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April 25, 2019

Lock the parole-prison revolving door: Rethink a system that’s sending far too many people away for minor violations

February 11, 2019
In need of reform. (Getty Images)

Most people are aware of mass incarceration, but few have heard of mass supervision. Yet behind the scenes, community supervision after prison — generally known as parole — has become one of biggest drivers of jail and prison populations in New York State. The statistics are dismal.

Each year, 30% of the people sent to state prison here are not incarcerated for new criminal convictions, but for breaching parole restrictions. Most of them are imprisoned for non-criminal “technical” violations, such as missing an appointment or failing a drug test.

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We send more people to prison for technical parole violations than any other state but Illinois. For every 10 people who successfully complete parole in New York, nine are sent back to prison, usually for technical violations. This amounts to a parole failure rate of 47%, almost twice as bad as the national average of 28%.

Parole failures are not only returning New Yorkers to state prison. They are also driving up the number of people locked up in local jails.

On any given day on Rikers Island, 20% of the detainees are jailed on parole warrants. The large number of alleged parole violators is a major obstacle to plans to close that miserable place.

This is not just a problem in New York City. While the number of people held on technical violations grew by 8% in the city’s jails last year, in county jails in the rest of the state, that number grew by a whopping 15%, costing taxpayers around the state millions of dollars.

Instead of paving the way for people to come home, parole has become a revolving door back to incarceration.

Why is this? To begin with, leaving prison is extremely hard. Returning citizens face huge obstacles finding housing and employment, navigating the complexities of life on the outside and reconnecting with family and supportive peers.

In this context, well-intentioned parole requirements like frequent meetings, travel restrictions, curfews and drug tests become gotcha tripwires. Operating in a risk-averse environment without sufficient resources, parole officers often find reincarceration to be the easiest answer when someone runs afoul of the rules.

How can we fix this system so that it helps people to succeed, rather than sending so many back to jail and prison?

The first step is to allow people to earn “good-time credits” for behaving well that would reduce their time on parole. These would not only incentivize success, but also shrink the number of people under supervision.

Second, we should put hard limits on the degree to which people can be imprisoned for technical violations, an approach that has already met with success in traditionally punitive “red” states such as Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana. After Louisiana limited punishments for parole violations, recidivism dropped by 22% and the state saved $17 million per year in correctional costs.

Finally, New York should use the cost savings from a lower prison population to help people on parole stay out prison by increasing access to housing, job opportunities, health care, substance abuse treatment and other services.

The good news is that our elected leaders are increasingly focused on parole.

Gov. Cuomo is calling for reform. State Sen. Brian Benjamin and Assemblyman Walter Mosley have just introduced the Less Is More Act, which would implement good-time credits, require due process before a person is jailed for an alleged parole violation, put restrictions on sending people back to prison for technical violations and redirect the savings from imprisoning fewer people to pay for housing and services.

The district attorneys in Albany, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan have already endorsed the bill. What are the rest of us waiting for?

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Lippman is a former chief judge of New York State, chair of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, and of counsel at Latham & Watkins LLP. Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and former commissioner of New York City Department of Probation.

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