New York’s parole system was operated by the state Board of Parole, an administrative body independent of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), until 2011. Now, the department that oversees incarceration is the same one that adjudicates violations of those under supervision. In effect, it creates “an institutional resistance from the same agency that locked you up to let you out,” said Lorraine McEvilley, director of Legal Aid’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit.
Columbia Justice Lab Probation and Parole Reform Project director Kendra Bradner said that although the parole system in New York is not unique, the state stands out in its inclination to incarcerate violators. “The department has clearly made the decision that incarceration is an appropriate response to noncriminal activity,” she said. “And other departments have made different choices.”
The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world and carries 4.4 million others under some form of supervision. This supervision costs taxpayers $2.8 billion annually and reincarcerates technical violators at a rate of one in every four. New York is the second highest state in the nation for reincarcerating people for technical violations, surpassed only by Illinois. The state currently has about 35,500 people under supervision, about the same number of people it has incarcerated. Last year, technical violations made up one-third of New York’s prison admissions and cost taxpayers more than $600 million last year.
The state’s parole system is also criticized for its sizeable racial disparities. Statistics show that Blacks are between 50% and 100% more likely to be charged with a parole violation than others. They are held under supervision longer, at 12 times the rate of White New Yorkers. Latinos are held at four times the rate of Whites.
DOCCS records show that 7,295 people have been arrested for parole violations between January and October of 2020, many for technical violations — which means no new criminal actions were committed. Instead, people were sent back to prison because they failed to check in with their parole officer or were out of their homes after curfew.
Michael Hilton, a 64-year-old with a number of medical conditions including HIV, was in violation because he felt threatened living in a shelter home during the COVID-19 crisis and moved to a more secure address. He even went as far as notifying his parole officer of his change of address. “Guys are very irresponsible in those types of situations, they don’t wear masks and none of that,” he said.
A warrant squad arrested Hilton in September. It was his third technical violation, all three for refusing to live in a shelter. “I violated my parole condition, I’m not arguing that,” he stated. “But it’s a violation that didn’t require me going back to Rikers.”
DOCCS spokesperson Rachel Connors said that parole officers place parolees at shelter homes, but only as a last resort. She said technical violations were only issued after “consistent and escalating violations of an individual’s parole.” She said they were never issued on the first infraction. “The parole revocation process is not one that the Department takes lightly, and to insinuate that parole violations are issued for any other reason than the best interest of both the parolee and the public is an afront [sic] to the hardworking men and women who work to support the successful reentry of individuals under community supervision across New York state,” she stated in an e-mail. “It is unfortunate that some have chosen to misconstrue and weaponize the parole revocation process to imply that individuals under community supervision are unfairly and unjustly sent back to prison for minor mistakes, forgetfulness, or misunderstandings.”
Legal Aid Society’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit staff attorney Laura Eraso said that this is “simply not true.” She stated that two clients she recently represented received technical violations at their first infractions. The parole officer’s propensity to issue violations vary widely.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “New York jails and prisons should not be filled with people who may have violated the conditions of their parole, but present no danger to our communities.” He joins New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, the New York City Council, dozens of community groups, prosecutors, corrections officials, and elected officials in calling for parole reform. For the past two years, and once again on the agenda for the next legislative assembly, the group has supported enactment of the Less Is More Act. This act calls for New York’s parole system to be “substantially downsized, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable, and restorative.”
The act would eliminate the option of incarceration for most technical violations. It would put a cap on the more serious technical violations of 30 days. It would allow defendants to be released back to the community pending their hearing and provide for speedier hearings for those detained.
The act also calls for reduction in length of supervision for those adhering to supervision stipulations, similar to those in prison earning time for good behavior. The individual’s length of supervision would be reduced 30 days for every 30 days spent without a violation. Advocates say that this system is already in use in many states across the country and would bring New York in line with other states.
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