What we can learn from Rayshard Brooks: Reform of parole and probation is just as important as police
Just a few months ago, Rayshard Brooks spoke to a public benefit company that helps people reenter the workforce after being incarcerated. His words tell us as much about criminal justice reform as any research or protest speech.
In that interview, Brooks, who was on probation at the time of his fatal shooting by police in a Wendy’s parking lot, explains the challenges of successfully returning home from incarceration and how community supervision can hinder reentry.
“I just feel like some of the system could, you know, look at us as individuals,” Brooks implores. “We do have lives, you know, just a mistake we made. And you know, not just do us as if we are animals.”
Brooks further recounts how little help he received from community supervision and how threatening it was to be under constant surveillance, facing possible incarceration for the slightest infraction. These violations — like consuming alcohol or missing appointments — would never lead to incarceration for the general public, because they are not crimes.
Yet, if charged with such non-criminal rule violations, people under supervision can be jailed without the option of pretrial release, without the right to confront witnesses, and with a lower standard of proof than reasonable doubt.
While this may sound overblown, incarceration for non-criminal rule violations happens every day. New York State incarcerates more people for technical parole violations than every state except Illinois, costing taxpayers more than $600 million last year.
One of them was Jose Rivera, whose parole officer arrested him for missing office visits as he lay dying of an overdose in Bellevue. Devaughnta Williams spent a week in jail accused of a parole violation for being at a protest past curfew, even though he was an essential worker. Raymond Rivera and Michael Tyson were the first two people at Rikers to die of COVID-19. Rivera was locked up for leaving a drug program without permission, Tyson for missing appointments.
In New York City, the state jails black and Latino people like these four men for parole violations at 12 and four times the rate of white people.
This is an urgent and current problem. On March 27, Gov. Cuomo ordered the release of up to 1,100 people statewide accused of violating “parole for non-serious reasons.” Two months later, only 300 of the 400 people the governor had ordered freed from city jails had been released by the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). Meanwhile, as of June 23, as the pandemic raged in Rikers Island, DOCCS had incarcerated 237 new people for technicals in city jails, nearly replacing the number they had released.
Clearly, if DOCCS can’t refrain from incarcerating people for rule violations during a pandemic, they will never do so absent a change in the law.
Fortunately, state Sen. Brian Benjamin and Assemblyman Walter Mosley have authored legislation to reform parole. The Less is More Act would protect against pretrial detention when someone is accused of a technical violation, limit the types of technicals for which someone could be incarcerated, and cap the time a person could be incarcerated for a technical. Furthermore, it would provide incentives for good behavior by granting time off parole when people abide by the rules.
The legislation is endorsed by more than 150 organizations statewide, including the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, Unchained, and a Little Piece of Light. Seven sitting district attorneys, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the New York State Association of Counties and New York City’s mayor, City Council speaker, controller and Brooklyn borough president back it, too.
As we look to reform policing in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others, we must not forget the “hidden police” — community supervision officers — surveilling communities of color every day. The Legislature should make our next-to-worst parole system a national example of reform.