Mar 14, 2011

Will DOCS and the Division of Parole merge under Cuomo?

Friday, Mar. 11, 2011
p. 1, col. 5

               Parole Boards Would Lose Authority Under Cuomo Plan
By Joel Stashenko
ALBANY — Parole boards would lose their authority to set restrictions on the lives of former prisoners under a provision of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed budget.
Mr. Cuomo's proposal would give the commissioner of a newly created Department of Corrections and Community Supervision the power to set details of parole, such as requiring curfews and attendance in drug or alcohol programs, that are currently up to parole commissioners to decide.
The bill also would give the commissioner of the new agency the authority to revoke parole and to shorten its terms. Those decisions now are the ultimate responsibility of the chair of the full Board of Parole, a position the governor wants to abolish.
Mr. Cuomo argues that the merger of the Department of Correctional Services and the Division of Parole would streamline operations of both agencies, better coordinate pre- and post-release programming for offenders and help save an estimated $271 million from the agencies' current spending of just over $3 billion for corrections and $189 million for parole. The combined agencies' projected spending of $2.94 billion takes into account savings from the proposed elimination of 3,500 beds in the prison system at still-to-be-identified facilities.
Details are spelled out in a budget bill Mr. Cuomo sent to lawmakers last month (A4012-A/S2812).
However, one Republican senator who is a former parole board member expressed concern at a state budget hearing earlier this week that the proposal would put too much power into the hands of a single official likely to be more attuned to the needs of the prisons than to parole.
"While I have tremendous respect for the current [corrections] commissioner [Brian Fischer], what we're doing is allowing one person to potentially manipulate the prison population, in a good way or bad way," said Senator Patrick M. Gallivan, of Elma, a former sheriff of Erie County and a parole board commissioner from 2005-2010.
Elizabeth Glazer, Mr. Cuomo's deputy secretary for public safety, responded that parole boards would
continue to make the ultimate decision of whether an inmate should be released.
"The first and most critical piece is that the parole board itself remains independent and that is written into the legislation, that the structure remains and the key decision to release or not remains with the board," Ms. Glazer said.
Mr. Gallivan acknowledged in an interview that parole boards would continue to make release decisions but said that he is worried about the long-term implications of ceding the power to revoke parole to the new commissioner.
"There are two ways to look at it," Mr. Gallivan said. "You talk to conservatives and they say they are worried that a liberal commissioner will let everyone out of prison. You talk to liberals, and they say a conservative commissioner would never let anyone out. My point is that you no longer would have an independent body making decisions about who's in prison or out of prison or who has to come back."
Smaller Parole Boards?
Mr. Cuomo also has proposed reducing to 13 from 19 the number of authorized commissioners from whom parole boards are drawn.
There are about 15,000 fewer prisoners than there were in 1999, when the prison population peaked at 71,600 inmates. Moreover, most felons now receive determinate sentences, Ms. Glazer noted.
She said that the number of parole hearings has fallen by 43 percent in the last decade, meaning that fewer commissioners are needed. There currently are six unfilled positions, and the commissioners have had no trouble keeping up with their workload, she said.
Traditionally, three commissioners have heard applications for parole.
"Right now, we don't anticipate a reduction," Ms. Glazer said. "I don't think this will happen. I think the way in which we have been operating so far, with the 13 [commissioners] has permitted us to operate with the three-man boards and I anticipate that will continue."
If two-member boards were used, a second panel would have to hear any cases in which there is a tie.
Parole commissioners make $101,600 each. The chair of the board makes $120,800.
Middletown attorney Robert N. Isseks, who represents inmates before the parole board, contended that the current commissioners are overworked as it is.
"We feel the more on the panel the better," Mr. Isseks said in an interview. "The caseload for commissioners now could be up to 100 hearings a day, where the commissioners get the paperwork that day and the hearings are perfunctory and last maybe five to seven minutes, more or less, and the commissioners are only half listening at best because they are looking at the paperwork for the next case."
Albert O'Connor of the Defenders Association said that smaller parole panels would make release harder for some inmates.
"When you have three members, you have a more diverse panel," Mr. O'Connor said. "You have an opportunity for a commissioner to persuade a colleague. When you cut that down to two, obviously, it's unlikelier that you'll connect with a board member. The chances of gaining release are diminished for the harder cases, for ones where there might be some historical reluctance to release."
In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, parole commissioners conducted 29,059 interviews of inmates. About 40 percent of inmates were released, including 9 percent serving time for violent offenses and 3 percent for sex offenses.
Ms. Glazer also defended Mr. Cuomo's proposal to create a new Division of Criminal Justice Services by consolidating the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, the Office of Victim Services, the Commission of Correction and the current Division of Criminal Justice Services. Mr. Cuomo estimates that consolidation will save $6.4 million in the next fiscal year.