As someone who represents people who have been directly impacted by draconian sentences and sentencing trends like mandatory minimums and three strikes, I am deeply moved by the plight of elders in prison.
Elderly people in prison face unique challenges. Maintaining relationships is difficult, and becomes harder as years go by. People with long sentences are losing their families to strain, and eventually, to the natural processes of aging. Aging is difficult in the best circumstances, but in prison, the aches and pains that might be easily treated on the outside can become life-changing and debilitating when treated insufficiently in prison. If an elderly person begins acting erratically on the outside, they might be referred to a neurologist or a gerontologist, to make sure they are not suffering from any one of a host of degenerative illnesses. On the inside, erratic behavior isn’t treated as a potential medical need, but as a disciplinary issue. Thus, something like early onset Alzheimers could end up with a medically needy patient being confined in solitary for long periods of time. Needless to say, the issues facing our aging prison population are heartbreaking, and also expensive for the state. There are good reasons for releasing elderly people, especially those who have already served long terms, and those who are ill or disabled. But it is traditionally very difficult to win discretionary release, or parole, even for the oldest and most unwell inmates, especially if the individual was convicted of a violent crime.
New York State has made some moves toward reforming parole laws. But the Board of Parole has been slow to implement these reforms, and continue to deny discretionary release to people on the basis of a crime they may have committed decades ago, no matter how old, or how reformed they may be.
Recently I had the great honor of working with some of my heroes to draft a letter asking that the Board of Parole take seriously the rehabilitative goals of the penal system, and assess the person who stands before them now, as opposed to considering only the past crime — a fact that can never change. In particular, we called upon the Board to resist pressure from the PBA, a police union that floods the parole commissioners with one-click form letters that they claim represent “community opposition” to an individual’s parole. This open letter was published in the New York Law Journal, and you can read more here.