ALBANY — While New York's prison population has declined sharply in recent years, it would be reduced even further under a proposal known as elder parole, allowing aging convicts to be considered for release even with years left on their sentence.
The debate has been simmering for several years. But with a new legislative session, advocates for the idea are getting a boost from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
In a report issued Thursday on demographic trends in the prison population, DiNapoli made it clear he believes the idea of freeing older inmates earlier is worth consideration.
"In the months ahead, policymakers should examine opportunities to reduce the population of incarcerated individuals 50 and over where public safety would not be compromised," DiNapoli said.
A legislative bill proposing that inmates at least 55 years of age be considered for parole was co-sponsored last year by then-Sen. Brian Benjamin. Benjamin is now the state's lieutenant governor, having been plucked from the legislature last year by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
DiNapoli's report also discusses the potential financial consequences for taxpayers as the prison population deals with an increasing concentration of older inmates.
Lawmakers in recent years have unsuccessfully nudged state Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci to provide them a financial breakdown of the costs associated with caring for aging residents of the prison system, though he has not provided the data, DiNapoli reported.
At a legislative hearing in February 2021, Annucci testified, "The older you get in prison, the more costly [the] level of medical care you are required to receive."
The comptroller found the average annual cost of providing health care in prisons has climbed to $7,380, which is 29% higher than the cost eight years ago.
The prison population is now 31,262, with 24.3% being people ages 50 and older. In 2008, when the inmate population was 62,597, just 12% were 50 and older, the report noted.
DiNapoli also encouraged state leaders to closely monitor the effects of a new law aimed at avoiding re-admissions to prison of parolees who commit technical violations of the conditions of their release.
Republicans and some upstate Democrats have voiced reservations about the elder parole proposal.
Assembly Member Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, an ally of the corrections officers' union, noted that at traditional parole hearings, candidates for release are usually asked to explain whether they understand the ramifications of their crime, and the underlying crime that put them in prison is evaluated before release is granted.
"I don't like the idea of taking a broad brush to this just because a person is a certain age," Jones said.
Prison reform advocates have identified elder parole and a second proposal billed as the Fair and Timely Parole Act as two priorities in 2022.
Jose Saldana, director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said keeping older adults behind bars when they can be safely released is depriving communities of individuals who can mentor young people and "provide peer-counseling to people with substance-abuse disorder."
Critics of such measures argue the state has put the needs of convicts ahead of community safety. They cite the fact the state parole board has released more than a dozen convicted killers of police officers over the past several years.