Lawmakers push parole for aging inmates

ALBANY — Key Democratic lawmakers are locked in a debate with Cuomo administration officials over competing proposals aimed at fast-tracking parole consideration for aging state prison inmates.

A proposal promoted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo would extend “compassionate parole” to inmates who are at least 55 years old and are seriously ill.

But a measure authored by Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Queens, proposes “geriatric parole” for inmates who have reached 55 years old and served 15 years in prison, making them eligible regardless of their health status.

Weprin revealed at a budget hearing dealing with New York’s public protection agencies that the prison system under Commissioner Anthony Annucci, a Cuomo appointee, released just eight inmates last year on medical parole.

The state’s 54 correctional facilities hold approximately 48,000 inmates.

Dying behind bars

The current state system for evaluating inmates for medical parole is now so complicated that, oftentimes, prisoners who are potentially eligible for the program end up dying behind bars, Weprin said.

“We would like to see people actually getting parole,” he said.

Members of an activist group contending New York should release more aging inmates from its prisons complained they could not find the “compassion” in Cuomo’s “compassionate parole” proposal.

They argue that it dooms many inmates to die in prison.

They favored Weprin’s measure, contending Cuomo’s initiative would allow the parole board to reject inmates for parole consideration based on the crimes for which they are serving sentences, regardless of their illnesses and physical infirmities.

Annucci, though, insisted, “We share the same goals here.”

He said he has worked to speed up reviews for those seeking medical parole, noting his staff would not make a recommendation on whether an inmate poses a safety risk to the community, leaving such conclusions will be “solely reserved for the parole board.”

The commissioner added, “So I no longer have to have physicians worried about, ‘Gee, if I certify this guy being eligible for geriatric parole, and if he commits a crime, I’m going to be responsible for that.’ “We’re removed that from them under the wording of the governor’s bill, which is a positive step forward.”

Major reservations

Responding to questions from lawmakers, he said it costs the state more money — more than $100,000 per inmate annually, in some cases — to provide special care for some inmates as they age, due to their medical needs.

A lawmaker who spent 20 years employed as a state corrections officer, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said he has major reservations about any proposal that would block the parole board from taking into account the criminal history of an applicant for release.

“I’ve lost confidence in our parole board due to some of the recent decisions they have made to let cop killers out,” he said, contending that public safety considerations are crucial in any release decision.

Several lawmakers grilled Annucci on why the parole board — which is authorized by statute to have 19 commissioners — only has 12 members, suggesting that the proposed state budget should be augmented to include funding to fill vacancies.

The commissioner said the governor’s office makes those appointments.

Open positions

Summing up the concerns, Weprin said, “We would like to see the full commission up to 19 because we know the parole commission is overworked.

They are traveling around the entire state, and people are waiting a long time to get a hearing. If you could convey that back to the governor, from both houses, that would be appreciated.”

Cuomo spokesman Don Kaplan said the governor has filled parole board vacancies at the same pace as his predecessors and seeks candidates with backgrounds in such fields as social work, criminal defense and psychology.

Kaplan said Cuomo will engage with lawmakers on the issue through the budget process.

Annucci told lawmakers in his testimony that his agency has slashed the number of inmates held in Special Housing Units — also known as solitary confinement, units reserved for the system’s most unruly prisoners — by 1,200, a decrease of 40 percent.

The average length of time inmates were held in those cells was reduced by 30 percent, he said.