LOCK-UP: Silver’s New Assembly
As former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver awaited sentencing on federal corruption charges, he pleaded to the court for mercy.
“I pray I will not die in prison,” he wrote.
Extreme? Perhaps not.
Back in 2013, a professor from Vanderbilt University, Evelyn Patterson, analyzed data about people incarcerated in New York from 1989 through 2003 and found that “each additional year in prison produced a 15.6% increase in the odds of death for parolees, which translated to a 2-year decline in life expectancy for each year served in prison.” Patterson’s conclusion, published in the American Journal of Public Health: “Incarceration reduces life span.”
Last Friday, Silver — who is 74 and not known as a paragon of fitness — was sentenced to seven years in prison by Judge Valerie Caproni.
THAT MAY HAVE BEEN AN ACT OF MERCY, since prosecutors had asked for at least 14 years, the probation office had recommended at least 10 and Caproni herself last year had sentenced Silver to 12 years for the same underlying crimes before that verdict was vacated on appeal and the disgraced pol was again tried and again found guilty.
On “further reflection,” Caproni said before sentencing Silver this time and specifically mentioning his age, 12 years was “longer than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing.”
Caproni’s comment reflects something prison reform activists say has been missing from the conversation how society responds to those who break their laws.
When Silver finally does enter prison later this year, he will join a growing national population of people getting old — and sometimes dying — in prison long after many of them would have aged out of committing crimes.
In New York State, the older population of inmates is growing, even as the state’s overall prison population is shrinking.
In 2012, according to state data, there were 55,436 inmates in New York State prison facilities. The following her, that figure dropped to 54,235. The following year, it dropped again. And again. By 2016, it was 51,744. (This chart starts at 51,000 instead of at zero, and thus shows a much steeper drop than is in fact the case.)
In 2012, the year the state recorded 55,436 inmates — 2,002 of them were 60 years old, or older. The following year, that number went up a bit, to 2,102. And up again And again. By 2016, that number was 2,383.
Combine those two charts — the overall number of inmates, and the number of inmates aged 60 and older – and a trend emerges.
In 2012, the 60-plus inmate crowd was 3.61% of the state’s prison population. The following year, it inched up to 3.88%. By 2016, it was 4.6%. That’s a full percentage point in just 4 years.
A spokesperson for the DOCCS told me that the rising elderly population is the result of sentences that have steadily increased over the last 10 years. In other words, inmates are growing older while incarcerated. Groups like Release Aging Prison Population, Correctional Association of New York,and the Osborne Association, are focused on this trend. So is the New York State Comptroller, whom Silver helped install back in 2007 as a result of a different scandal. The state comptroller released a report last year looking at the aging prison population in New York.
But along with people aging behind bars, more older people are now ending up there. According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, “The number of persons age 55 or older admitted to state prison [throughout the country] increased 308% between 1993 and 2013” — from 6,300 in 1993 to 25,700 in 2013, the last year the report covered.
PrisonPolicy.org — an advocacy organization seeking to reduce the size of prison populations — cites a study from Cornell Professor Christopher Wildeman, that found “from 1981 to 2007, the U.S. life expectancy would have increased by more than five years – from 74.1 to 79.4 years – if not for mass incarceration.” Like Patterson, he found that each year behind bars takes two years off of a person’s life so that the era of mass incarceration fully accounts for why American life expectancy now lags so far behind that of other developed nations.
TO BE CLEAR, THERE’S AN INCREDIBLE AMOUNT OF PRIVILEGE needed to even pause and meditate on the bigger picture behind the kind of sentence Silver received. Twice he was convicted of a years-long, multi-million-dollar corruption scheme abusing his high public office for personal gain, which is why U.S. Attorney Greg Berman said his “fittingly stiff sentence sends a clear message: Brokering official favors for your personal benefit is illegal and will result in prison time.”
Still, there are people asking questions about putting an old man behind bars.
“This sentence contradicts what everyone in this country is talking about when it comes to criminal justice reform,” said Bernie Kerik, who served first as jails commissioner and then police commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, and later spent a little more than three years in prison himself for, among other things, tax fraud and lying under oath.
“Sheldon Silver has already been personally, professionally and financially crucified and punished. So now you’re going to punish him more by sending him to prison for seven years,” Kerik said. “ That’s a death sentence … For the next seven years his entire life will go on without him in it. His family, his kids, his grandkids, they will live without him involved and around them,” and “Basically he is going to die with his eyes open…
“I don’t care if the guy’s a fucking Martian,” Kerik said said. “I don’t care what color he is. I don’t care [about] his political persuasion. I don’t think about criminal justice reform. I think of lives destroyed. I think of what the system is supposed to do and what it really does. And the system needs reform, substantially.”
COMING UP …
8/5/18 — Former State Senator Carl Kruger is expected to be released after his 7-year incarceration for pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.
10/24/18 — Former State Senate Leader Dean Skelos will be sentenced for his conviction on “eight counts of conspiracy, extortion and bribery.”
5/14/19 — Former Rep. Anthony Weiner is slated to be released from his 1-year-and-9-month sentence, after he plead guilty to one count of sending sexually explicit material to a minor.
1/10/20 — Former Assembly member Chris Ortloff is expected to be released from his 12-year sentence, after pleading guilty to “one count of online enticement of minors.”
8/9/19 — That’s the earliest release date for former Councilman Ruben Wills, after he was sentenced to 2-6 years behind bars following his conviction for “stealing more than $30,000 in public funds that were meant for charity and campaign expenditures.”
9/23/21 — Former state Senator John Sampson is slated to be released after 5 years in prison for his conviction for “trying to thwart a federal investigation and of making false statements to government agents”.
12/10/21 — Former state Senator Malcolm Smith is expected to be released from his 7-year sentence after his conviction on federal bribery, wire fraud and extortion charges, related to his failed 2013 mayoral bid.
2/22/24 — Former Councilman Dan Halloran is expected to be released from his 10-year sentence after he was found guilty on a federal bribery charge for his role in Smith’s scandal.
5/15/26 — Former Assemblyman William Boyland, Jr. is expected to be released after his 14-year sentence stemming from his second federal bribery conviction.
— #30 —
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