New York's Juvenile Lifers still await freedom
Michel Smith 2 Apr 2018

New York's Juvenile Lifers still await freedom

A federal class-action lawsuit was filed against the New York State Parole Board, on Tuesday, claiming that the parole board violates the constitutional rights of juveniles – sentenced to a minimum number of years by ignoring their prison records.

The lawsuit filed by Carlos Flores seems to have sparked debate over the issue of denial of parole applications filed by juvenile lifers.

Mr. Flores was 17 when he along with two other accomplices tried to rob a bar in Queens, N.Y., in January 1981. During the robbery, one of the accomplices shot and killed an off-duty police officer named Robert Walsh – when the officer intervened and tried to stop the robbery.

Mr. Flores was charged with second-degree murder conviction – that carried a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison. However, since Flores was not the shooter, he was sentenced to 21 years of imprisonment. Now that Flores has turned 54, and has already served 37 years behind bars, yet he has been denied parole by the New York State Parole Board.

What’s more surprising is that based on a recent risk-assessment test, it was found that Flores release would pose the least threat to the public. This makes him an ideal candidate for parole. And despite that, the New York State Parole Board for the past 16 years has denied parole to Flores saying, “Discretionary release at this time, would not be compatible with the welfare of society and would tend to deprecate the seriousness of the instant offense and undermine respect for the law”.

Although the New York’s parole board was ordered, by the state appeals court in 2016, to weigh an inmate’s youth when deciding to release that inmate, but the board still often rejects parole to people like Flores.

The New York appeals court said that the Parole officials should release juvenile offenders who have already served their minimum sentences. Further, the court said that, the board can keep an inmate locked up, if it has evidence that the inmate poses threat to the public. But the board should also give inmate chances to show that he/she is ready to return to society.

New York holds roughly 630 prisoners who are serving indeterminate life sentences for committing crimes before the age of 18. But even after completing the prison sentence, most of the juvenile lifers await freedom, as New York’s Parole Board still resists modern understandings of crime and punishment.

Another unsettling problem with the justice system is the racial disparity when it comes to giving parole to juvenile lifers. As per a study, black juveniles were most likely to get harsh juvenile sentences as compared to white juveniles.

Furthermore, even in states having more progressive parole procedures, the rate at which juvenile lifers are released is not rising as it should. That’s because, several parole commissioners hang on to outdated prejudices about juvenile offenders, while others live in fear of freeing the person who may commit another terrible crime.

Since parole commissioners face virtually no answerability for keeping people locked up, as there exist no incentive to vote for release, they disregard new rules and public usually doesn’t know the difference. This persists in spite of the fact that a person is far less likely to commit crimes as he/she get older.

If routinely denied, parole becomes a meaningless concept, which is specifically true in the case of juvenile lifers. And thus, as the Supreme Court has said repeatedly, Parole boards in New York (and other states) must give juvenile lifters a real chance to show they’ve grown up.  

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