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gothamist: new york legislature passes parole reform bill intended to slash prison population

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By George Joseph | via Gothamist

Albany has passed a new law designed to curb the number of people sent back to prison for non-criminal parole violations. If signed into law by Governor Cuomo, the “Less Is More Act” will stop parole officers from reincarcerating people for technical offenses, like missed check-ins and curfews or marijuana use. It will also give residents legal counsel when they are accused of violating their conditions of release and shorten parole periods for those who consistently follow the rules.

The new legislation, passed by the state’s Democratic supermajority, is intended to slash New York’s prison population. Right now, New York sends more people back to prison for violations like these than any other state in the country with the possible exception of Illinois. Technical parole violations accounted for approximately 40% of New York’s prison admissions in 2019.

“‘Less Is More’ is a critical first step to reforming New York State’s punitive and racially discriminatory parole revocation system,” said Lorraine McEvilley, Director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “We look forward to working with the New York State Legislature next session to ensure that our clients do not continue to face harsh penalties, including years in prison for low-level, non-violent conduct, merely because they are under parole supervision.”

Naquasia Pollard, who spent 15 years in prison for a robbery conviction, said she hopes the law will help bring her parole period to a speedier end. She runs a non-profit that provides counseling and skills training to young women, and argues she should not have to live with the constant fear of returning to prison. 

“Look at me, I created my own organization, a non-profit that helps the community that helps with social change,” said Pollard. “And I’m still on parole. Why?”

In addition to helping formerly incarcerated people, Alexander Horwitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice, notes the legislation could save New York state and municipal agencies hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

“If you pay taxes in New York state, ‘Less is More’ impacts you,” Horwitz said. “Right off the top, it addresses one of the biggest issues for all of New York, which is the incredible waste of this system, what we pay to wrongfully destroy lives.”

The bill’s passage is the latest in a string of victories for progressive criminal justice reform advocates, who previously pushed state Democrats to cut down on pre-trial detention and speed up defendants’ rights to access police records in criminal cases. 

But this particular issue also had support from some in law enforcement circles, including three district attorney’s offices in New York City.

“We applaud this coalition of re-entering New Yorkers, their allies, and the bill sponsors and legislative leaders, for enshrining this critical justice reform legislation that will help create a more just, fair, and equitable New York,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance in a statement.

But not all law enforcement groups are happy. As The City reported, the union that represents parole officers opposes the bill, arguing that its members should have discretion in making decisions about who should go back to prison and who should not.

At the same time, many advocates feel the reforms would not go far enough. Some groups want prisoners to have the right to appeal parole board denials to judges who would be above the board itself. Others are pushing for a bill to release more people over the age of 55 who have spent more than 15 years in prison.

A spokesperson for Cuomo said the Governor’s office would review the legislation.

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