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John Valverde’s Fight for Freedom

Former Governor George Pataki’s legacy of not freeing rehabilitated violent offenders is alive and well in New York State. Today thousands of parole petitioners are ready to return to society as productive citizens but remain stuck in prison because of the politics of incarceration.

This unwritten policy persists in spite of newly installed Governor Elliot Spitzer’s attempt to correct the criminal justice sector, as evidenced by his recent calls to remove the exorbitant charges on collect calls

Statistically it is a not-so-well-known fact that offenders who commit crimes such as murder are actually less likely to return to jail than nonviolent offenders. Nevertheless, after completing their sentences and coming to terms with their crimes, they are still wasting away in New York State gulags. 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 ending the life of a freelance photographer, Joel Schoenfeld, a 47-year-old West Village photographer with a history of enticing young female models to his studio and sexually assaulting them. In 1991, Schoenfeld raped his 19-year-old model 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 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. Despite the negative environment that surrounded him, John managed to transcend the prison experience by finding purpose in his life through helping others. He taught religion, volunteered as a tutor for men who could not read, and worked with AIDS patients.

The hard time John served in a maximum security prison transformed him from the 21-year-old boy who had made the biggest mistake of his life into a man who now understands the horror of his crime. Apparently all inconsequential in the view of the parole board, which offered the following reasoning in John’s case: “The violence displayed in this crime outweighs 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 afraid of granting parole to violent prisoners out of fear of falling from grace in the eyes of the public. Recently, the New York Parole Commissioner was demoted from his position by Governor Pataki after causing and uproar with the release a high-profile offender involved in the murder of two upstate police officers.

If we look at the history of why violent offenders are routinely denied parole we can see how it could have evolved out of the cash incentives for new prison construction given by the federal government to states that ended parole for violent offenders in 1994 under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This law was devised to give states fiscal incentives to build prisons if they in turn enacted laws that result in violent offenders serving 85% of their sentences. Grants were made available for states to build more prisons coupled with an effective end to parole. From 1996 to 2000, New York State received around $200 million under this Act.

On April 20, family and friends of John Valverde will gather in front of the Albany Supreme Court in New York to rally on John’s behalf, and in support of overturning the parole board’s latest denial. We are calling on Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who represents the parole board, to look into the totality of facts in this case so John and his family may receive proper judicial relief.

It is time for the parole board to free model prisoners like John Valverde. 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 committed but kept in prison because of the “Politics of Incarceration.”

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: anthonypapa123@yahoo.com

Papa’s artwork can be viewed at: www.15yearstolife.com/art1.htm

For more info contact Hispanics Across America — 212-481-1820.