ALBANY — Police officials strongly criticized the state parole board Monday, arguing that under Gov. Andrew Cuomo it has dramatically lowered the bar for potentially dangerous criminals to win release from prison.
This year, the panel has agreed to release a man who killed three police officers, two additional murderers of cops and another killer whose victim was a Bronx prosecutor, said Patrick Lynch, president of the union for New York City police officers.
"This sends a clear message to New Yorkers that there is no crime too vicious or criminal too depraved to win a favorable release decision," Lynch told members of the state Senate Crime Victims Committee.
The Cuomo administration accused Senate Republicans, who maintain a tenuous grip on the Legislature's upper chamber, of using the parole issue to frighten voters as November elections approach.
Several Cuomo appointees, including the head of the state prison and parole system, Anthony J. Annucci, were invited to speak at the forum. But they avoided being questioned by the senators, choosing to file written statements with the panel overseen by Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma,
"These hearings are nothing more than an election-year stunt by the Senate Republicans, and we're not going to be their props," Cuomo spokesman Tyrone Stevens said.
Stevens noted that Cuomo's appointments to the parole board have been confirmed by Senate Republicans.
The hearing was organized to examine a range of parole practices and scrutinize Cuomo's use of his executive powers this year to set up a system for granting parolees voting privileges in state elections. Republicans complained the latter move bypassed lawmakers and would allow sex offenders to cast ballots inside public schools.
Cuomo moved to extend voting rights to parolees earlier this after the issue was raised by Cynthia Nixon, his then-rival in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, which the incumbent won handily in September. Cuomo has come under fire for the decision by Marc Molinaro, the GOP nominee for governor. A Siena College poll released Monday showed Cuomo maintaining a big lead over Molinaro, 50 percent to 28 percent.
Annucci said in his statement that 11 paroled sex offenders have applied to vote at schools so far, and, of those, parole officers granted just two requests.
The sex offenders face a variety of restrictions and must get approval from school district officials and tell parole officers the precise time they plan to vote, he added.
Extending voting privileges to the parolees, said Annucci, a Cuomo appointee, amounts to "the next logical step for this state to further promote their further reintegration into society."
But critics of the system for how prison inmates are evaluated for release accused the state of minimizing input from crime victims while leaving laws intact that grant inmates who have served their minimum sentences the right to a parole hearing every two years, regardless of the gravity of the crime.
Peter Kehoe, director of the state Sheriffs Association, said input from crime victims should be given "great weight" and information from police officers involved in arresting those up for parole should also be solicited since they could size up how a release would impact local communities.
A former parole commissioner whose term expired earlier this year said those making parole decisions are swamped with cases. James Ferguson, a lawyer, said the parole board has a total of 19 positions but seven of them remain vacant.
Ferguson, who had been an appointee of former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, said recent parole regulations steer release determinations to rely too heavily on risk assessments and an inmate's behavior behind bars. He was also critical of some recent parole decisions.
"I don't think that somebody who intentionally assassinates a police officer should get out, ever," he said.
But Michelle Lewin, director of the Parole Preparation Project, a group that advocates for the legal rights of incarcerated felons, applauded the fact that parole release rates have been rising in recent months.
She sternly told Republican senators: "It's not even clear that your throw-away-the-key mentality is shared by your voters."
Gallivan later told CNHI that he hopes his committee will formulate proposals that bring greater transparency and accountability to New York's parole system.
"It's the state of our current law that the process is what it is right now, and it doesn't lend itself to the public or policymakers knowing what is going on," he said. "I think it needs to be opened somehow."