Adi Talwar

George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island, seen from the Bronx. One in five people on Rikers on a given day are there primarily because they are on parole.

State legislators are closing in on reforms to the state’s parole system in the waning hours of the 2019 session, sources tell City Limits, but they likely will fall short of what the city needs in order to reduce its jail population enough to close Rikers.

The city’s jails mostly hold detainees awaiting trial and inmates serving short sentences for low-level crimes. A third group of people comprises 20 percent of the jail population on a given day: Folks who are behind bars primarily because they are on parole.

According to a report released on Tuesday by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, alleged parole violators are the only slice of the city’s jail population that has grown since 2016.

“Jailing so many people on parole warrants does little for public safety and is counterproductive to the success of people who are reentering society from prison,” wrote the Independent Commission, also known as the Lippman Commission and the body that in 2017, under the direction of former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, recommended closing Rikers.

Out of prison, under supervision

Parole occurs at the end of many prison sentences in New York. There are about 36,000 people on parole statewide at present, just 10,000 fewer people than there are in state prisons.

Upon release from prison, a person on parole is required for a number of months or years to check in regularly with a parole office and to follow rules. Some are regulations that apply to everyone on parole, and others are restrictions that are dictated by individual parole officers. These rules can include a curfew, drug testing, travel restrictions and more.

If a person on parole is suspected of violating any of those rules, or arrested for a new crime, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision can issue a parole warrant and have the person tossed in jail to await a preliminary hearing within 15 days.

If the hearing officer believes there’s probable cause to think a violation has occurred, she can order the person held for up to 90 more days for a final hearing. If not, she can dismiss the case.

An increasing number of parole warrants are dismissed at that preliminary hearing, the Lippman Commission’s report said – a quarter were thrown out during the first six months of 2019. But “even a short stay in jail can cause someone to lose their housing, employment, educational opportunities, or even custody of their children,” the report notes. Making matter worse: People held on parole warrants can’t be released on bail or their own recognizance until the parole matter is cleared up.

For those who aren’t released after the preliminary hearing, a final hearing in front of an administrative law judge awaits. There a judge can send them back to prison or to a behind-bars drug treatment program or release them again, sometimes with even stricter rules.

The judge, it’s worth noting, need only find a “preponderance of evidence” of guilt—not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—to ship the person to prison. That means, in theory, that a person could be acquitted of an offense in criminal court but found guilty on the same charge in the parole hearing. In the city, 62 percent of people on parole accused of technical violations go back to prison. The rest, having spent an average of 57 days in jail, are released.

It’s a system, advocates say, that complicates the already difficult task of a former inmate re-entering society—a transition during which many people struggle to find work and stay out of homeless shelters. It also likely drives people who are afraid of going back to prison for a technical violation to “abscond” from their parole officer, the report contended.

A significant barrier

New York City’s current average daily jail population of about 7,700 includes about 600 people who allegedly violated the technical conditions of their parole and another 900 people on parole who are accused of new crimes. Of the latter group, 500 are in for misdemeanors or non-violent felonies. Nearly nine in 10 of people held on parole warrants are people of color.

The city comptroller has estimated a $400 million annual price-tag for housing those alleged parole violators. The system also drives costs for the state. According to the report, in the first 10 months of 2018, New York State sent 1,100 people on parole back to prison when they were convicted of new crimes and nearly 7,500 back to prison for non-criminal violations of parole rules. Together, that accounted for nearly two fifths of the people sent to state prisons last year and a cost of $300 million.

There’s a larger cost as well: The commission says the “revolving door” that sends people on parole into city jails “poses a significant barrier to the closure of Rikers Island.”

Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers hinges on reducing the population to 4,000 or so—that’s the number that the four newly proposed borough jails could handle. Getting to 5.000 will require fewer arrests, less pretrial detention thanks to bail reform and faster case processing so jail stays are shorter. But it will also require reducing the number of alleged parole violators in city jails.

Hoping to do that, advocates supported the “Less is More Act” (S1343B/A5493A) in the state legislature this year. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Benjamin of Manhattan and Assemblymember Walter Mosley of Brooklyn, the law would end mandatory pre-trial detention on parole warrants, meaning some alleged violators could remain at liberty while their alleged parole violation is adjudicated.

It would also stop most technical violators from heading to prison, and limit jail terms for others, while also speeding up the parole hearings process and letting people who follow the rules to reduce the time they are on parole. The bill is supported by a broad coalition that includes the district attorneys of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

It now appears that two elements of that bill—ending mandatory pre-trial detention (S6548/A8378) and allowing people on parole to earn credit that reduces their supervision period (S6490/A8313)—could make it through the legislature this session, which is schedule to end Wednesday but could be extended.

Those changes, while helpful, are not a substitute for the Less is More Act, a commission spokesman tells City Limits.

“Our parole system is meant to help people returning from prison successfully reintegrate into the community and never return to custody. Yet here in New York State, thousands of people are held in jails and prisons for months or even years for non-criminal parole violations – not new crimes – contributing to a revolving door of incarceration,” Judge Lippman said to City Limits in a statement. “It’s time for New York State to follow the lead of states like Louisiana and Missouri and establish commonsense approaches to reforming parole that will increase public safety, improve outcomes, save taxpayer dollars, and hasten the day when the jails on Rikers can be closed forever. There is no time to waste: Albany cannot miss this opportunity to act.”

The politics of parole

Both as policy and politics, parole is complex. During Gov. Paterson’s administration, a state sentencing commission recommended getting rid of parole so that inmates would know with certainty when they would be released, allowing them and social service agencies to plan for that reentry. Some advocates have criticized parole rules as overly intrusive, but others have argued that having some supervision for the difficult process of reentry can be helpful.

Early in the Cuomo administration, the state parole board sharply decreased the rate at which it approved people for supervised release, and the governor has been criticized more recently for failing to appoint a full slate of parole board members or staff the department adequately. Even after serving long terms as model prisoners, some inmates cannot get parole because of the notoriety of their crimes.

Law-enforcement unions systematically oppose parole for people convicted of murdering police officers, and last year critics tore into Cuomo when his Parole Board granted release to a couple such inmates.

It’s unclear where on this political landscape the Less is More Act hit bumps. But advocates say they’ll start a new push as soon as this session ends.