The Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD) is New York’s oldest provider of appellate representation to poor people convicted of felonies, and the City’s second oldest institutional indigent defense office. OAD handles post-conviction cases from the Bronx and Manhattan, including direct appeals before the Appellate Division, First Department, and the New York Court of Appeals. OAD litigates sex offender registration level hearings, drug law resentencings, and motions to overturn wrongful convictions (including claims based on new or undisclosed evidence, prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel). OAD also advocates for improved prison and parole conditions, and provides reentry assistance. Since its founding in 1988, OAD has maintained a national reputation for superb appellate advocacy and innovation, as well as a holistic, client-centered, approach to representation. OAD has repeatedly been recognized by the New York State Bar Association and the appellate courts for excellent representation.
On March 14, 2018, the New York State Parole Board announced that it was granting parole to Mr. Herman Bell – an individual who, in 1971, received a 25-years-to-life sentence pursuant to his conviction for two counts of second-degree murder. The Board explained that it concluded Mr. Bell was eligible for release based on a number of factors, including Mr. Bell’s age (70), the number of years he spent in prison (47), his commitment to programming, and a Department of Corrections and Community Supervision assessment finding that Mr. Bell poses a low risk to the community. In response, numerous New York City and State elected officials have publicly criticized the Board’s decision, asserting that the nature of Mr. Bell’s conviction renders his release inappropriate. Although OAD lacks sufficient information to take a position on Mr. Bell’s entitlement to release, OAD firmly believes that no one should be denied release based solely on the facts of a crime – particularly not one that is almost five-decades old. Not only must evidence of rehabilitation be a critical component of any parole decision, the parole process must be independent, transparent and offer a meaningful opportunity for release. Unfortunately, the critique of Mr. Bell’s recent grant of parole suggests that New York’s parole process lacks such fundamental guarantees.
“Instead of asking why the Board granted parole this time, we should be asking why the Board doesn’t grant parole more often,” said Lisa Packard, Managing Attorney for OAD. “If rehabilitation is a goal of incarceration, we should applaud the parole board’s decision to release a person whose institutional record warrants it.”
Over the past thirty years, OAD has represented thousands of people in prison and witnessed first-hand our clients’ extraordinary efforts to achieve rehabilitation and release. The suggestion that the Parole Board’s decision should be reconsidered or reversed solely because Mr. Bell was convicted of the murder of a police officer – and regardless of his substantial evidence of rehabilitation – sends a profoundly disturbing message that New York’s sentencing structure is disingenuous and that some sentences are parole-eligible on-paper-only. A reversal of Mr. Bell’s grant of parole on this basis would undermine New York’s recent progress in the parole arena, and discourage meaningful efforts at reform and rehabilitation by people currently serving parole-eligible sentences.
In New York, repeated parole denials are, unfortunately, the norm. Indeed, Mr. Bell was previously denied parole seven times. The Parole Board’s decision to grant parole to Mr. Bell after considering evidence of his rehabilitation – and the facts and circumstances of his crime – appears to be an example of the system working properly.