YONKERS, N.Y. (PIX11) — If a person older than 55 has been incarcerated for more than 15 years and has proven themselves to be a model prisoner, should they be guaranteed consideration for parole, no matter their crime? It’s a question that was at the center of a rally in Yonkers on Wednesday, led by people who had once been incarcerated themselves.
They were in the heart of the legislative district of New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, one of the most powerful political leaders in the state. They were calling on her to make two parole reform bills priorities in the next legislative session.
The bills are the Elder Parole Act, and the Fair and Timely Parole Act. The former would guarantee a parole hearing for people over 55 who’ve served at least 15 years of their sentence. The latter would require a reason other than the crime for which an inmate was imprisoned as the cause for denying parole to the inmate.
Dannie McQueen had been convicted at age 16 of a crime for which he served 33 years behind bars. He said that the new bills are needed to prevent situations that he saw time and time again while he was incarcerated.
“I know of a man who was paralyzed from the neck down,” he said, about a fellow inmate at a prison upstate, who was in a unit for disabled inmates. “What crime could be detriment to society that he could commit,” asked McQueen, who now runs a community service organization.
“But he was denied [parole] five times,” he continued. “And then the last time, he died seven months later.”
McQueen is active in the People’s Campaign for Parole Justice, an organization that advocates for parole reform. They held rallies in communities statewide on Wednesday, including in Yonkers.
Jeffrey Deskovic is also allied with the group. He’s now an attorney, and the executive director of his own foundation, after serving 16 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. While he was behind bars, before being exonerated, he saw cases again and again, that he calls unjust, when it came to parole.
“So if you’re 65 years old, and you’ve been in prison for 25 years, [but] you’re in terrible medical condition, and you still have eight years on your sentence, you’re going to stay in prison for those additional eight years before you have a parole board hearing,” under current state law, Deskovic said.
Instead, he and other activists are calling for the state legislature to pass the two bills. The Elder Parole legislation was written by State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who said, in an interview, that it’s intended to stop prisons from being nursing homes for seniors.
Under the provisions of the bill, he said, there would be “a parole hearing for individuals who are 55 years or older who have served at least 15 years.”
He said that it would not guarantee parole. Instead, it would guarantee a parole hearing.
Advocates at Wednesday’s rally want the two bills, Elder Parole and the Fair and Timely Parole Act, passed together.
However, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, the largest NYPD union, said, in a statement, “The parole standards are already severely watered-down.”
“We have seen,” PBA President Patrick Henry said, “thirty-seven cop-killers released since 2017, and these two bills would put even more dangerous criminals back on our streets. We need our lawmakers to stop catering to violent felons and start thinking about crime victims and their families.”
Similarly, the state organization that lobbies for prosecutors, expressed some skepticism with the parole reform bills.
“The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) has not supported or opposed these bills,” said DAASNY President and Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn, in a statement.
“DAASNY has, however,” he continued,” pointed out to the legislature multiple concerns with these bills that remain unaddressed. Both of these bills undermine judicial discretion and would allow the sentences of violent offenders to be greatly reduced without regard to the threat they might still pose to our communities. DAASNY is willing to sit down with the sponsors of the bills to share our public safety concerns.”
The district attorneys from three of New York State’s most populous counties — Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Manhattan — have all publicly supported parole reform.
Advocates are counting on related bills in the lower house of the state legislature to be introduced when the session begins in January. They said on Wednesday that they need Stewart-Cousins, the senate majority leader, and Carl Heastie, the state assembly speaker, to do one key thing.
“Allow the bills to go to a vote,” said Deskovic.
He, McQueen, and Hoylman-Sigal all said that it appears that there’s enough support in the legislature for the bills to pass.