Monday, December 17, 2007

Class action certified in parole board challenge

A Federal trial judge has certified a class action alleging that the State of New York is summarily denying parole to violent offenders without reviewing their parole applications on a case-by-case basis. The court also ruled that the case is not moot solely by virtue of the recent election of Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

The case is Graziano v. Pataki, 06 Civ. 480 (CLB), reported at 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89737 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 3, 2007). According to the decision, the case "alleg[es] that Defendants unlawfully eliminated or curtailed the Parole Board's discretion when making parole release determinations for A-1 violent offenders." In trying to dismsiss the case, the State noted that Gov. George Pataki and his Parole Chairman left office when Eliot Spitzer was elected governor in 2006. But, according to Judge Brieant, that does not mean the allegedly unlawful policy has changed. That's because the Complaint alleges that "[t]he unofficial policy or practice of the Parole Board, as instigated by Pataki and executed by the Division of Parole under Parole Chairman Robert Dennison . . . unlawfully elimiate[s] or substantially curtail[s] the Parole Board's discretion when making parole release determinations concerning prisoners serving sentences for A-1 violent offenses." As Judge Brieant sees it, the change in office does not necessarily mean that the challenged practice died when Gov. Spitzer took office.

The State also argued that the plaintiffs cannot identify enough inmates to qualify for a class action. Judge Brieant disagreed, pointing to evidence that 540 prisoners may qualify for relief under this case. Assuming that 40 class-members qualify for a class action, see Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 47 F.3d 473 (2d Cir. 1995), that's enough for the class action to move forward.

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