Pubdate: Mon, 21 May 2007
Source: Times Union (Albany, NY)
Copyright: 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Author: Anthony Papa
Note: Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy
Alliance ( and author of the book "15 To Life."
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


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

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. 
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