Carlos Flores was 17 when he and three accomplices tried to rob a bar in Queens, N.Y., in 1981. An off-duty police officer named Robert Walsh intervened, and he was shot and killed. Mr. Flores was convicted of second-degree murder, a conviction that carried a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison. But because he was not the shooter, the judge gave him 21 years to life.
Mr. Flores is now 54. He has served 37 years behind bars. The last time he got written up for a disciplinary offense was when he disobeyed an order to keep the mess hall line moving. That was more than 25 years ago. A recent risk-assessment test found that his release would pose the lowest risk of danger to the public. In other words, he’s the sort of person parole is designed for.
And yet for the 16 years, the New York State Parole Board has denied him parole, using its customary boilerplate language: “Discretionary release at this time,” the board said in its most recent denial, last October, “would not be compatible with the welfare of society and would tend to deprecate the seriousness of the instant offense and undermine respect for the law.”
Mr. Flores is being locked up not because he’s a threat to society or has failed to show that he’s changed, but for a crime he committed nearly four decades ago. Too often, that’s the default attitude for New York’s parole commissioners, even after a state appeals court in 2016 ordered the board to weigh an inmate’s youth at the time of the crime in deciding whether he or she should be released.
That ruling was grounded in a revolutionary string of rulings by the United States Supreme Court, all of which have found that young people are “constitutionally different” from adults — their brains are still developing, their impulse control is weaker and their ability to change over time is greater. This means that they are less guilty than adults and that their punishment must be different, especially in the case of life sentences for those convicted of murder. The “imposition of a state’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children,” the court said in 2012. They must be given “a meaningful opportunity” to get out; actual life sentences should be reserved for those few who exhibit “irretrievable depravity.”
While those rulings have struck down the most severe sentences for juveniles — the death penalty and mandatory life without parole — the New York appeals court rightly extended their logic to cases in which parole is technically available but is rarely or never granted. “A parole board is no more entitled to subject an offender to the penalty of life in prison in contravention of this rule than is a legislature or a sentencing court,” the state court said.