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NY localities spend $300M annually on parole, analysis shows

(Johnson Newspaper Corp. graphic)

New York localities spend nearly $300 million each year incarcerating people on technical parole violations, a recent analysis shows, as officials clash over proposed changes to the state’s parole system and parole officers plead for advocates not to misrepresent data.

Lawmakers are split as progressive Democrats push before the end of session to enact parole reform, which could lead to the release of hundreds of incarcerated people in the state’s prison system with the passage of the Fair and Timely Parole Act and Elder Parole.

The bill reforming elder parole, if passed, would require incarcerated New Yorkers over age 55 who have served 15 or more consecutive years be considered for parole regardless of their crime or sentence.

“New York’s parole system is broken … (it) does not serve its function, it does not do its job, it is expensive, it is racist,” said Alexander Horwitz, executive director of New Yorkers United For Justice. “Parole was originally devised to be a state-sponsored system of re-entry to bring people home from incarceration permanently and safely.

“Instead,” Horwitz added, “New York’s parole system is a reincarceration machine.”

New Yorkers United For Justice, a state criminal justice advocacy group, examined the local costs for incarcerating people on parole on technical violations, which include any violation of a condition of parole outside a felony or misdemeanor offense, according to state Penal Law.

The state spends about $359 million incarcerating people, or returning them to state prison, for technical parole violations, including offenses such as missing curfew, a meeting with a parole officer, failing a drug test or not securing employment.

The state spent roughly $2.9 billion each in 2018, 2019 and 2020 incarcerating New Yorkers, according to Freeman Klopott, spokesman for the state’s Budget Division.

Technical parole violations drive reincarceration, Horwitz said, citing anecdotes of people who returned to imprisonment for missing an appointment with a parole officer or spending time with someone with a prior criminal history. Formerly incarcerated people who were involved in gang activity are not permitted to associate with other gang members or people with a history of organized crime upon release.

“Technical parole violations are not crimes — they are the breaking of administrative rules,” Horwitz said. “For breaking any of these types of rules, breaking the parole system can send you back to jail or prison without ever having committed a new crime. They can send you back to jail before it’s substantiated you have broken one of these rules.”

Parolees can be confined to local jails for 100 days while the state makes a determination about their case after allegedly breaking a rule.

But Wayne Spence, president of the state Public Employees Federation — a union representing 52,000 professional, scientific and technical state workers — argued the majority of parole-related charges are not for one technical violation, and reform advocates often misrepresent the system.

Spence, an African-American man from Queens, has served as a parole officer in the state since 1993.

Spence could return a parolee to custody for multiple violations, including failing a urine drug test, not attending the required drug treatment program, not reporting to their parole officer and not being at their listed residence.

A parolee is only required to plea to one charge, Spence explained, adding if the person decides to plea to a failure to report charge, that’s the charge recorded in court documents — skewing technical parole violation data.

“Statistically, a guy went to jail and returned to jail for failure to report — not true, but nobody looks at the original paperwork that shows sometimes up to 11 charges,” Spence said. “We do not lock people up for failure to report; we do not lock people up for one dirty urine. We will lock people up for many dirty urines. Parole officers always erred on the side of caution.”

Management now pressures officers to not reincarcerate a person as quickly or for technical violations.

“But there’s always that worry not to lock somebody up and give them the benefit of the doubt,” Spence continued. “One of the biggest fears is you let somebody walk out of your office on a Friday even though he didn’t go to the drug treatment program, and the fear is, over the weekend, he’s going to kill somebody, or he might pick up the wrong drug for whatever reason and (the officer) will be a blame.

“Part of the reform has to be about are you going to keep liability on the parole officer? … It has to be put in writing that these parole officers will not get any repercussions or losing their jobs where society wants to let these folks get a third, fourth or fifth chance,” he added.

In 1993, about 1,200 parole officers were assigned to former incarcerated people in New York. Today, the state has fewer than 700 parole officers, Spence said.

Parole reform is necessary, he added, but of issues that will solve the core of the problem, like increasing funding for 18B attorneys and public defenders. 18B attorneys often provide legal services for indigent people.

“Certainly there’s a need for reform — there’s a need for recognition, there was harsher punishment for people of color versus whites,” Spence said. “That is no longer indisputable, that’s just factual, but are we going to throw out the baby with the bath water?

“We’re now starting to treat some parolees as if they’re victims,” he continued. “I’ve sat across from people who are actually innocent, but that’s not my job.”

The state had 112 people held in local jails on technical parole violations on March 31, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

“This number does not include those individuals in local custody for a new criminal charge or for absconding from community supervision,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said in a statement.

Absconding refers to a person who intentionally avoids community supervision by failing to maintain contact or communication with his or her assigned community supervision officer or area bureau office.

DOCCS does not comment on proposed legislation.

Incarcerating one person in the state for one year costs about $60,000. Decreasing the number of people imprisoned for parole violations would reduce costs to counties and state taxpayers, activists said. But others caution changing parole rules before examining how it would impact public safety.

The state Public Employees Federation ruled April 21 to oppose similar proposed legislation that would broaden terms to revoke a person’s parole, or community supervision.

The law would hinder parole officers to sanction parolees who violate any of the terms and conditions of their parole, according to the federation.

“Parole is PART of the sentence for a conviction,” according to the federation’s four-page opposition to broad parole reform. “Changing these rules interferes with the judicial system and may lead to longer prison sentences with less chance of parole for future incarcerated individuals.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and executive aides continue to review the proposed parole reform legislation. The governor’s office would not take a stand in supporting or rejecting the measures.

“The legislation is under review,” Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to Cuomo said in a statement. “DOCCS is committed to constantly improving our community supervision processes, including the parole revocation system, in order to best support individuals under community supervision so that they can succeed in reentering their communities and leading a productive life for their families and loved ones. Contrary to popular belief, technical parole violations are not issued for an individual missing curfew one time, failing to report to their parole officer one time or missing a treatment appointment one time. The issuance of a technical parole violation is not a first resort, but rather a last, as these cases are the result of consistent and escalating violations of an individual’s parole.”

The total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 31,417 people as of Friday — a reduction of more than 24,560, or 44%, people since Cuomo took office Jan. 1, 2011, when the population totaled 55,979 incarcerated New Yorkers. DOCCS is at its lowest level in 37 years.

Cuomo has worked to increase decarceration and has closed 18 state correctional facilities since taking office — more than any other administration in state history, Azzopardi said.

“These prison closures eliminated almost 10,000 beds, resulting in an annual savings of about $300 million,” he added.

The state Parole Board currently has three vacancies of 19 total members. The board has had 16 members since July 2019.

“We are always reviewing potential applicants subject to approval by the Senate,” Azzopardi said.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, held a round table meeting with local law enforcement, police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys last week to examine law enforcement’s daily challenges in the state, including how recent criminal justice reforms have impacted operations and how to strengthen trust with the communities they serve.

The proposed parole reform was a topic of discussion. Ortt has repeatedly spoken out against the state’s controversial bail reform law.

“The governor’s taxpayer-funded pep rallies have served no purpose other than to ensure his own political survival while scandals and investigations swirl around his administration,” Ortt said. “The transparent use of COVID rules to keep the press locked out is an affront to the intelligence of the media and general public.

“This behavior is enabled by allies who seemingly ignore the ever increasing list of accusations of abuse and corruption against this governor,” he added. “I have not forgotten and neither have the people of New York.”

State Republicans who have spoken out about the proposed parole reform are staunchly opposed to the measures.

“It’s not enough that cop-killers, rapists and murderers are getting out on parole, liberal Democrats won’t be satisfied until law and order is completely overturned in New York,” Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski, said in a statement. “Parole is a component of criminal sentencing, and those conditions should be met in full for those who break the law. Coddling criminals has gone on for too long here. Weakening an already-compromised parole system is just the latest a disservice to crime victims and public safety.”

Representatives from the Assembly and Senate majority conferences did not respond to multiple requests for comment about parole reform, costs or a stance on the proposed legislation.

DOCCS implemented new standard conditions of release in July 2020 and new revocation guidelines in December after comments submitted by Legal Aid Society of New York City.

The state Parole Board’s total workload decreased by 36% since 2011 as of Dec. 31 and 21% since 2019 — the lowest workload since 1987, according to DOCCS.

The department attributes the decline to the continuing reduced number of incarcerated people.

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