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Both were serving a maximum of six years on a burglary conviction, Mr. Cassell for breaking into storage units, Mr. Davenport for stealing cellphones. The men are in their 30s and told the board that they had struggled for years with substance abuse — Mr. Cassell with drugs, Mr. Davenport with alcohol. Each had served a prior sentence for theft, and each had done a stretch in inmate dating Davenport confinement for breaking prison rules. Cassell was set free.
But not Mr. The board turned him down, extending his prison term for at least another two years. For all their similarities, there was a telling difference: Mr. Cassell is white; Mr. Davenport is black. And in New York, black men going before the parole board are at a marked disadvantage.
An analysis by The New York Times of thousands of parole decisions from the past several years found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.
It is a disparity that is particularly striking not for the most violent criminals, like rapists and murderers, but for small-time offenders who commit property crimes like stealing a television from a house or shoplifting from Duane Reade — precisely the people many states are now working to keep out of prison in the first place.
Inmates are often given mere minutes to make a case for their freedom before the New York State Board of Parole. Many hearings are by video conference. Read the transcripts of four cases to get a sense of the parole decision-making process.
Sincewhite inmates serving two to four years for a single count of third-degree burglary have been released after an average of days, while black inmates served an average of days for the same inmate dating Davenport. The racial disparity in parole decisions in the state is perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of a broken system.
Intended as a progressive tool to promote good behavior, parole has devolved into a hurried, often chaotic procedure. Inmates typically get less than 10 minutes to plead their cases before they are sent back to their cells. The parole board has not been fully staffed for years and rarely sees a prisoner in person. Inmates are usually glimpsed from the shoulders up on a video screen. Commissioners — as board members are called — often read through files to prepare for the next interview as the inmate speaks.
The whole process is run like an assembly line. They hear cases just two days a week and see as many as 80 inmates in that time.
They tend to have backgrounds in law enforcement rather than rehabilitation. Most are white; there is currently only one black man, and there are no Latino men. In short, they have little in common with the black and Latino inmates who make up nearly three-quarters of the state prison population.
At a September board meeting, one commissioner, Marc Coppola, complained that he had trouble keeping track of which inmate he was interviewing.
Coppola said, according to video of the meeting. While inmate dating Davenport is not possible to know whether race is a factor in any particular parole decision, a pattern of racial inequity is clear when the data are examined on a large scale. The Times analyzed 13, parole decisions for male inmates over a three-year period ending in May.
The analysis included only first-time appearances before the board, which take place after inmates complete their minimum sentence. The board rarely released violent offenders of any race, denying nearly 90 percent of them at their initial interview. But among offenders imprisoned for more minor felonies, the racial disparity is glaring. For third-degree burglars who had no earlier prison sentences, the board released 41 percent of white inmates compared with 30 percent of blacks and Latinos.
The imbalance is especially stark for younger inmates. Among male prisoners under 25 who had no prior state prison sentences, the parole board released 30 percent of whites but only 14 percent of blacks and Latinos. The Times did not have access to the full range of information the board took into. Still, even before a black inmate takes a seat in the hearing room and utters a word, the odds are stacked against him. Guards punish black men in some prisons at twice the rate of whites, send them to solitary confinement more often and keep them there longer, a Times analysis of nearly 60, disciplinary cases from last year found.
And bad prison records make it that much harder to be granted parole. The Times reviewed transcripts of parole hearings from the first quarter of this year, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. They all involved inmates guilty of burglary in the third degree, like Samuel McQuilkin, a black inmate with a long history of minor crimes who was convicted of stealing chicken nuggets inmate dating Davenport a school cafeteria. It is often hard to pinpoint what the deciding factor is for commissioners.
Others are more interested in family ties. In an interview process that is impersonal — 95 of the hearings examined by the Times were conducted by video — any rapport an inmate can establish with board members is likely to help.
A majority of commissioners are white, and like most of the white inmates in the New York system, they come from upstate. While hearings usually go quickly and focus on criminal and prison disciplinary history, W. William Smith, a commissioner who is also white, spent time reminiscing with Mr. Conley about summers spent white-water rafting in the Adirondacks.
Smith asked. Smith said he had done similar work. The tone was different at the hearing for Mr. Davenport, the black inmate convicted of stealing cellphones. Kevin Ludlow, a white board member from Utica, pressed him to confess any additional crimes he might have committed.
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Ludlow asked. What do you figure, five, six? How many? Davenport said.
But this is the only one. Though being a parole commissioner is considered a full-time job, only two days a week are devoted to hearing cases. Every week, four teams of two or three commissioners are dispatched around the state to administrative offices for video conferences or one of the few facilities where interviews are still conducted in person.
The condensed schedule leaves commissioners with little time to prepare. They typically see their cases on the morning of the hearings, when they arrive to find a cardboard box with a stack of folders placed beside their chair.
For blacks facing parole in new york state, s of a broken system
According to data from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the board holds about 12, hearings a year and may conduct as many as 40 interviews a day. In practice, only one commissioner presides over a hearing, while the other two try to pay attention as they read files for upcoming cases, according to four former commissioners whose service on the board spanned from to To save time, parole rulings are sometimes drafted beforehand.
Inmates complained that it often seemed as if what they had to say did not matter. At his hearing in January, James McArdelle sounded surprised that the commissioners appeared to be paying attention. The board has long been understaffed, and it now has 13 commissioners, though as many as 19 may be appointed.
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Video conferences save time and may cut costs, but the former commissioners interviewed by The Times said they believed the inmates were inmate dating Davenport shortchanged. Johnson said. Inmates have little recourse to challenge parole decisions. They can appeal to the State Supreme Court, but judges in New York can only order a new parole hearing, not overturn the original decision.
Even if the decision is sent back, the appeal process can take two years, and by then an inmate is usually entitled to a new hearing anyway. Hallerdin checked her file. It was a jarring example of how unprepared the board can be. At times, two or more inmates with the same name were included in the same case file, they said. John Kelly, who was 59 at the time, explained that he had completed only the sixth grade.
He is classified by the corrections department as seriously mentally ill and was homeless when he was arrested for shoplifting at Duane Reade. Despite the confusion, the hearing proceeded, with the commissioners deciding to release Mr.
Kelly, who is white.