By gabriel sayegh
Co–Executive Director, Katal Center
When people are accused of technical violations of their probation or parole, the punitive consequences are often severe and life-altering. But what are technical violations and why should states handle them differently?
Probation and parole are forms of community supervision. This typically means that a person who was convicted of a crime is under the supervision of correctional authorities but is not incarcerated. Parole is a type of supervision for someone who has been in a state prison and is serving a portion of their sentence in the community. Probation is also a sentence, usually in lieu of incarceration. At the federal level, supervised release may be imposed at the time of sentencing, and if so, it follows incarceration.
People on community supervision must follow rules that are called conditions or terms. Of course, one condition is not to be charged with a new crime. But people must also follow rules unrelated to criminal activity. These vary by county, state, and federal jurisdiction and may include the following:
- Meeting a curfew (or a “reverse curfew”): being home by a specific time—or not being able to leave home until a certain time
- Obtaining employment, including proof of searching for work
- Maintaining a home address
- Notifying the authorities of a change of address or obtaining permission for such a move
- Staying within a limited geographic area (not leaving the county or the state)
- Abstaining from alcohol and other substances
- Keeping appointments with a probation or parole officer
- Refraining from contact with other people who have been convicted of a crime
People under community supervision may be subject to other rules, depending on the jurisdiction or the probation or parole officer. When someone is accused of breaking these rules, it is considered a technical violation of their probation or parole. By definition, technical violations are not new crimes; they are noncriminal infractions of the rules.
What happens to someone who is accused of a technical violation? That depends: the consequences vary from state to state, sometimes from county to county, and in the federal system (which includes Washington, DC). All too often, someone accused of a technical violation of their parole is re-incarcerated, even when they haven’t committed a new crime. This isn’t fair—and makes it exceedingly difficult for people to get their lives back on track. The constant threat of being locked up again can create profound stress and anxiety for those on probation or parole and for their families.
For decades, technical violations have contributed to mass incarceration in the United States. Comprehensive figures are difficult to obtain, but according to research by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, nearly 25 percent of the people who entered state prisons nationwide in 2017 were imprisoned for noncriminal technical violations, at a cost of more than $2.8 billion.[i]
Mirroring the rest of the U.S. criminal legal system, racial disparities are deeply entrenched in supervision practices, including who gets charged with technical violations. An Urban Institute study on probation revocation found that Black people had their probation revoked “at significantly higher rates” than their white and Latinx counterparts did, with rates 55 to 100 percent higher for Black people than for white people on probation.[ii]
Similarly, the Columbia Justice Lab found that in 2018, Black people nationwide “were still 2.6 times as likely to be on probation, and nearly 4 times as likely to be on parole, as white people.”[iii] Citing related studies, the authors wrote that Black people were disproportionately charged with technical violations of community supervision, that Black and Latinx people were more likely to have their probation revoked than was true of their white counterparts, and that Black people were “more likely to be returned to prison for a parole violation.”[iv]
New York provides a telling illustration of the problem. In 2019, almost 36,000 people were on parole statewide.[v] A person’s efforts to reintegrate with their family and into their community could be upended at almost any time if a late bus causes them to miss a meeting with their parole officer or if they can’t find a job. The Columbia Justice Lab has reported that 40 percent of the people sent to New York State prisons in 2019 were incarcerated for noncriminal technical parole violations.[vi] As the report underscores, “This is nearly three times the national average.”
For years, New York held the distinction of imprisoning more people for technical violations of parole than any other state—and sending more people on parole back to prison for drug treatment than all other states combined.[vii] In 2019, Black and Latinx people in New York were far more likely to be re-incarcerated for such violations than white people were, and taxpayers were spending more than $680 million annually to lock up people for these noncriminal violations.[viii]
For many years, community groups and advocates across New York took action to address this problem. In September 2021, the state legislature passed the Less Is More Act. The new law is transforming how the state handles technical parole violations, most significantly by limiting the use of incarceration. Since the bill was signed into law, nearly 2,000 New Yorkers imprisoned for noncriminal infractions have been released; another 2,000 people will return to the community in the coming months. On March 1, 2022, more provisions of the bill took effect, and by the end of the month, approximately 8,000 people were discharged early from parole.[ix] The tens of thousands of people who remain on parole in New York no longer face automatic incarceration when accused of a technical violation—and now have new due process rights when they are accused of a violation.
New York is just one example of the growing movement of people taking action to change community supervision policies to make them more fair, just, and equitable.
Working together, we can make change happen. To join the fight for parole reform in New York State, you can volunteer with the #LessIsMoreNY coalition, sign up for updates, or both. If you’re not on Katal’s email list, you can sign up here.