prisoners a chance for redemption.