In 1998, the New York State Legislature passed Jenna’s law, named after Jenna Grieshaber, a 22-year-old white female nursing student killed by Nicholas Eugene Pryor, a Black male who had previously been on parole.
Governor Pataki exploited Jenna’s tragic death to get determinate sentencing in New York for Index Crimes, framed as “violent felony offenses.” Pataki’s real motivation for pushing for determinate sentencing was to secure block grants made available by the Federal government to the states for passing “truth-in-sentencing” laws. When politicking for this change in sentencing laws, Pataki was clear that it had more to do with dollars and cents than public safety. In fact, the so-called “crime problem” in New York, specifically in New York City, was seen as rural upstate New York’s profit. Indeed, Pataki’s predecessor, Gov. Mario Cuomo, began to build an economic infrastructure in chronically economically depressed rural areas in New York by building prisons, with funding from the Urban Development Corporation because New Yorkers didn’t want to fund prisons though bonds, to provide employment. When it comes to dollars and cents as they are connected to crime and punishment, both Democrats and Republicans are bipartisan, or equally guilty. The pot of money Pataki sought originated in the presidency of Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who proved that he could be even tougher on crime than Republicans.
In any event, a rider was attached to Jenna’s law, eliminating the possibility of release from parole supervision for people convicted of certain crimes that carried a maximum sentence of life. Sentencing laws are complicated, and this is not the platform for discussing it. Suffice it to say that the sentencing structure in New York State militates against, for the lay person, fully understanding them. Simply put, people on parole supervision with a reasonable expectation that they would be discharged form parole in full satisfaction of their sentences after three years on parole supervision learned that they would be on parole for the rest of their lives because of this rider!
This is a much longer story, one that needs to be told, but I want to uplift one woman, Diana Ortiz, who was instrumental in successfully “overturning” the change in law and having it restored to its pre-1998 form.
At this time Diana and I worked together for a nonprofit. In fact, I was her direct supervisor. I noticed something in the reentry industrial complex vis-à-vis formerly incarcerated women. They were treated differently than their male counterparts, often by women not impacted by or impacted differently by the criminal legal system. Much of this has to do with, I discern, how these nonprofit women leaders view women who have been trafficked or involved in sex work.
I’ll jump ahead. I know why the caged bird sings, and unlike some nonprofit leaders and managers, I open the cages and let the birds fly free to reach whatever heights they may attain. Diana is one of these “birds.”
Re Executive Law 259-j
Diana and I were the primary leaders of the Ad Hoc Committee on Lifetime Parole, and although many people were behind our successful advocacy and reinstatement of Executive Law 259-j, only three people that I know of, Diana and I, and the late Chair of the Division of Parole, Bob Dennison, have the proclamation and one of the pens Gov. Paterson used to sign the bill into law so people released from prison could be free.