Members part of ‘invisible’ public force
for safer, better lives for all New Yorkers
By SHERRY HALBROOK
The work PEF members do is mostly invisible to the public it serves, but while the members and their work are unseen the service can make a great difference in the lives of New Yorkers.
For instance, a dangerous pedophile in West Seneca was sentenced January 10 in federal District Court in Buffalo to 10 years in prison followed by lifetime parole supervision following his conviction on child pornography. The man, Justin Wheeler, 27, was found with hundreds of the illegal digital images and videos. He had previously been convicted of first degree-attempted rape in his sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl.
It was two PEF members who caught Wheeler and secured the evidence leading to his conviction on the child porn charges.
“Without the diligence and professional skill of these two sharp-eyed professionals – Parole Officers Shannon Miller and Mindy Rudyk – in Buffalo, this man would still be on the streets and a danger to the children in that community,” PEF President Wayne Spence said. “These members knew their jobs and did them well. While they would much rather see the parolees under their supervision succeed in making good choices and becoming productive, law-abiding citizens, they knew their first duty is protect public safety and that means enforcing the terms of parole.”
Every year on Halloween, state parole officers who supervise parolees who were convicted of sex crimes involving children fan out to make a special check on each of those parolees to ensure they are staying clear of children and complying with the terms of their parole. For sex offenders, those terms include a prohibition against having any electronic devices such as cell phones, computers, tablets, etc.
On Halloween (October 31) 2017, officers Miller and Rudyk went to Wheeler’s residence to speak to him. Then they asked to see his room. That’s where they found numerous chargers and electronic devices. They arrested Wheeler for the parole violations and turned over the devices to federal law enforcement.
“It took (federal agents) several months to go through all of the videos and images on those devices,” officer Rudyk said.
Wheeler’s parole was revoked and he was returned to prison to serve remaining time on the earlier attempted rape conviction while the new federal charges were investigated and he was tried and convicted.
“Most New Yorkers never encounter a parole officer,” Spence said. They may never see or know what these brave officers are doing every day to make our communities safer. It’s a perfect example of how every New Yorker depends on state employees to do their jobs, but very few New Yorkers understand what those jobs entail and how much skill, education, experience and sometimes downright courage it takes to do them.”
Right now, as new criminal justice reforms are taking effect in 2020, parole officers are finding their caseloads increasing. The state Parole Board is under increasing pressure to release more prison inmates to parole, especially older inmates.
Rudyk and Parole Officer Keith Healy, who also works in the Buffalo area, say they worry that officers may not have enough time to give every parolee the help, support and close supervision they need to make a successful transition into community life. They also worry about increasing public and legislative pressure to excuse serious violations by parolees of the terms of their paroles.
Not only does this trend toward leniency for parole violations potentially endanger the public, it endangers the parole officers as well. The parolee sees their parole officer and the parole system as toothless and easily dismissed. Meanwhile the state is all too ready to blame the parole officer if the parolee commits a new crime.
“It’s already happening,” one officer said. “The state is more reluctant to issue warrants to arrest parolees who violate their paroles, and the state is writing more notices of discipline against our officers.”
“It’s easy to blame the officers,” said parole officer Gina Lopez, council leader of PEF Division 236. “We are trying to help parolees reform, but you can’t do it without more resources. Although officers who supervise sex offenders are supposed to have caseloads of no more than 25 parolees, their caseloads are all over the place.”
Parolees complain about the rules they must follow, but parole officers have rules they must follow, too, and sometimes those rules chafe and seem to waste valuable time. If a parolee moves to a new residence and fails to notify their parole officer, the system sees that as “absconding.” But if the parolee also commits other violations of their parole at the same time, it is all rolled into just one violation. The parole officer then must make more repeated checks on the parolee, even at old addresses where they previously lived.
“Part of making a successful transition from prison to the community is learning how to be responsible and accountable,” said Spence, who also is a parole officer. “The terms of parole are tailored to safeguard the public from the illegal behavior that brought about the parolee’s original conviction and sentence. So, sex offenders are forbidden to have devices where they can store porn and if they have a history of abusing children they must stay away from children. It’s one thing to be five minutes late for an appointment with your parole officer, and it’s another for you to return to the dangerous habits and bad company that led to your original criminal behavior. PEF wants parolees to succeed, but we insist that the state, itself, respect the parole process and not demean or disregard it. The safety of the public and of our members must come first.”
The situation involving Wheeler is by no means unusual. In December, for instance, 11 men were arrested during a sex-offender compliance operation in Sullivan County that involved the joint efforts of state parole officers and local police.
The 11 men who were arrested for parole violations, were among a total of 28 registered sex offenders who were investigated. The compliance operation continues and more charges or additional arrests could be forthcoming.
Another example of how parole supervision can make a difference may be seen in the case of a man – Sammy Swift, 62 — who was arrested in Auburn January 26 and charged with numerous violations including possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, drinking alcohol in his vehicle, driving with an expired license and not wearing a seatbelt. He had just completed parole January 1 after serving time for beating a man to death in April 1994 during a robbery and home invasion. And previous to that, he had served a prison sentence for first-degree reckless endangerment.
“It’s very difficult to make a successful transition to the community after spending years in a prison environment,” Spence said. “Parole officers work hard to help parolees through that process, but eventually, the parole ends and that individual is on their own. We can only hope that they have acquired enough good judgement, self control and skills during parole supervision to stay out of trouble when it ends.
“New Yorkers may not see the thousands of state employees working every day to make their lives safer and better,” Spence concluded, “but those services are there because PEF members and other dedicated public employees are doing them.”
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