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January 12, 2023

Youth Support for New York’s Elder Parole Bill

Aiden Fel

The PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 44 Issue 3.

Comment from the Director of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging:  

"This may be the first time BIFOCAL has published an article written by a high school student.  This article gives me great hope for the advocates and voices of the future." 

Legislation known as the Elder Parole Bill (S.15A/A.8855A) is pending in the New York State Senate that would provide New York State inmates aged 55 and older an opportunity for parole. The bill requires that a hearing before a parole board would be granted regardless of crimes committed and for those persons who have already served at least 15 years. If parole is denied, the board would be required to schedule a follow-up hearing within two years and provide the inmate with a written explanation and legal justification for its decision.

This bill came in the wake of an eye-opening report released by the New York State Comptroller in January of 2022 identifying population trends in New York State’s prisons. The report found that despite a twenty-year trend downward in the overall prison population, the number of incarcerated individuals aged 50 and older has actually been steadily on the rise since 2007. The report highlights that inmates who were at least 50 years old made up 24.3% of the State’s overall prison population in March 2021, as compared to 12% of the population in March, 2008….an increase of more than 100%. By contrast, during this same time period the total prison population has been reduced by half.

The report shared the most recent return-to-custody data released by The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) which show older individuals released on parole from State prison are significantly less likely to be returned to custody for a new crime or parole violation than younger individuals. Adults 55 and older have the lowest rate of recidivism among any age group, hovering at two percent in persons aged 50-65, and dropping to virtually zero for people 65 and older.

The bill offers a creative solution—with little downside—to the overcrowding that exists in New York prisons. Finding a solution to prison overcrowding is especially urgent in the age of COVID-19 and its amplification of contagion concerns within correctional facilities. Social distancing is not achievable and numerous health challenges are exacerbated by crowding and poor ventilation. This bill would reduce prison population and help ease the burden on correctional health of caring for older, more often chronically ill patients. It would provide an option for the release of inmates who develop neurocognitive impairments that most correctional health systems are not equipped to manage with long term care. Given that the average age of death in New York prisons is only 58, these aging prisoners are likely to die behind bars unless opportunities for early parole are introduced.

The bill has faced challenges coming to the floor for a vote. In February of this past year, Assemblyman Dinowitz summed up his concerns with the bill, stating to the press “the fact is that anyone who receives a prison sentence long enough to qualify for elder parole has been convicted of an extremely serious crime. Many of my colleagues—including myself—have very serious concerns that the elder parole bill does not address the type of crime in any way.” He went on to specify that he was not opposed to the bill more generally but would like to see it exclude prisoners convicted of especially serious crimes. His reservations appear to be shared by more than a few of his colleagues in the state legislature. Dinowitz explains “This is just a political reality. We don’t typically bring bills to the floor of the Assembly unless we know we have the votes to pass it. I guarantee you, there aren’t enough votes to pass it.” 

Carol Shapiro, a prison reform advocate who is also a former member of the New York state parole board, pushed back on Dinowitz’s claims, stating “there was generally a lot of support” for the bill, particularly as recidivism for this age group is so low. In her perspective, the likelihood of passage was negatively impacted by concerns about rising crime that took place over the spring. Criminal justice advocates seem to be waiting to regroup until after the November elections take place. I find myself eagerly awaiting the end of the election cycle in a few weeks to once again lend my support for the bill to make it to the legislative floor. 

Who am I? I am a 16-year-old high-school student from the town of Ossining, New York. Undoubtedly, having grown up in the place that is home to the Sing Sing Correctional Facility has ignited my passion to understand the experiences and issues of inmates, and it has helped to develop my wish to support those members of society traditionally regarded as invisible—which would include not only the incarcerated but also the elderly.

There are a myriad of reasons why the long-term success of efforts to improve the lives of our aging population—incarcerated or otherwise—would be greatly enhanced by youth engagement. These reasons contribute to the well-being of the youth themselves (youth participation in the aging community fosters empathy, builds character, enhances a sense of civic duty, and helps to combat ageist stereotypes), and also improve the quality of life of older individuals in their current communities. Innovation and ingenuity will be required to generate solutions to these longstanding and entrenched problems associated with aging and to address issues critical to older people. Engaging the younger members of our communities helps also to cultivate the longitudinal effort that will be required to address particularly longstanding and seemingly intractable dilemmas and to rethink the current solutions we have in place.  

These are among the reasons I find myself, a high-school student not quite old enough to vote, nonetheless invested in the outcome of the Elder Parole Bill. Whatever your age, background, or political leanings, you should be invested, too. 

    Aiden Fel

    Ossining High School

    Aiden Fel is a junior at Ossining High School where he is the Opinions Editor of the school paper. He serves as Chair of the Westchester County High School Democrats, the Co-President of the Westchester County Youth Council, and is an intern for the New York State Senator, Pete Harckham. He founded Soapbox New York, an online organization helping young New Yorkers to engage elected officials through organized letter writing campaigns on criminal justice. During the COVID-19 pandemic he began volunteering in his community playing chess with homebound seniors. Aiden is currently a research assistant at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai investigating treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease. An avid advocate for incarceration reform and prison health policy, Aiden works on youth engagement in the legislation for New York State’s Elder Parole Bill and is conducting an independent study to identify and treat dementia in aging inmate populations.

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