By Karen DeWitt via WBFO
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday ordered the immediate release of nearly 200 state prison inmates being held for committing technical parole violations, while also vowing to improve what she called “hell on earth” conditions at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail.
Hochul signed a new law, known as the Less is More parole reform legislation, that ends the practice of sending people who have already served their sentences back to prison, for what’s known as a technical parole violation. Those technical violations include missing an imposed curfew, failing a drug test, or showing up late for a parole appointment.
She said New York State incarcerates more people for parole violations than any other state in the nation.
“That is a point of shame for us, and it needs to be fixed,” Hochul said. “And it’s going to be fixed today.”
Hochul was joined by legislative leaders, several district attorneys and the state’s recently appointed lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who, during his time as a state Senator, was the prime sponsor of the bill.
Benjamin said Black and Latinx New Yorkers are disproportionately sent back to prison for parole violations, compared to whites. Sometimes, he added, the sentence imposed as punishment for the technical parole violation is longer than the original length of their parole.
“You say to yourself, ‘Was this done particularly to harm poor Black and Brown communities, or was this done to keep us safe?’” Benjamin said. “It is hard to imagine it was done to keep us safe.”
Under the terms of the legislation, the changes would not take effect until March of 2022. But Hochul used her executive powers to immediately rescind the prison sentences for 191 inmates who are currently incarcerated for technical parole violations.
The governor also took steps to relieve severe overcrowding at Rikers Island. On a recent tour of the notorious New York City prison, state and local lawmakers say they witnessed unsafe and unsanitary conditions, including rotting food and feces, and dead cockroaches.
Hochul said she’s working with the City of New York to transfer 40 prisoners a per day from Rikers to other, state-run facilities with cleaner and safer conditions.
“People will be leaving Rikers, a volatile tinderbox, and be allowed to go to another state facility,” the governor said.
Hochul recounted how, as a teenager in 1971, she followed the deadly Attica prison uprisings, and skipped school to attend the resulting trials, as a volunteer for the ACLU.
She said she does not want to see anything like that repeated at Rikers, which she likened to “hell on earth” and a “pressure cooker.”
“The question is, do we step back and let a possible Attica be erupting under our watch?” Hochul asked.
New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio did not attend the announcement. Hochul’s predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal, famously feuded with the New York City mayor. Hochul warns that no one should read anything into the mayor’s absence, and she said she won’t “cast aspersions” on the mayor’s handling of Rikers so far. She says she wants the state to support the City’s efforts to try to improve conditions at the jail.
The parole reform measure has long been championed by progressive groups, who praised the governor’s actions.
The head of the state’s Republican Party, Nick Langworthy, condemned the new law, and accused Hochul of catering to the “radical left.” He said the measure will make “every single New Yorker less safe.”