Support is building to reform the state's parole process amid legislators' rush to pass a host of criminal justice measures within the next two weeks.
Lawmakers in the Assembly Correction Committee advanced legislation Wednesday to mandate any person in New York prison aged 55 and older to be eligible for a parole hearing after they've served at least 15 years of their sentence. It would include people serving life sentences.
Stanley Bellamy says the Elder Parole bill could have changed his life.
The 60-year-old was released last month after 37 1/2 years in state prison for a 1985 murder conviction.
"The facts of the crime is going to stay the same no matter what, but the individual can change," Bellamy said. "So give them an opportunity to show their growth and development and their change, and that's what these bills will do. Most of the people these bills are going to effect have already been incarcerated for over 20 years."
As the number of older adults in state prisons continue to rise, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has encouraged the Legislature to consider policy to reduce the number of incarcerated people over age 50, arguing they are more costly to provide care for. More than half of state departments of correction across the U.S. define people in prison as "older" after age 50.
The activist who founded the MeToo movement came out in support of the state's proposed parole reforms this week.
Republican lawmakers stand vehemently opposed to the legislation, saying it will continue to erode public safety.
Minority members of the Assembly Correction Committee argued the shooter who killed 10 people at the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo last year would be eligible for parole when he turns 55 years old if the bill becomes law.
"Are we really vetting whether that individual can really acclimate back into society without being a recidivist?" said Assemblyman Michael Reilly, a Republican from Staten Island.
Lawmakers also advanced a measure measure coined the Fair & Timely parole bill would require the state Parole Board to release people in prison after serving the minimum period of their sentence barring evidence they pose a public safety threat.
The proposals would mandate a parole hearing but do not guarantee release. Advocates argue the reforms are needed to help people in prison rehabilitate, leading to healing for incarcerated people and crime victims alike.
Under current state law, Parole Board members must consider the likelihood that an incarcerated person would commit future crimes upon release. In 2015, about 17% of incarcerated people were released after their first appearances in front of the board, and only 20% on subsequent appearances, according to the legislation.
Bellamy was serving a life sentence, but was released after Gov. Kathy Hochul granted him clemency in December. He says he was a changed man and ready to return to society decades ago.
"In 1991, I was a different person from that 23-year-old that committed the crime," he said. "I was a totally different person in six years. It didn't take me 37 years to make that transformation."
Assembly Democrats also advanced legislation Wednesday to develop a parole system for people in prison with a terminal illness or disability, to require electronic medical records in state prisons and standardize the visitation system for incarcerated people that allow personal contact.
"Right now, each facility has different rules and regs on visitation, so I think it gives more clarity for the workforce and for the visiting public as to when they can visit someone," Assembly Correction Committee chair Erik Dilan said.
Meanwhile, public safety measures posed by Republicans are at a standstill.
Reilly, a former lieutenant with the New York Police Department, sponsors legislation to increase penalties for youth gun crimes and repeated shoplifting, and to give judges additional discretion to consider dangerousness when setting bail.
His public safety measures stalled in committee and will die this session.
"Once again, that was just because it was introduced by someone from the minority conference," said Reilly, adding his Democratic colleagues sponsor similar measures to crack down on shoplifting and rampant theft. "That's why the bill wasn't pushed forward."
Democrats also did not advance measures posed by their Republican colleagues to mandate life sentences without parole for child murderers and make offenses against law enforcement a hate crime.
The Clean Slate Act continues to be a top criminal justice priority for lawmakers before session ends. As it currently stands, the measure would would seal criminal records after three years for misdemeanors and seven for felonies or violent crimes after an individual has finished their prison sentence, and is no longer on parole.
Hochul supports the proposal, which would help people with prior convictions to more easily secure employment and housing. But legislative leaders continue to disagree on the length of time for the waiting period to seal records, and when that clock should begin after someone is released from prison.