The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)
The New Jersey State Parole Board routinely refuses to release parole-eligible inmates from prison, leaving many people languishing behind bars far longer than sentencing judges intended, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender says in a recent report calling for more oversight.
The 1979 Parole Act requires inmates to be paroled as soon as they’re eligible unless the board determines “by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that the inmate will commit a crime” if released on parole.
But the board instead regularly denies parole to inmates, basing their decisions on psychological reports, risk assessment tools, and victim impact statements they keep confidential from parole applicants, attorneys Joseph Russo and Alison Perrone wrote in the report.
That deprives inmates — who appear before the board without counsel — of knowing what evidence is being used to keep them incarcerated, the report says.
“The essentially unrestricted discretion the board has been given — and takes full advantage of — is rarely questioned by New Jersey courts. This has created a system with little oversight, little due process, and manifest injustice,” said Russo and Perrone, co-chairs of the Office of the Public Defender’s Parole Project.
The attorneys call for the creation of a Racial Impact Committee to study racial disparities within the parole release process.
Tony Ciavolella, a parole board spokesman, said parole decisions “are made in accordance with statutory laws and properly implemented through the Administrative Code of New Jersey. The State Parole Board does not discuss specific details on any individual case, but they are decided upon impartially, fairly, and in accordance with administrative regulations.”
The essentially unrestricted discretion the board has been given — and takes full advantage of — is rarely questioned by New Jersey courts. This has created a system with little oversight, little due process, and manifest injustice.
– Joseph Russo and Alison Perrone
Just over half of the 5,250 people who sought parole in 2020 were approved for release, according to the report. But the pandemic likely increased 2020’s release rate, considering the state’s strategy of releasing thousands of inmates during the pandemic to slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. Far fewer inmates were granted release in previous years, with the board approving only 40% of parole applications in 2019 and 43% in 2018, the report noted.
Supporters of Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther imprisoned in 1973 for the murder of a state trooper, say the report underscores their oft-voiced concerns over his continued incarceration.
Acoli has been eligible for parole since 1993, but the Parole Board has denied his release eight times, claiming he poses a risk to reoffend.
Yet Acoli hasn’t had a disciplinary infraction since he became eligible for parole, said Soffiyah Elijah, an organizer with the Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance. He even teaches a critical-thinking class in prison for inmates about to be released, to help them avoid reoffending, Elijah said.
Plus, at age 84, he has shown signs of early dementia and has lingering health problems after getting hospitalized with COVID-19 last year, she said. The rate of recidivism drops to less than 1% for people over age 65, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
“Mr. Acoli’s case is probably one of the most glaring cases of obvious abuse of power. The 1979 Parole Act made it clear that the burden is not on the person petitioning for release to prove anything. The burden is on the Parole Board to prove that the person is likely to recidivate. But what the Parole Board has been doing is shifting the burden to the applicant, which is illegal,” Elijah said.
In denying Acoli parole, Elijah added, “they say things like ‘he lacks insight,’ ‘he hasn’t shown sufficient remorse,’ or ‘he shows a lack of ability to reflect.’ First of all, none of those things are in the statute. Second, how do you measure those things?”
In their 300-page report, Russo and Perrone call for legislative and administrative changes to strengthen due process protections and remove problematic aspects of the parole release process.
Specifically, they say the parole board should be prohibited from “relying upon factors that have no sound legal or scientific basis in determining parole eligibility” or using risk assessment tools “that have false negatives and statistically insignificant data.”
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