By Aundrea Cline-Thomas via CBSNewYork
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Gov. Kathy Hochul acted to immediately free several hundred parolees from Rikers Island and made arrangements to move several hundred more from the notorious jail complex to state lockups to ease the unsafe conditions at the troubled facility.
But the correction officers union is questioning the effectiveness of the actions in ending the crisis.
As CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reports, unlike her predecessor, Hochul was careful not to attack Mayor Bill de Blasio, who bears the ultimate responsibility for fixing Rikers. But as she signed the Less Is More Act into law Friday, she made it clear she was trying to protect the lives of both the prisoners and the correction officers.
Amid ongoing violence and massive staff shortages on Rikers Island, Hochul signed the Less Is More Act. It changes parole standards, so parolees won’t be sent back to jail for technical violations.
“New York State incarcerates more people for parole violations than anywhere in the country. That is a point of shame for us, and it needs to be fixed. It’s going to be fixed today,” Hochul said.
Under the new law, people on parole will no longer be locked up for technical violations, like missing curfew or failing a drug test.
“What today is about is protecting human life. The lives of the people who are incarcerated as well as the corrections officers … It’s about protecting human rights. The right to work in a safe environment. The right to live and exist in an environment that is clean, hygienic, and, above all, safe,” Hochul said.
But since the act doesn’t take effect until March, the governor took additional steps to relieve overcrowding. She ordered 191 parolees incarcerated on technical violations to be released immediately. In addition, 200 prisoners serving sentences under a year will be transferred to state facilities over the next five days.
“I believe that we also have to take some very swift action and take it right now. So the Board of Parole, under my direction, will have 191 people released today,” she said. “They have served their sentences under the dictates of the new Less is More, but they shouldn’t have to wait until the enactment date.”
“We know larger, systemic problems still exist, we know that,” she added. “I believe that while we take these first steps, we encourage the city of New York to do what they need to do to alleviate the staffing situation and the other crisis situations.”
When releases, the inmates either hop on a city bus or will be transported by the Department of Correction. The city is required to ensure that everyone has shelter and is assigned a parole officer to connect each inmate to community services.
It’s not a flip of a switch, however, as inmates were still being processed well into the night Friday in preparation for their release.
Henry Robinson knows the fear of offenses like missing curfew or failing a drug test, which could put him back behind bars.
“It’s a trap. Probation and parole is a trap … Seeming like they’re waiting for you to make the first mistake, any mistake,” he told CBS2’s Aundrea Cline-Thomas.
He says this new law changes that.
“Less Is More give you more of an opportunity to live and be free,” he said.
The correction officers union questioned the effectiveness of Hochul’s actions, pointing out that the population of inmates facing serious felony charges rose by 23% last year.
“This legislation releases 200 of the over 6,000 inmates in our custody,” said Union President Benny Boscio, Jr. “Less criminals in our custody only means more crimes will be committed in our streets, creating more victims and that is an injustice.”
The union also acknowledged most of the inmates in custody are facing felony charges not eligible for bail, which doesn’t address concerns about violence inside the facility.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez made it clear that continuing sick-outs by correction officers mean the mayor is not off the hook. He called on the Rikers federal monitor to force the mayor’s hand.
“There’s more that the mayor needs to do,” Gonzalez said. “This is something that’s going to have to have a set staffing plan, and I would say that the federal monitor should go before the federal judge and demand that the city have a staffing plan for Rikers Island.”
Paul Rivera, out on parole after serving 35 years for murder, was thrilled the governor signed the Less Is More Act.
“There’s a lot of individuals who are suffering like me on parole and, at any given moment, I can be returned back in prison for simple things,” Rivera said. “For coming home late on my curfew, or I get stuck in traffic, I get home 10 minutes late – punishable by two years in prison.”
State officials say they will continue to help with overcrowding by transferring people sentenced in the future to state jails. It would affect those with sentences under a year, and could affect some 500 people.
Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin and state Assembly member Phara Souffrant Forrest, who co-sponsored the bill, celebrated its signing, along with other elected officials and criminal justice reform advocates.
“When women rule, how things can change, how we can find compassion and understanding and we can recognize what we’ve done wrong,” said Donna Hilton, executive director of A Little Piece of Light.
“It’s a new day in New York,” added Emily NaPier Singletary, co-executive director of Unchained.
“With the stroke of a pen, New York now finally turns the page on a draconian parole revocation system that helped perpetuate mass incarceration for decades,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement.
Hochul’s announcement came amid worsening violence, inmate deaths and inhumane conditions at Rikers Island.
Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled an emergency plan for Rikers, which includes:
- Reopening once-shuttered areas on Rikers to ease overcrowding and better process detainees
- Deploying the NYPD to staff the courts, shifting correction officers to the jail
- Expediting the fixing of broken cell doors and cleaning
- Addressing widespread sick-outs of correction officers by requiring a doctors note, and punishing those who don’t show up without warning
Critics had argued the city’s plan didn’t go far enough to lower the jail population.
In a statement, New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi thanked Hochul for “prioritizing the signing of this critical legislation, which marks a huge step forward in ending the era of mass incarceration, and its cousin, ‘mass supervision.’”
“Eliminating non-criminal, technical parole violations is the decent, humane thing to do and it will only increase public safety by disrupting the incarceration cycle at a critical point, when people are reintegrating into the community,” his statement continued. “I also wholeheartedly thank the governor for using her discretionary power to implement facets of the bill that we can benefit from immediately without waiting until March.”