Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Releasing Aging Prisoners Project (R.A.P.P.) By Herman Bell

Hello, everybody - my name is Herman Bell. I've been imprisoned since 1973 (for nearly 40 years). I am 65 years old. I've appeared before five parole boards and have been denied five times. Each Board recognizes my considerable accomplishments: program fulfillment, release plans, letters of support, and that I have no disciplinary concerns. But I'm still denied parole. The Board writes that after careful review, release at this time is incompatible with the welfare of society, and they say that my release would deprecate the serious nature of my charge of conviction. Thus, the Board is resentencing me, as it does others, for an offense on which the court has already pronounced judgment.

I am a former member of the Black Panther Party. I am a violent offender. I was convicted and sentenced in 1975 to 25 years to life. Fortunately, violent offenders are not precluded from parole. A 25-years-to-life sentence does not mean life without the possibility of parole. Yet, "life without parole" is precisely what I and countless other NYS prisoners similarly sentenced are subjected to by the NYS Parole Board.

A New York State study revealed that people released after serving long sentences for murder (mostly older individuals) had the lowest recidivism rate for committing a new offense, 1.3% -- lower than any other category of those released. Research show that, by age 50, most people have outlived the years they are most likely to commit crimes. At age 50, the research shows the recidivism rate drops to just over 2% and to almost 0% by age 65.
Years ago, the New York State Parole Board actually had authority to set a minimum sentence of a convicted person when the court had not. Today, though, the Board is no longer charged with that sentencing responsibility; yet, it persists in doing so with continual two-year-hits after two-year hits which, for so many elder prisoners, results in de facto resentencing to life without parole.

What does the aging prisoner issue hope to accomplish? Aside from changing the narrative in the perception of crime and punishment, the aging prisoner issue concern men and women who've served long sentences in prison, who've fulfilled all statutory and structural requirements, and yet are still being denied parole. Research and statistics show that they pose no appreciable "safety risk" to society. So the aging prisoner issue is asking: "Why are there elder men and women not being released from prison?" A fresh look at this quasi-legal, unproductive policy is called for. Release of these aging prisoners would free-up funds that can alleviate some of our pressing social service needs - such as schools, health care, housing, and job-skill training.
In these troubling times of mass incarceration, prison as a profit-making industry, and unabated racial persecution, the call for balance, fairness and accountability in the NYS parole process is all the more pressing. The injustice of unending incarceration demands that we seriously address this unproductive policy of denying elderly men and women parole.
A change in the narrative and perception of crime and punishment is long overdue, and the issue of "aging prisoners" is a social justice issue. Exchanging our views will hopefully lead to organizing to secure elders' release; elders coming home can enrich our families and communities and free up desperately needed resources for our people. I feel confident that we can achieve this goal.

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