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New Bills Address Aging Prisoners

WILL WALKEY, HOST: The size of New York’s prison population has decreased but the number of older inmates has increased. In the past decade, the number of incarcerated people over the age of 50 has doubled. Now two bills are being considered in the state legislature that could remove barriers to parole for older people in prison. Anya Schultz reports.

ANYA SCHULTZ, HOST: Jose Saldana is 68 years old. Today he lives in the Bronx and directs The Release Aging Prisoners Project, an advocacy organization. But two years ago he was at Green Haven, a maximum security prison in Dutchess County where he’d been for 38 years.

JOSE SALDANA: I lost so many good friends over the years. I thought maybe I could be next one next to me could be next. And I said, if I get out, if I can just get out, I can make a difference.

SCHULTZ: Saldana was serving a sentence of 25 years to life. So the only way he could get out would be parole. He appeared before the parole board four times. Each time they focused on what got him to prison instead of what he had done in the nearly 40 years since.

SALDANA: We go with the expectation that our accomplishments will be valued. Instead, they dismiss that they're insignificant and they focus entirely on the crime that I committed in 1979.

SCHULTZ: Two years ago, Saldana went in front of the board for the fifth time. The new commissioner discovered Saldana had gotten a college degree and had started anti-violence and victim awareness programs in the prison. Two days later he was granted his parole. But the focus on rehabilitation is not the norm, says Laura Roan with the Osborne Association. She helps older people in prison prepare to go in front of the parole board.

LAURA ROAN: When someone has committed a violent crime, the parole board reads the details of those crimes, that crime as if it were yesterday.

SCHULTZ: Roan says the parole board has a tough job, but they should have to consider a person’s rehabilitation in prison.

ROAN: When folks are no longer a danger and when folks are clearly transformed and not a risk to the community, it makes sense to release them.

SCHULTZ: Two new bills, now before the state legislature would reform the parole process. The first requires the board to take into account a person’s rehabilitation, not just their initial crime. The second lets anyone who is over 55 and served 15 years in prison seek parole, regardless of their crime. Kevin Barnes-Ceeney is a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven. He says the growing population of older people in prison results from the wave of harsh sentences.

KEVIN BARNES-CEENEY: A big reason why there are so many older people incarcerated is because we have been on an imprisonment binge since about 1973. We’ve got nearly 50 years of trying to incarcerate our way out of social problems.

SCHULTZ: Barnes-Ceeney says when people get older, the likelihood they will commit another crime goes down while the cost incarcerating them goes up. But others don’t see that as a reason to grant parole. Michael Doney is the president of the association of former state troopers in New York. He’s 75 years old, and after a full career in law enforcement, finds it hard to believe that people who commit violent crimes can change.

MICHAEL DONEY: When you commit a murder you got to know there’s a penalty for it. I don’t care if they are 150 years old. If they’ve got a life sentence, they should serve life.

BEV WARNOCK: Just because they're 55 doesn't mean anything.

SCHULTZ: Bev Warnock is the executive director of Parents of murdered children, an organization that tries to make sure people are not released on parole.

WARNOCK: You know, a loved one has no age anymore. They you know, when they murdered them, that's the end of their rope. They don't have you know, they can't turn 55.

SCHULTZ: Last year New York passed several criminal justice reform bills. These went into effect in January and have been met with some criticism. The parole reform bills remain in committee, pending a vote. Anya Schultz, Columbia Radio news.


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