A Slap in the Face: The Judith Clark Parole
By Ari L. Maas
Over the centuries, philosophers and criminal justice scholars have argued about the justifications for punishment. Although opinions will differ, generally, they all agree on the four main justifications: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation and incapacitation.
On April 19, convicted felon Judith Clark was granted parole (after Gov. Cuomo commuted her sentence from 75 to life to 35 to life in 2016), after serving 38 years in prison for her involvement in the infamous 1981 Brinks robbery at the Nanuet Mall. At her trial, Clark was found guilty of felony murder - her actions the day of the robbery caused the deaths of Nyack Police Officers Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown and Brinks guard Peter Paige and wounding two other Brinks guards and a police detective.
In commuting her sentence and later granting parole, Cuomo and the parole board cited examples of Clark’s rehabilitation: her taking responsibility for her crimes (this after being uncooperative and even defiant in court - decrying those proceedings as racist and fascist), her earning of a bachelors and masters degree, her work with AIDS patients and training service animals. While these things are all commendable and show evidence of Clark’s rehabilitation, it is ignoring another goal of our penal system - retribution.
While retribution is often described in the biblical terms of “an eye for an eye,” it should not be mistaken for revenge. Retribution is not done for personal reasons or to gain pleasure out of the convicted’s suffering. It is a punishment inflicted that is proportional to the crime and prevents mob justice. Instead of family members of crime victims and the victims taking the law into their own hands, we trust the state to dole out an appropriate punishment and give them some closure.
At the time of Clark’s sentencing, the judge chose to sentence Clark to the maximum allowable time - three consecutive 25 years to life sentences for a total of 75 years to life. During sentencing, the judge said of Clark that she “hold[s] society in contempt, and [has] no respect for human life”. The judge saw no chance for future rehabilitation and noticed that she grinned mockingly during her sentencing - the same grin she wore while in police custody the night of the crime.
Predictably, the Clark case has become polarized across party lines. Those on the left call Clark a poster child for rehabilitation and prison reform and have cheered her impending release. Those on the right are calling her release a slap in the face to police officers which, according to Rockland County Executive Ed Day, is signaling to the “criminal element that it is open season on cops.” However, what both sides seem to be overlooking is the retributive prong of our penal system.
There is no doubt that in nearly four decades, people can change, as is evident by the good things Clark has done in prison. However, this does not make up for the fact that Clark’s crimes turned three wives into widows, left nine children fatherless, and left three others (including Brinks guard Joseph Trombino, who was killed on 9/11) with permanent injuries. It is Cuomo and the parole board’s right and prerogative to grant Clark parole. But to do so while making her the poster child for rehabilitation and ignoring the retributive prong of our penal system is a slap in the face to the families and victims of that day - all of whom who have spoken out are against her release.
Ari L. Maas is a police officer with 16 year of experience. He holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Rutgers University, a J.D. from New York Law School and a Master of Public Policy degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is a licensed attorney in both New York and New Jersey.