Parole board’s focus on original crime suggests redemption has limits | #College. | #Students


ALBANY — Chad Campbell has spent his entire adult life behind bars after committing a grisly double murder in 1990 when he was 14.

He is serving 18 years to life for stabbing to death 15-year-old Cindy Lewis and 17-month-old Curtis Rizzo — a child Lewis was babysitting — on Aug. 1, 1990, behind the middle school where the young teens were classmates in Palmyra, a village east of Rochester. A jury in Wayne County found Campbell guilty of two counts of second-degree murder. An adult found guilty of the same crime would have faced 25 years to life.

In a 2019 parole board hearing, Campbell acknowledged his guilt, but said “that 14-year-old that committed this crime is not here.”

When Campbell was a child, he suffered from encephalitis, which caused learning disabilities. Encephalitis can also trigger behavioral issues, but he never received consistent treatment for those. According to state Board of Parole hearing transcripts, Campbell in 2019 pointed to what he perceived as rejection and disregard from his parents for throwing him into a rage that day.

“My issues as a child does not absolve me or excuse me for what I’ve done,” Campbell told the panel. “Every night I pray that one day I will be forgiven. I understand the severity of my crime. I understand what I’ve taken; I understand who I’ve hurt and that nothing I can possibly do until the day I pass away will ever make up for what I’ve taken, what I’ve done. I think it’s important to show that who I was and the horrific thing I did is not who I am today.”

Campbell, 45, has been incarcerated for more than 30 years, first in a juvenile detention center and then, from age 20, in state prison.

He has an exemplary record with no serious offenses behind bars, has achieved educational and career milestones, and has been assessed as a low risk for reoffending. Court records state that he has a support network and a plan for his release.

Campbell has been denied parole seven times. Attorneys and advocates say his case highlights many of the core questions embedded in New York’s parole system: Is redemption possible? Who do we decide to give second chances to? And are some crimes so heinous that no matter the circumstances, no matter the passage of time, they can never be atoned for?

Denial after denial

In New York, many long sentences are discretionary, meaning there’s flexibility built in. After a certain minimum year count is reached, inmates are eligible for parole, and they appear before a board to seek release. If denied, they usually return again two years later. Those who appeal a denial may be granted a “de novo hearing” if the board’s Appeals Unit agrees with any of their arguments. At a de novo hearing, a different group of parole board commissioners hear the case.

A Times Union analysis of 46 parole transcripts provided by the Parole Preparation Project — a nonprofit that works with incarcerated people — found commissioners frequently ask specific questions about the original crime, even if it took place decades earlier. Transcripts also show commissioners often acknowledged an inmate’s exemplary record, work history and their low likelihood for reoffending, only to deny parole on the basis of the original crime’s severity.

Activists frequently ask how this is compatible with the principles of rehabilitation and redemption that are supposed to be at the core of our parole system. The crime, once committed, cannot be changed, they note — but incarcerated people can work to change themselves.

In one transcript, an incarcerated person was attempting to explain how his father had abused him as a child and he thought that contributed to his violence later in life, growing emotional, and the parole commissioner repeatedly interrupted to say that his question wasn’t being answered. Parole was denied for not being forthright in answering questions.

In another, a commissioner repeatedly asked an inmate about someone he had stabbed in prison more than a decade earlier: “I’m asking you a simple question: Was he a snitch?” The inmate declined to answer, saying that the person he was when he called others in the jail yard “snitches” was someone who perpetrated violence, and he didn’t want to be that person anymore. He, too, was denied parole.

These are just a few examples of many where the commissioners focus on the original crime, asking prosecutorial questions about specific details that were already litigated at trial. Little time is spent and few questions focus on what the incarcerated person has done to rehabilitate themselves or prepare for life after prison.

In August 2019, the commissioners told Campbell that parole isn’t granted “merely as reward” for good conduct and that they “departed from” his score on the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS) assessment.

The COMPAS system was implemented in 2011 to determine the risk of an inmate reoffending and being a danger to the community after release. The logarithm that generates the scores is proprietary and comes from a private firm. It’s intended to assess inmates in an objective way that considers the totality of their efforts to reform while incarcerated.

Campbell, whose COMPAS score showed a low risk for reoffending, was asked by commissioners to describe the violent assaults he perpetrated — a common line of questioning in parole transcripts reviewed by the Times Union.

“Your educational accomplishments, letters of support, and release plans are positive,” they wrote in their rejection. “This panel has weighed the factors as required and found most compelling the bizarre and excessive violence you displayed during the instant offenses and your limited insight for why, even at a young age, your rage was so intense. To grant your release at this time would so deprecate the seriousness of your offenses as to undermine respect for the law.”


The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) declined to make current parole commissioners available for interviews. But the Times Union interviewed two former members: Carol Shapiro, who was on the board from 2017 to 2019, and Barbara Treen, who served from 1984 to 1996. DOCCS officials defended the Board of Parole as the sole entity and “independent body” responsible for granting parole, noting that board members make their decisions based on state Executive Law.

“Prior to making a final decision, the board members must follow the statutory requirements which take ‎into consideration many factors, including statements made by victims and victims’ families, as well as an individual’s criminal history, institutional accomplishments, potential to successfully reintegrate into the community, and perceived risk to public safety,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said. “Additionally, by statute, the board considers any recommendations concerning release to Community Supervision from the district attorney, sentencing court and the defense attorney.”

Treen and Shapiro, both of whom are now advocates for policies that reduce incarceration, pointed to the internal culture and values of the parole board.

Shapiro, who likened parole hearings to “conveyor-belt justice,” said many of the commissioners have law enforcement or criminal justice experience rather than backgrounds in social work or psychology, which contributes to “this presumption of (offenders) not being released.”

DOCCS officials said the parole commissioners all have at least a college degree, a well-balanced range of professional expertise, including social work and addiction counseling, and several years of professional experience.

Treen said that in her experience, longer and more detailed hearings tend to be the ones that result in a denial “because there might be a chance of an appeal. If they knew that they were facing this, and they were never going to let this guy go — even if he had a Ph.D. — … the hearing would actually be more civil.”

Lacking ‘fairness’ 

Rochelle Swartz, who represents Campbell in his parole efforts, said the need for objectivity in the process is paramount, yet hard to come by with a politically appointed board.

Commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, and earn more than $100,000 in annual pay. Treen described the process as “political payback, political patronage — it’s a way to reward people who, if they served three years, can go out with a large salary in their pension.”

Treen said that while most breakdowns in government systems are due to lack of money, the parole board suffers from a deficit of fairness.

While DOCCS officials recognized that there is no definition of a heinous crime and therefore it “is not a factor in making parole determinations,” it was used to deny Campbell parole in 2016. The board also claimed Campbell’s remorse was “shallow” and asked him to further reflect on why he singled out the two victims.

“Your actions while long ago and as a then 15-year-old were heinous causing irreparable harm to many in the community including your loved ones,” the commissioners wrote.

Campbell was 14 at the time of the crime — one of several inaccuracies uncovered by Swartz in the transcripts. Other allegedly false statements by parole commissioners appear to stem from media reports over the years, she added.

In court documents, Swartz challenged the credentials and objectivity of the commissioners, noting that they aren’t required to have specialized expertise in psychology, criminology or law. Some have made political contributions to state lawmakers.

Swartz also cited a former commissioner who noted that board members “are disincentivized from granting parole to people whose release would be newsworthy.”

“If you are in doubt, deny, just deny,” Treen said of the board’s handling of high-profile cases. “Think of legal reasons that wouldn’t be appealed. You denied if you want to keep your check coming.”

State Sen. Pam Helming, who represents Palmyra, gathered hundreds of signatures on a 2018 petition urging the parole board to deny Campbell’s release. That effort attracted media attention that focused on the 1990 killings and earlier parole board hearings, and comments from victims’ families pleading to keep Campbell behind bars.

Helming, who referenced media reports and allegations for which Campbell was never charged, said she will always fight for the crime victims and their families.

“When I met with the family members, what struck me was just the mental and physical suffering and the anguish they continue to suffer from,” she said, adding that family members fear Campbell will retaliate against them if he is paroled. “Chad should serve life in prison. How do you fix a person? How do you fix them if they intentionally stab to death two people and stab them over and over again? What kind of rehabilitation fixes that person?”

In a 2018 post on her Senate website, Helming claimed Campbell lacks remorse and suggested he is blaming his upbringing for the criminal acts rather than taking responsibility for them.

Efforts to keep people behind bars solely because of the crime is what’s wrong with New York’s parole system, said Steve Zeidman, an attorney, professor and co-director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law. The seriousness of the crime is never going to change, he said, so the question parole commissioners must ask is whether an inmate presents a danger and risk if released.

“This is why 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated population is in the United States and we represent 4 to 5 percent of the total global population,” he said. “ … It just points out how punitive and unwilling our society, but more importantly the parole board, are in recognizing the value of redemption.”

‘Shocking’

While inmates can appeal a parole board’s denial, judicial review of the board’s actions is limited.

The repeated denials of Campbell’s parole applications prompted Swartz to file a court petition in Sullivan County last year, arguing among other things that the board is violating Campbell’s constitutional right to due process.

“New York state law … explicitly forecloses parole denials based solely on the seriousness of the underlying crime,” her petition states. “This is true for every individual but is particularly applicable in the case of juvenile offenders given that they are constitutionally entitled to a ‘meaningful opportunity’ for release.”

If an inmate appeals a decision, the same body makes a determination on whether a new hearing should be granted. The same body, albeit a “different panel” of parole commissioners, conducts a hearing without reference to any legal conclusion or assumption made by the previous panel. Zeidman said this opens the process up to a never-ending cycle of denials, appeals and new hearings where parole commissioners repeat the same mistakes.

Judges often voice frustration with how much authority the law gives a politically appointed body that requires no expertise on the part of its members.

State Supreme Court Justice Stephan G. Schick, who is reviewing Campbell’s petition, remarked in a January hearing that based on the records he had reviewed, “It’s hard for me … to find a reason within the law that would be a legal reason to deny parole.”

“I can understand the position of someone on a parole board being confronted by citizens who find out about the acts that occurred back in 1990,” Schick said. “But that’s why we need to have parole boards that are independent from public pressure, because there are things the general public may not be aware of such as all of these findings and studies about the human brain and the brain of a juvenile.”

Attorney General Letitia James’ office argues the petition is moot because the parole board’s Appeals Unit quietly agreed with Campbell’s appeal on the 2019 hearing, and ordered another hearing that took place in August. At that hearing — held to ensure proper consideration was given to Campbell’s age when the crime was committed — he was denied parole again, with similar arguments made against his release.

Schick said the arguments for overriding the parole board’s decision and granting release were compelling — even “shocking.”

“The fact that the parole department seems to be using criteria to extend incarceration based on evidence that was not before a jury or a fact finder, these are all extremely important constitutional issues,” he said.

Campbell appeared before the parole board again on March 9; the outcome of that proceeding was not immediately available.

Zeidman, who has represented dozens of incarcerated individuals in their parole efforts, said there are plenty of cases in which judges determine the board’s actions were “an abuse of discretion.” But all they can do is order a new hearing.

Schick’s frustration was evident at the January court proceeding in Sullivan County.

“The only thing the court can do is order a new … hearing wherein he’ll be denied again and then the court can order a new … hearing,” the judge said. ” … You know, this can go on into infinity.”



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