ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Caught in a political crossfire over the release of violent felons, New York parole officials report that none of the 456 violent felons paroled in the last four years was sent back to prison for committing a new crime.

Parole for murderers and other violent felons flared into a political issue recently after their release rates increased under former Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer. The controversy is unlikely to fade away under Gov. David Paterson, with Republican critics still pressing for changes. When asked by a reporter, Paterson called the violent felon release rates "a serious concern."

The issue centers on parole of so-called A1 felons — those convicted of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping or arson in the first degree. Republicans called the higher release rates under Spitzer alarming. Administration officials countered that parole boards, still dominated by members appointed by Republican George Pataki, must by law consider not only the applicant's crime, but his prison record and prior criminal record.

"We're very sensitive in terms of who we are releasing," said Division of Parole Chairman George Alexander. "But we're bound by law to consider certain factors."

Alexander said boards are making safe decisions and his agency released parole data as evidence. The return rate for violent felons committing a crime within three years was 1.6 percent from 1999 through 2003. Division records show none of the 456 A1 felons released from 2004 through 2007 were returned to prison for a new crime, including the 440 murderers and attempted murderers in that group.

Those figures do not include parolees sent back to prison in that time for technical violations, such as failing drug tests. And the no-return run does not include violent felons paroled before 2004 who committed a crime in that period. For instance, a murderer paroled in 1994 was imprisoned in December 2006 for burglary.

Although their crimes are among the most heinous, paroled murderers are statistically unlikely to commit a new crime. State prison officials studying inmates released between 1985 and 2002 found 3 percent of murderers were returned to prison for new crimes after three years. Return rates for some others, such as those convicted of grand larceny, were above 20 percent.

Why are so-called recidivism rates for killers so low? Criminologists note that many killers act impulsively in a fight or during an act of passion — as opposed to "career" criminals who rob or sell drugs as a vocation. Also, murderers usually are not released until they are at least middle-aged, and older people are less likely to break the law, according to Columbia Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan, co-director of the Center for Crime, Community and Law.

"When you're 23 years behind the walls, you have a lot of time to think about what you're doing and change your life around," said Jay Pobliner, who was paroled in 2002 after serving decades in prison and then on work release for killing his wife in 1968. Pobliner, 67, proudly talked about being a lieutenant in his local volunteer fire department and becoming certified last year as an emergency medical technician.

"I like to think of myself as that I did a criminal act," he said. "I'm not a criminal."

But Republican state Sen. Michael Nozzolio said focusing on low recidivism rates misses the point. He said allowing violent criminals out early undercuts New York's "zero tolerance" for those crimes and chips away at respect for the law.

"My constituents are not going to take comfort in the fact that when ax murderers get out of jail through their early release process that they're statistically less likely to commit another crime. That's not the issue," said Nozzolio, chairman of the state Senate's criminal justice committee. "The issue is: Why are we letting violent felons out of jail early in the first place?"

Nozzolio said he has the same concerns with Paterson as he did with Spitzer in office. A bill backed by Senate Republicans would require unanimous votes by three-member boards before felons convicted of violent crimes can be paroled.

Politicians know that despite low recidivism rates for killers, it only takes one to create a political disaster. The most infamous case involved Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who raped a woman and beat her boyfriend while on a weekend furlough in Massachusetts. The case dogged former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis during his unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign.

Liz Gaynes of the Osborne Association, a criminal justice advocacy group, argued that violent felon releases are more a political issue than a public safety issue, given the low recidivism rates.

She said it's impossible for a politician to say: "Yes. I favor the release of violent, vicious dangerous people," particularly in an election year in which Democrats want to wrest control of the state Senate from Republicans. On the other hand, she suggested politicians seeking to keep inmates in jail longer might be concerned about proposed prison closures in their upstate districts amid decreasing inmate counts.

"They clearly do not endanger public safety," Gaynes said of paroled violent felons. "What they endanger is the necessity of keeping all the upstate prisons open forever."

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