Lack of Oversight and Due Process Findings Provide Timely Credence for Sundiata Acoli Release
TRENTON, NJ — In a scathing report to public defenders across the state, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender (OPD) Parole Project said the state’s Parole Board consistently fails to uphold its state-mandate to release parole-eligible applicants.
The report lends new heft behind the efforts by the Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance, a grassroots effort to have Sundiata Acoli regain his freedom. Acoli, age 84, has been imprisoned since 1973 yet is eligible for parole since 1993. The Parole Board has denied his release eight times; each time claiming that he presented a risk to recidivate despite a lack of objective evidence to support that conclusion. Its’ findings provide timely insight, as Acoli is suffering from early dementia and continuing health deterioration exacerbated by his hospitalization with Covid-19 last year.
In the report, criticism of the Parole Board is blistering: “The essential unrestricted discretion the [Parole] Board has been given — and takes full advantage of — is rarely questioned by New Jersey courts. This has created a system with little oversight, little due process, and manifest injustice.”
“This report sums up what we’ve known about the Parole Board for decades: there is no legal reason why Sundiata Acoli remains incarcerated, and the Parole Board is failing its duty and state mandate,” said Soffiyah Elijah, Esq. an organizer of the Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance, who has worked with Acoli and his legal team for the past 30 years. “I’m hopeful the increased visibility into these discrepancies, which are often written off as inconsequential but in reality, have very real consequences for the humans behind bars, will bring much-needed change to the parole system.”
Seven amicus briefs were filed in recent months to the state Supreme Court in support of Acoli’s release. Five of the seven briefs focused on parole board irregularities, including lack of due process and first amendment violations. One of the briefs was filed on behalf of national black law enforcement organizations, which support his release and parole. This parole appeal is the most supported by amicus briefs in the state’s history.
Acoli was convicted in 1973 of the first-degree murder of a New Jersey State Trooper after a shootout on the state’s turnpike. He has expressed remorse and completed more than 100 programs for self-improvement. For eight years, he taught a course called Criminal Thinking to other incarcerated persons which focused on cognitive-behavioral approaches to reduce recidivism.
The 1979 Parole Act, which applies to over 4,000 incarcerated persons, states that they “shall be released on parole at the time of parole eligibility” unless it is demonstrated "by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that the inmate will commit a crime . . . if released on parole.”
“By consistently failing to uphold its mandate to release parole-eligible applicants, our clients often remain behind bars beyond what the sentencing judges in their cases anticipated, sometimes exceeding the initial sentence itself,” said Russo, who is managing attorney of the OPD statewide appellate section. “Parole eligible persons who go before the Board cannot have counsel present to challenge the evidence and are not permitted to review confidential reports — which are the basis for their denials. To add insult to injury, over 95% of those who are denied parole do not have counsel to appeal their decisions to the Appellate Division.”
The Parole Project, co-chaired by Joseph J. Russo and Alison Perrone of the OPD appellate section, is a statewide initiative that looks at systemic injustices in New Jersey’s parole release process. The new report is a follow-up to last year’s report and is a call to action for public defenders statewide, with several recommendations to effectuate meaningful change in the parole release process.
The 300-page report includes case briefs and identifies a series of systemic issues found through Open Public Record Act requests and analysis of parole board decisions and appellate cases. This includes denial of access to confidential documents, denial of counsel before the Board, and a term called non-code factors, which is non-standard criteria the Board inappropriately uses in its decision making. These factors commonly include lack of insight, lack of remorse, and insufficient problem resolution. Considering parole release decisions using these factors violates the Board’s legal mandate — whether the incarcerated person is likely to recidivate.
The final chapter of the report suggests administrative and legislative actions to improve the parole system, including prohibiting the Board from relying upon factors that have no sound legal or scientific basis in determining parole eligibility, and the removal of risk assessment tools, particularly those that have false negatives and statistically insignificant data. Finally, the report proposes the creation of a Racial Impact Committee to study racial disparities within the parole release process.
The full report can be viewed here.