Republican senators grilled three top Spitzer administration officials Tuesday at a public hearing about recent steep increases in the number of murderers and other violent felons released on parole.
Neither the officials nor the senators came up with an explanation for the trend, which started before the end of the administration of Republican Gov. George Pataki.
Denise O’Donnell, commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services, testified that the number of A-1 felony offenders, primarily murderers, released at their first appearance before a Parole Board panel was 10 in 2005. It increased to 20 in 2006 and to 40 in the first 11 months of 2007, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s first year in office.
The number of A-1 offenders — those guilty of the worst violent felonies — released at a reappearance before a Parole Board panel increased from 63 in 2005 to 128 in 2006 to 185 in the first 11 months of 2007.
O’Donnell said 844 offenders were denied release by the Parole Board in 2007. The Parole Board can authorize the release of prisoners who have served their minimum sentences.
O’Donnell also noted that the state is defending a federal class action lawsuit which alleges that “due to an unofficial policy adopted by the prior administration, offenders serving sentences for A-1 violent offenses were systematically denied parole without genuine consideration of the factors established by the Legislature.” Other lawsuits have raised similar claims, she said, which she could not discuss because they are in litigation.
Under Spitzer, O’Donnell said, “the direction given to the Parole Board is that we expect the Parole Board to function strictly within the confines of the law and to consider the statutory factors which you, the Legislature, require when determining whether release on parole is warranted. That is the only instruction given to the Parole Board. Nothing more, and nothing less.”
O’Donnell said later, “We know of no policy that existed” under the Pataki administration of improperly denying parole.
Neither she, Parole Board Chairman George Alexander nor Correctional Services Commissioner Brian Fischer came up with an explanation for the recent increase in paroles granted to A-1 offenders.
The New York Alliance for Rational Parole Policies did attempt an explanation. According to its statement released Tuesday: “During the Pataki years decisions were almost exclusively based on the nature of the crime. The law says that ‘nature of the crime’ is but one of several criteria to be considered in the decision making process. Under Governor Spitzer, parole commissioners have been instructed to follow the law, i.e. consider all the factors and not just the nature of the crime, and to give equal weight to each of the factors rather than favoring ‘nature of the crime’ as the most important factor.”
Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, chairman of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, said he was concerned about the release trend and wants to find out the reason for it. The state’s “zero tolerance” approach has helped bring crime rates down, he said after the hearing, and he does not want to see that successful record jeopardized.
At the hearing, Nozzolio read from a Jan. 15 letter to him signed by nine members of the Capital District Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. “Before any major changes are made in the laws and policies of New York state to release violent felons back to society,” the letter stated, “we hope that the voices of victims and their families will be given major consideration in any such decision.”
Alexander said the Parole Board’s policy is, “Never can a victim be denied the opportunity to be heard, and never can a legal technicality preclude them from being heard.”
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