The national decarceration and “prison abolition” movements aim to free as many people from confinement as possible, using any available arguments. The crisis on Rikers Island, for instance, prompted rapid passage of the “Less Is More Act,” which reduces the penalties for “technical violations” of parole, such as not checking in with parole officers, doing drugs, or hanging out with felons.
The general process of parole and clemency—by which convicted criminals can get released before the expiration of their sentence, usually predicated on years of good behavior, the expression of remorse, and faith that the inmate has repented of his wicked ways—has been identified as a soft spot in the nation’s system of punishment. The public has limited appetite for non-carceral alternatives for serious criminals, such as restorative justice or community supervision, but it is easier to sell people on stories of redemption after the partial completion of a sentence.
The criminal-justice advocacy complex—including leftist officials, major foundations and think tanks, activist groups, and supportive media voices—has embraced this fight. The ACLU, for instance, calls the nation’s parole process “under-utilized, broken, or non-existent.” Following controversial commutations of the sentences of terrorist killers Sirhan Sirhan and David Gilbert, the New York Times ran an item by convicted murderer and jailhouse journalist John J. Lennon taking issue with a system that relies on gubernatorial grace to achieve mercy. “But many of us are perplexed about clemency,” writes Lennon. “Who deserves mercy? Can we earn it? If our victims won’t forgive us, will a governor? And why should mercy fall on the grace of the governor alone?” The implication is that mercy is too important to be left up to an individual and must be codified in order to make early release from prison impartial and relatively automatic.
Activists argue that older prisoners pose no threat to society and should be let out of prison as a matter of course. A proposal in the New York State legislature called the Elder Parole Bill seeks to end “death by incarceration” by giving inmates over the age of 55 “the opportunity for parole consideration after they have served 15 years of their sentence,” in the words of State Senator Brad Hoylman, the bill’s sponsor. According to Hoylman, “long prison sentences without a meaningful chance for parole don’t keep New Yorkers safer or deter crime. They keep people languishing in jail cells for decades after they’ve been rehabilitated.”
About 21 percent of the people incarcerated in New York State prisons are over 50. It’s a myth, though, that most people in prison will be there for an extraordinary period of time. The average inmate currently serving time in prison has been there for two years and is looking at an average of 19 months until he is released, though almost two-thirds of all prisoners have been convicted of a violent felony. The percentage of people serving a sentence of life without parole is actually tiny—less than 1 percent of all inmates.
So it’s useful to consider who would really be served by Hoylman’s bill, which aims to “help bring our elders home” and give them “a chance to reconnect with their families and communities in their golden years.” Anyone over 55 who was sentenced to life without parole, having already served at least 15 years, is likely to have committed some heinous crimes. What types of people would benefit from the Elder Parole Bill?
Mark David Chapman, who stalked and assassinated former Beatle John Lennon in 1980, is 66, and has spent more than 40 years in prison. Colin Ferguson shot 25 people on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993, citing his hatred of whites. He is now 63. Joel Rifkin murdered at least 17 women between 1989 and 1993, dumping their bodies in creeks and empty lots; Rifkin is now 62. David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam killer, murdered six people and wounded seven others in the course of his 1976 spree. Berkowitz is now 68, has become an evangelical Christian, and writes essays on faith and repentance for Christian websites and periodicals. Richard Angelo, a Long Island nurse who poisoned dozens of his patients, killing at least eight, was sent to prison in 1987; he is 59 now.
By the longevity standards of 2021, these convicted killers could easily live for another 25 years each, and with good health could certainly enjoy their “golden years” in relative comfort outside the confines of the New York State correctional system. Sounds good for them; the benefits to society, on the other hand, are somewhat dubious.
It’s not the case that violent crime is strictly a young man’s game. In 2020, nearly 24 percent of new commitments for violent felonies in New York State were people over 40, and 10 percent were older than 50. And there is no reason to assume that sex murderers and poisoners change their attitudes just because they qualify for discounted theater tickets.
Indeed, the decarceration movement finds itself in an uncomfortable paradox that it prefers to skirt. The prison system, we’re told, is a vicious hellhole that instructs young people how to become better criminals and dehumanizes its subjects to the point that they become moral monsters. But at the same time, we are asked to believe that innumerable longtime inmates have become valedictorians, AIDS educators, peer counselors, and service-dog trainers, whom society should recruit at once to teach anger management to young people “at risk” of becoming involved in the justice system. How did they turn their lives around in such a nightmarish environment?
It’s hard to have it both ways. Policymakers need to acknowledge the reality of a persistently violent subculture that is not amenable to do-gooder social engineering. We will continue to need prisons as long as we have people who need to be in them.
Photo: Cesar Okada/iStock