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Op-ed | The next Manhattan DA must help fix the incarceration crisis

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Running up to the June 22 primary election, my mailbox overflowed with campaign literature from candidates aspiring to be the next Manhattan district attorney. I met a few of them.

Some seemed to be genuine people-people; others the pandering type and a little too slick, like the prosecutors my community and I know too well. But most of the candidates didn’t even bother to come to my neighborhood.

Black and Latinx New Yorkers are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted, leading to the mass incarceration of us and our families. Once that incarceration happens, it is extremely difficult to get free, a reality experienced most excruciatingly by incarcerated people stuck in New York State’s broken and unfair parole release process.

I’m Black, born and raised in New York City. I have vivid memories of the 1980s in this racially stratified city where my very existence was a de facto crime. And not just to the two Brooklyn cops who assaulted me with blackjacks or the Guardian Angels who wore kung-fu slippers while terrorizing Black boys like the patterollers of not long ago. To the courts, too – particularly the District Attorney’s office in my borough.

When I was 22 years old I sat at the defendant’s table in court, staring at the words, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” emblazoned on the courtroom wall. My then-fiancée had been sexually assaulted and in my rage and pain at her suffering I confronted her assailant. I needed resources, guidance and a way to support my fiancée’s healing, but instead I had a gun. I was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole for my role in killing the person who abused my fiancée. I made a terrible choice that caused irreparable harm.

To the courts, this was justice. 

I did my time in prison righteously, meeting and exceeding all requirements and expectations of the judge and prison system. When I came up for parole 15 years later, my great work was all but ignored and I was denied release and effectively re-sentenced to two more years. The same facts the judge used to make me eligible for release at that time were used to deny me parole, and to add insult to injury, my borough DA office registered an objection to my release based on the same facts, namely my crime of conviction from so many years ago, and without any regard for my change and growth.

I went through this process eight more times, and received eight more denials. Finally, I was granted release on parole at age 50 after serving twice as much time as the judge deemed appropriate. Today I continue working to promote justice and safety in my community, and to give others a second chance.

I am voting in the general election to elect a new Manhattan District Attorney. My main concern as a constituent is, how will the next Manhattan DA help fix the inequities of parole?

Prosecutorial fairness and the equal treatment of New Yorkers in the courts, whether during trial or when applying for parole, should concern everyone in New York State. The local District Attorney’s office in every borough has a huge impact on how many people are incarcerated in state prisons and for how long and, often, whether or not parole requests for New Yorkers are granted by the State’s Parole Board. 

Instead of flooding mailboxes, here is something concrete the next Manhattan DA can do: join the many crime victims, survivors and their advocates in urging Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Heastie to pass the Elder Parole bill and the Fair & Timely Parole bill, both pending in the State Legislature. At sentencing, recommend parole release upon first eligibility and refrain from routinely opposing parole release for people serving long sentences or life sentences when they come up for parole.

The Democratic primary winner, Alvin Bragg, supports the bills and other reforms (as did nearly every other candidate) but actions speak louder than words, and we need the next Manhattan DA to help save lives and prevent the continuation of historic racist wrongs. Trust me, the heavens won’t fall.

Mark Shervington is a New York City Community Organizer for the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign/RAPP.

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