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May 21, 2007 - Albany Times-Union (NY)

Set Free Prison Politics In New York State

By Anthony Papa

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Thousands of parole petitioners are ready to return to society as productive citizens of New York but remain stuck in prison because of the politics of incarceration. This unwritten policy of former Gov. George Pataki persists in spite of Gov. Eliot Spitzer's attempt to change the nature of the criminal justice system.

Offenders who commit crimes such as murder are actually less likely to return to jail than nonviolent offenders. Nevertheless, after coming to terms with their crimes, they are still wasting away in New York's prisons. Time and again, the parole board fails to weigh all of the relevant statutory factors together with the prisoner's positive accomplishments and productive behavior while incarcerated. Instead, the parole board focuses almost entirely on the nature of the petitioner's crime.

A case in point is the story of John Valverde, a 36-year-old Queens man who recently was denied parole for his third consecutive time. He has already served 15 years of a 10- to 30-year sentence for killing a freelance photographer, Joel Schoenfeld, a 47-year-old Manhattan man with a history of enticing young female models to his studio and sexually assaulting them.

In 1991, Schoenfeld raped John's 19-year-old girlfriend. After unsuccessfully seeking help from the police-powerless to act without the brutalized and traumatized victim coming forward-John Valverde, then a 21-year-old student, confronted Schoenfeld. The ensuing argument turned violent and John shot and killed Schoenfeld.

The single bullet fired that night changed not only John's life forever but also that of his family. His mother, brother and sister have fought endlessly to free John and themselves from the nightmare of his continuing ordeal behind bars. John regrets the act he committed ending the life of an individual who took the honor away from his former girlfriend many years ago.

I know this because I was with John during his time of remorsefulness at Sing Sing prison when I was serving a 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

In 1995, we both graduated from the New York Theological Seminary. I left John behind when I was granted executive clemency by Pataki in 1997. I became an activist against the Rockefeller Drug Laws making many trips to Albany to meet with state legislators to try and convince them to change the laws that had taken away 12 years of my life.

In 1998, I co-founded the Mothers of the New York Disappeared, a leading advocacy group consisting of family members of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. We pleaded our case for years before those laws were partially reformed in 2004. I have dedicated my life to reforming a system that has been plagued by injustice.

Our prisons are full of human beings like John who have made mistakes and are ready to return to society as law-abiding citizens, but are stuck there because of politics.

In denying John's freedom for the third time, the parole board had reasoned that despite his accomplishments as a model prisoner, the violence displayed by his crime outweighed everything else. Why are violent offenders, who seem to be ready to return to society, being hit by the parole board on a continuous basis?

The answer is simple. Politicians and parole officials are reluctant to grant parole to violent prisoners because they are afraid of falling from grace in the eyes of the public. In 2003 Brion Travis, the New York parole commissioner, was reassigned to another department by Pataki after causing an uproar with the release of a high-profile offender involved in the murder of two upstate police officers.

On April 20, about 50 supporters came to Albany to rally on John Valverde's behalf. John's brother Frank stood close to his parents while he explained to the crowd how they were all there to ask the court to overturn the parole board's latest denial through an appeal. If the judge who heard the appeal decides to overturn the denial, John would quickly receive another parole hearing, giving him another chance for freedom.

It is time for the parole board to free prisoners like him. We cannot minimize the seriousness of the crime he committed but neither can we minimize the tragedy of his plight to regain his freedom. He is just one of many individuals who have paid their debt to society for the crimes they have committed but kept in prison because of the politics of incarceration.

Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance and author of the book "15 To Life."

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