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New York Officials Face Excessive Parole Claims

MANHATTAN (CN) - High-ranking corrections officials in New York must face two lawsuits - including a putative class action - claiming that they went around the courts to reincarcerate hundreds of convicted felons for violating parole.

"Beginning in 1998, New York mandated that certain violent felonies be punished by a determinate prison sentence followed by a mandatory term of parole, known as post-release supervision ('PRS')," U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin explained Friday in a 42-page order brushing aside motions to dismiss the lawsuits. "The governing statute did not require that the term of PRS be announced by the judge at sentencing. In thousands of cases where the judge did not impose a term of PRS at sentencing, the New York State Department of Correctional Services ('DOCS') imposed PRS on convicted felons either before or as they were released from prison and the Department of Parole ('DOP') then enforced its terms upon them."

The 2nd Circuit declared that practice unconstitutional on June 9, 2006, in its Earley v. Murray decision, which stated: "Only the judgment of a court, as expressed through the sentence imposed by a judge, has the power to constrain a person's liberty."

"The additional provision for post-release supervision added by DOCS is a nullity," the appellate decision continued.

Dozens filed suit last year, however, claiming that current and former high-ranking officials with the Department of Corrections and Department of Prisons ignored the 2nd Circuit's order.

The defendants include Robert J. Dennison, the former chair of New York State Division of Parole; Anthony G. Ellis II, the division's former executive director; George B. Alexander, its former chair and CEO; Terrence Tracy, its chief counsel; Brian Fischer, commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services; Anthony J. Annucci, deputy commissioner and counsel for DOCS; Luciente J. LeClaire Jr., former acting commissioner of DOCS; Glenn S. Goord, former commissioner of DOCS; and dozens of John Does.

One of the lawsuits, filed by lead plaintiff Paul Betances, seeks class action status.

Scheindlin ruled Friday that the officials will remain on the hook for both lawsuits.

"According to plaintiffs' allegations, defendants were the officials individually responsible for establishing and enforcing DOCS's and DOP's policies with respect to PRS - policies that led directly to plaintiffs' unlawful custody," Scheindlin wrote. "These claims allege sufficient personal involvement to survive a motion to dismiss."

The defendants also failed to defeat false-imprisonment claims.

Attorney Joel Berger praised Scheindlin's "excellent, scholarly decision."

"I am confident that if there is an appeal it will be affirmed," Berger said in an email to Courthouse News.

The New York Attorney General's Office declined to comment.

Scheindlin scheduled a conference for Feb. 21.

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