FOR HER ANNUAL State of the State address on Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul outlined nearly 150 policy priorities, on topics ranging from housing construction to health care to climate adaptation to bail. But she omitted at least one notable subject: the New York State Board of Parole.
As part of her first State of the State last year, Hochul promised to fully staff the parole board, which was at that point down four members from its maximum of 19. It was one of the many ways she hoped to signal a departure from her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, who left the board chronically understaffed. But a year after Hochul’s promise, the board has lost staff, going from four vacancies to five.
Advocates who work with incarcerated people say that a fully staffed board is critical to a functioning parole system.
As it exists now, “people appearing before the board, desperate for a real chance at freedom and reuniting with their loved ones, often get short shrift, with interviews that last as little as six minutes,” said TeAna Taylor, co-director of policy and communications at the Release Aging People in Prison campaign. Taylor also complained about parole hearings staffed by only two board members, instead of the usual three, which often result in “split decisions” that leave people incarcerated.
Hochul did nominate one board member last year: In June, the Senate confirmed former longtime state Assemblymember Darryl Towns to the parole board. But two other members retired, including then-board chair Tina Stanford. Towns took over as chair.
The governor and legislature also made good on a promise made in last year’s State of the State to pass a law barring parole board members from outside employment.
The parole board nomination process has historically been opaque, with a spot on the board serving as a patronage position. Michelle Lewin, executive director of the Parole Preparation Project, a New York-based advocacy and support group, lamented that “there was almost zero information provided to anybody about Darryl Towns before he was pushed through the Senate committees.”
Advocates like Lewin have clamored for greater involvement in the board appointment process. The Parole Preparation Project sent the governor “probably five to 10 names of people that we thought were absolutely qualified,” Lewin told New York Focus in November. “The governor either never followed up with those individuals, or did a preliminary interview and just never went forward with them,” Lewin said.
Hochul spokesperson Avi Small said at the time that the administration is “actively reviewing candidates to be nominated to fill the additional seats on the Parole Board,” but he didn’t respond to questions about the timeline for filling the vacancies. Hochul’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees the parole board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On top of its vacancies, myriad other questions surround the state parole board. For one, five of the 14 board members are working on expired terms, and a sixth’s is set to expire next month; the zombie board members have worked for over 14 collective years without reappointment. Hochul hasn’t indicated whether she plans to renominate them.
The ideological direction of the board is up in the air, too. As New York Focus reported last year, regulatory adjustments and new appointments saw the board’s release rates increase and racial disparities decline between 2017 and 2019. But release rates began to dip again in 2020. Now, it’s unclear which way Hochul plans to steer the board.
“Parole generally is just a super hot-button issue, especially when we’re talking about special interest groups like law enforcement,” Lewin said. Since entering the governor’s office, Hochul has been walking a tightrope when it comes to incarceration: While she has continuously pointed to data that show that New York’s landmark bail reforms haven’t contributed to increases in crime or violence, Republicans and conservative Democrats have embarked on a protracted campaign aimed at rolling the reforms back — a campaign to which the governor partly acquiesced last year by pushing rollbacks through the state budget.
In Tuesday’s State of the State, Hochul proposed more bail reform rollbacks to allow judges to set more restrictive terms when considering pretrial release for those accused of “serious crimes.”
Lewin worries that the politics of the moment are getting in the way of a more progressive parole board. “I have no doubt that Hochul felt that tinkering with the parole board too much was a risk to her reelection and could potentially fuel the fire of the Republicans,” said Lewin. “She was certainly playing it safe.”