By Reuven Blau and Rachel Holliday Smith via The City
For decades, New York state law allowed parole officers to toss people back into jail for low-level infractions like missing a curfew or having marijuana in their system.
When it comes to jailing parolees across the nation, New York has been an outlier. The state returns more people to jail for technical parole violations and drug treatment than any other in the U.S.
And Black and Hispanic people were much more likely to be re-incarcerated for those so-called “technical violations” than their white counterparts who committed the same infractions.
In 2018, a coalition of incarceration-reform activists pushed elected officials to introduce the Less is More bill, to take some power away from parole officers and give more legal rights to parolees.
Supporters of the legislation eventually included several county district attorneys and sheriffs, as well as former parole and correctional officials. They argued the old system was overly punitive and the violation hearing process a bureaucratic mess that often trapped people in jail for months.
But the sweeping reform legislation was opposed by the union representing parole officers, the New York State Parole Benevolent Association, which had close ties to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The union contended its members should be able to use their discretion in determining who is sent back to jail.
As the bill stalled in Albany for three years, the number of technical parole technical violators put back into Rikers and other city jails went up, despite a decrease in the overall jail population.
Three months after Cuomo resigned in disgrace, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Less is More Act on Sept. 17. It was hailed as her first criminal justice reform push.
What took effect on March 1?
There are five big categories of changes happening to parole policy:
- More Rights: Guaranteed legal counsel and speedier hearings for anyone accused of violating parole.
- Fewer Ways to Get Sent Back: Getting rid of automatic jailing for certain types of “technical” parole violations, which include non-criminal incidents like a failed drug test or missing an office check-in with your parole officer.
- Less Time Behind Bars: Limits the number of days you can be jailed for other types of more serious technical violations, like refusing a job visit or lying to a parole officer.
- Credit Bank: Allowing parolees the possibility of cutting down the time they’re on parole through “earned time credit,” or violation-free time they spend in the community.
- Moving Off The Rock: Parole hearings for noncriminal technical violations must be held in community settings like local borough courts. Currently, those hearings are held on Rikers Island.
How did we get here?
Advocates for criminal justice reform have been pushing for these changes since at least 2016, driven by anger over a system they say too harshly punishes Black and brown New Yorkers. In the city, the measure was supported by four of the city’s district attorneys, with Staten Island DA Michael McMahon the only holdout. The legislation was also backed by the city’s Bar Association and DAs from Nassau, Westchester, and Albany.
A major turning point in the legislative process came when Hochul named then-State Senator Brian Benjamin as her lieutenant governor. He was a lead sponsor of the bill.
“When she took him on she had to take on his priorities,” Gabriel Sayegh, the co-executive director at the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice. “That was definitely a really fortunate turn of events”
In 2019, parole officers here sent approximately 6,000 people back to jail on technical violations, according to state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision records.
By 2020, about 10% of the entire state prison population was people incarcerated on technical parole violations.
“Routinely, somebody who was released and is on community supervision from parole would find themselves remanded back at Rikers, on the smallest of things,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society.
“Less is More” legislation was first introduced in Albany in 2018 but did not have enough political traction to pass.Members and sponsors make THE CITY possible.
Since then, support for reform rose as the numbers got worse. In 2019, the number of people returned to jail because of parole violations went upeven as the overall population behind bars went down.
When the COVID pandemic hit, outrage grew as people continued to be jailed on Rikers Island for non-criminal issues like missing curfew, or failing to report a change of address to their parole officer.
In some cases there were fatal consequences.
In April 2020, Michael Tyson, 53, and Raymond Rivera, 55, both died after contracting COVID on Rikers. They had each been there on minor parole violations.
The following year, two more men died on Rikers who had been locked up on low level charges while on parole. Thomas Braunson III, 35, died on April 19, held on a shoplifting charge. On April 30, 45-year-old Richard Blake died of still undetermined causes, after being accused of possessing crack and marijuana.
In June, state lawmakers voted to pass the “Less is More” bill. Two hours after the State Senate began voting on the legislation, another man held on a parole violation, Mejia Martinez, 34, died at Rikers.
Meanwhile, Black and Latino people in New York are under parole supervision at 6.8 and 2.5 times the rate of white people, respectively, according to a March 2020 study by Columbia University’s Justice Lab Center.
What’s still left to do?
The Legal Aid Society has already accused the state prison system of stalling implementation by unfairly detaining parolees who are eligible for release under the new law. That includes about 90 people represented by the Legal Aid Society, the city’s largest public defender organization. The group filed a lawsuitagainst the state on Wednesday in state Supreme Court in The Bronx.
Others throughout the state are also still held behind bars despite the new law going into effect, according to Sayegh.
“It’s messy and people are confused,” said Sayegh. “DOCCS has had six months to prep and they are not ready for it. They’ve been terrible.”
DOCCS maintains that it has done everything possible for a smooth transition.
“The department has had a number of calls with the Legal Aid Society and other advocacy groups to ensure we address their questions and are compliant with the law,” said DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey.
The agency is actively working with state court officials to identify appropriate space to conduct the required hearings, said Mailey, noting when no court space exists the department may need to pay for commercial real estate.
Seeking more information? Need help for someone on parole?
Several major public defender groups and nonprofits have led the way to assist. They are: The Legal Aid Society, Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice, and A Little Piece of Light which assists women. People upstate can contact Unchained.