Appellate Defenders Role in Parole

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Release Date: 
Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Luis began his service at the Office of the Appellate Defender in NYC in August, focusing on bringing community resources for clients reentering society. Below, he talks about the importance of relationship building and advocacy for clients while they are incarcerated.

For the person who is in the pre-trial process, their main feeling is anxiety, but for the person who is incarcerated its depression and navigating the realities of life in prison can be traumatizing and isolating. Talking with Stephen Strother, a senior staff attorney with the Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD), for his clients he is one of their few, if not only, contacts on the outside and says that is why building relationships are so important. One of the special and unique things that appellate attorneys do, especially OAD, is to center their client and their client’s life experiences as much as possible and provide holistic support beyond the legal defense in the appellate and parole process. Strother said, “we focus on storytelling,” foregrounding the story of the client, referring to them by name, starting with their background and life as opposed to only focusing on the particulars of the crime. In essence, trying to remind the gatekeepers of the system, be it the appellate judges or parole board, that the client is a person. Hopefully in the process they’ll remind the client of that as well.


The reality though, is that many incarcerated individuals feel lost about how to break through cycles of violence, trauma, or have hope in a criminal justice system riddled with problems. The Citizens’ Inquiry on Parole and Criminal Justice, a report published in 1975, found that the parole system had failed dramatically and that the Parole Board’s decision-making process was,

“based on an assessment of an inmate’s rehabilitation rested on a faulty theory, since the theory of rehabilitation includes vague, subjective notions of moral character and future conduct, there is no way that the parole board can measure the degree of an inmate’s rehabilitation.”i

In the intervening 45 years very little about the system has changed. Carol Shapiro, a former member of the Parole Board, who quit after two years, said of the process that commissioners often get the case and files the day they see the person, that while one commissioner is interviewing, the others might be reviewing the file of the next person. In terms of how determinations were made she said, “For some, the offense is it, no matter what. For some, it’s the victim impact [statement]. Everyone has their own values and draws different lines in the sand.”ii What she describes is a system that is inundated and lacks clear standards with which to evaluate individuals.


Appellate defenders like the staff at OAD know the odds are against their clients and success rates are very low. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 6.7 percent of appeals reviewed on the merits were successfully reversed.iii OAD staff attorney Kat Pecore said when the success rate is so low, we have to rethink how we define “success”. That is why OAD continues to support clients leading up to the appeals and afterwards. Helping clients with their parole hearings by putting together packets, developing re-entry plans, and providing coaching so that they can tell their stories in a way that will reach Parole Board members. OAD staff advocate for their clients on correctional facility conditions to make sure they are receiving proper care and are being treated fairly. Individually, staff attorneys are involved in community and professional groups to share information on what works and try to find small ways to advocate for change within the system. Pecore said I don’t look at it as only doing what’s defined in my job, but what I can do to fully represent and help my client.

i Jennifer Gonnerman, “Prepping for Parole” New Yorker, 25 Nov 2019.

ii Ibid. iii Nicole L. Waters, Anna Gallegos, and James Green. “Criminal Appeals in State Courts” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics. Bulletin NCJ 248874, Sept 2015.