For 45 years, Herman Bell, has been a New York State Prisoner.

After 8 attempts, the Parole Board has given him a release date. It’s a historic moment, the Board almost all of them appointed by Gov. Cuomo is willing to face withering public criticism to release prisoners whose crimes are infamous, but who are good risks for release. In fact, most of them are old men.

Bell was sentenced to 25 years to life under the laws prevailing before mass incarceration and the neo-liberal take-over of the Democratic Party, that is the laws offered the prospect for relief for convicts who were rehabilitated and weren’t dangerous. It’s the days before life without parole.

Bell received the maximum sentence; he and a partner lured two polices officers into an ambush in Harlem housing project. Officer Waverly Jones, Jr. and Joseph Piagentini were killed. The crime drew down the fury of a united city and helped undermine Mayor Lindsay’s chances of running for President.

But a new era is looming. The law and order decades ushered in by President Reagan and the escalating fear of crime in New York City are over. There has been a 26% decline in the prison population from its 1999 peak of 72,000, and with it a change of philosophy. The focus on the past and the crime is giving way to a forward-looking philosophy taking into account evidence of rehabilitation.

A Correctional Facility, in a nation that values liberty, must measure a person’s change in behavior and offer a chance for liberty. It should determine if a person demonstrates a capacity for change. And in this regard Bell has passed the 7 tests posed by the Parole Board: length of sentence (nearly double the 25 years), disciplinary record (only 4 tickets in 45 years), his age 70 and his reentry plan.

Bell, as a cop-killer, faced constant pressure from guards. In September 2017, when he did not get off the phone fast enough, Bell posted on the internet, this account. He received  “a vicious slap aside the head from behind” before he was shoved to the ground. “I sustained multiple kicks, punches to the face and eyes, repeated head slams into concrete, and two cracked ribs.” He was sent to solitary, but after an investigation the guards’ accusation were rejected as unfounded and one of the officers was suspended. Over a 45 year sentence 4 discipline tickets demonstrates forbearance.

Herman Bell enjoys the support of prison reform advocates, civil rights groups, religious leaders, celebrities and former prisoners, he is not man left at the Port Authority trying to find a homeless shelter as often happens to released prisoners. He has an extensive network of friends and supporters including Waverly Jones, Jr., the son of one of officers Bell killed in 1971. In this case, the crime victim took the initiative and reached out.

It stirred something in Bell who realized that Jones’ family had gone through hell. His expressions of remorse and accepting responsibility became fuller after 2010. Parole has a relatively new evidenced based system called COMPAS, a management profile for gauging eligibility for release used by the Prison Rehabilitation Coordinator. Bell whose studies led to two bachelors and a master’s degree presented a low risk of reoffending and qualified for supervised release.

If Bell had supporters so did the opposition led by the police and union leaders. The decision granting Parole provoked a fire storm. The police according to the New York Post are pressing for reconsideration of the decision. Mayor de Blasio wrote a letter of opposition.

Indications are that the Parole Board is standing firm.  The Board will only reconsider if new information is provided, and the Police Benevolent Association cites old information in its letter. But in a world where action speak louder than words, the Board has doubled down on its commitment to considering rehabilitation in releasing prisoner serving long sentences.

A 68-year old man named Christopher Thomas was paroled after serving nearly 33 years for the killing of 2 adults and 8 children on April 15, 1984. It was another front-page crime dubbed the “Palm Sunday Massacre” by the tabloids. He was released without public notice two months ago.  No prisoner can undo the past, he or she cannot make the crime go away, but under the law prisoners must be allowed to demonstrate they can change. The Parole Board is biting the bullet and offering its elderly prisoners a chance to walk.

Waverly Jones, Jr., whose father was one of the slain police officers, vigorously defends the Parole Board, he wrote Mr Bell “expressed genuine remorse, is 70 years old, and has been in prison for 45 years. In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and forgiveness.”

At a news conference, State Senator Kevin Parker blasted those who “question the Parole Board’s integrity, when so many other unfair and unjust decisions have been rendered without this level of interrogation.”

Veteran gay activist Allen Roskoff, who founded “Candles for Clemency,” summed up his support by calling it a “shame of our society” that so many “elderly waste away and die in prison.” Granting parole is sign the State is “turning away from the status quo.”

At the news conference in the office of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jose Saldana and Ishmael Igartua, who did time with Bell, spoke highly of his “calming demeanor” and the help he gave them getting through their long prison sentences.

As is normal in the history of Black Americans, there is a backstory which undermines law and order outrage. In 1971, the Knapp Commission exposed a police department where nearly every officer was on “the pad” extorting money from mobsters running gay bars and dealing drugs, reputable business also contributed to boost police pay. Rogue cops it was said worked as mob hit men.

1971 was a time of horrific violence by the standards of this century. 59 police officers were shot and 12 died, while the Police killed 93 and wounded another 221. In the entire city, 810 shooting incidents recorded that year compared to 81 in 2013 when the police killed 8.

The parole of Herman Bell is turning into a major test of New York State’s capacity for compassion and its ability to turn away from the politics of mass incarceration.

-30-

{note, the evidence of NYC violence in 1971 can be found here around page 56.

http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/downloads/pdf/analysis_and_planning/nypd_annual_firearms_discharge_report_2013.pdf

 

 

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