The cruelty of parole in New York
By District Attorneys Darcel Clark, Eric Gonzalez, and Cy Vance, Jr. via Daily News | November 19, 2020
For a long time, conventional wisdom has told us that if you want to keep people out of jail, you put them on probation. And if you want to get more of them out of prison, you put them on parole. After all, community supervision was designed in the 1800s to reduce incarceration and help turn people’s lives around.
But if that’s the case, why did three district attorneys like ourselves who have done everything we can to reduce mass incarceration join over 50 prosecutors and 90 probation and parole commissioners in demanding that “probation and parole…be substantially downsized, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable and restorative”?
That’s because it turns out the conventional wisdom on probation and parole is wrong.
Instead, community corrections has become an overly burdensome and punitive driver of mass incarceration. Rather than being a rehabilitative alternative to incarceration (in the case of probation) or a release mechanism from prison for good behavior (in the case of parole), community corrections too often serves as a tripwire back into incarceration. Nationally, one out of every four people entering America’s prisons in 2017 was incarcerated not for a new crime, but for a technical violation. These violations can be as minor as accidentally missing an appointment, missing curfew, or missing a fee payment. They can also be as absurd as being violated for “associating” with someone with a criminal record for marrying someone with an old felony conviction, as happened to a man from Buffalo.
Society is paying a hefty price to keep all of those people on probation and parole. It costs taxpayers nationally $2.8 billion that year — money that could go to drug treatment, job training and housing for people in the criminal justice system.
This is hardly a problem foreign to New York State. While New York City Probation largely avoids incarcerating people for non-criminal rule violations, our state-run parole system is Exhibit A in the case against technical violations and overly-punitive supervision. New York returns more people to state prison for technical, non-criminal parole violations than every state except Illinois. Six times as many people return to prison in New York for technical parole violations as for new arrests, costing state taxpayers more than $600 million annually. Prior to the pandemic, people incarcerated for technical parole violations were the only population increasing in Rikers Island, threatening the well-deserved closure of those notorious jails.
As counterproductive as it was to imprison people for technical violations before the pandemic, it is doubly so since. Indeed, the first two people to die from COVID-19 at Rikers Island – Raymond Rivera and Michael Tyson – were incarcerated for non-criminal, technical parole violations.
These technical violations are not meted out equally. Research by Columbia University’s Justice Lab reveals that Black people are between 50% and over 100% more likely to be charged with parole violations and Black and Latinx people remain under community supervision longer than similarly situated white people. In New York City, Black and Latinx people are stacked up in Rikers Island waiting for their parole violation cases to be resolved by state officials at a deeply troubling 12 and four times the rate of white people, respectively.
Technical probation and parole violations don’t just exacerbate underlying structural racism, substance use, housing insecurity, and mental health issues, but they are major drivers of mass incarceration and the inequities that come with it.
Data and stories like these have led to widespread condemnation of parole violations in our state. Gov. Cuomo stated, “New York jails and prisons should not be filled with people who may have violated the conditions of their parole, but present no danger to our communities.” The New York State Bar Association wrote that violating so many people “is counterproductive and costly, both in human and financial terms, and should be promptly addressed through remedial legislation.”
Fortunately, there is a solution. Here in New York, the Less Is More Act has been proposed to incentivize good behavior by people on parole, reduce the number of people imprisoned for non-criminal violations, and shorten how long they can be incarcerated for crimeless missteps. All three of us have endorsed Less Is More, along with four other district attorneys, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, numerous former probation and parole officials, the New York State Association of Counties, and a broad coalition of non-profit organizations and formerly-incarcerated people led by A Little Piece of Light, the Katal Center and Unchained.
With the danger people face in our state’s prisons and jails and the stark budget deficits facing state policymakers, passing Less Is More is more important now than ever.
Full article available online at this link.