But while transforming the parole system in New York could benefit all parole-eligible individuals currently serving time in a state correctional facility, such a transformation could have a particularly profound impact on Black and Latinx inmates and their communities. Not surprisingly, there are significant racial disparities in parole release rates across the state. Like every other facet of the criminal legal system, people of color are disproportionately affected by persistent racial bias (conscious and unconscious) that infects both the parole system as a whole as well as the judgment of the individual parole commissioners tasked with making release decisions. The hard data confirms this longstanding reality.
In 2021, the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University (NYU) Law School, in partnership with the Parole Preparation Project, released a groundbreaking report entitled The Problem with Parole: New York State’s Failing System of Release (Report), which provides data that lays bare the stark realities and persistent dysfunction underlying the parole system.
But first some context. As of November 29, 2022, there were a total of 31,213 people locked inside 44 state prisons across New York. See N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. & Cmty. Supervision, DOCCS Fact Sheet (Nov. 1, 2022). According to the most recent Under Custody report by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), of the total prison population, approximately 12,400 people are serving indeterminate sentences, meaning that they were sentenced to a range of years (e.g., 5 to 15 years), with the possibility of parole after they have served the minimum number of years. Another 7,130 people have been sentenced to a maximum of life in prison, with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum term (e.g., 15 years to life). And 305, or roughly 1 percent of the state’s incarcerated population, are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. See N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. & Cmty. Supervision, Under Custody report as of Jan. 1, 2021 (April 2022). For perspective, at the end of 2021, 23 states had smaller total prison populations than New York’s indeterminate population alone. See Vera Inst. of Just., People in Prison in Winter 2021–22, at 3-4 (February 2022). As such, the vast majority of individuals currently incarcerated in New York will have an opportunity to appear before the Parole Board at some point to advocate for their release. And that means that the actions of the Parole Board have determined—and will continue to determine—the fate of a significant number of incarcerated people.
Further, New York exemplifies the longstanding disparities in incarceration rates playing out across the country. Indeed, as of 2019, more than 70 percent of those locked in New York state prisons were Black or Latinx, despite comprising less than 37 percent of the state’s total population. See NYU Center on Race, Inequality & the Law and Parole Preparation Project, The Problem with Parole: New York State’s Failing System of Release, p. 5 (2021).
In light of those numbers, the racial disparities in release rates, while still jarring, are unsurprising and consistent with disparities across the system. According to the Report, between January 2018 and January 2020, 46 percent of white parole applicants were granted release, compared to just 39 percent of applicants of color. A deeper dive into the numbers makes the disparities even more glaring. Some 43 percent of white applicants appearing before the Board for the first time were granted release, while only 33 percent of first-time Black or Latinx applicants were successful on their first attempt. Moreover, “[r]elease rates for applicants of color have been lower regardless of their age at the time of the interview or how old they were at the beginning of their imprisonment, both of which closely relate to how much a person has grown and changed.”
It is also worth noting that a shocking 62 percent of incarcerated people of color in New York are serving indeterminate sentences with a maximum of life in prison, leaving them at the mercy of the parole system if they ever hope to be released. To put that number in context, consider that less than a quarter of the total prison population is serving such sentences.
The Report also highlights the regional disparities in parole release rates, which can serve as a telling proxy for race and ethnicity. Between October 2017 and October 2019, those incarcerated for crimes originating in the more urban, downstate areas of Westchester and New York City were denied parole approximately three times before being released, resulting in their spending, on average, more than four years in prison beyond their minimum sentences. “By contrast, people convicted in [more rural] upstate counties were denied parole 2 times and forced to serve close to 3 years past their minimum sentence on average.” These regional disparities are not only devastating for the individuals seeking release but also have a detrimental impact on their communities, as their families remain incomplete in their absence, and their communities’ collective political and economic power is severely diminished over time.