Josefa Velasquez and Reuven Blau

Originally published in The City

The New York State Bar Association is throwing its weight behind a legislative push to reform New York’s parole system, endorsing efforts to scale back or eliminate jailing for parolees.

The association adopted a report and recommendations this weekend that seek to overhaul parole by discarding incarceration over technical parole violations prior to a judge’s review, and creating a system of “earned good time credits” to encourage good behavior.

They’re also backing efforts to increase the number of parole commissioners from 19 to 30 to help cope with a shortage.

Hank Greenberg, the bar association’s president, urged that the Legislature in Albany tackle the “woefully high reincarceration rate of parolees” when it reconvenes in January.

The report found “little or no evidence” that jailing people on technical parole violations “enhances public safety or reduces recidivism as intended.”

“A more forceful argument exists that incarcerating people for technical parole violations plays a decidedly negative role in terms of integrating these persons back into the community, and is extremely costly in human and economic terms,” the report states.

Parolee Numbers Down, Violations Up

While the overall number of people held in New York City jails has been on the decline, the number of detainees locked up over accusations of technical parole violations — like missing curfew, testing positive for drugs or alcohol, or changing residence without approval — is on the rise, according to the City’s Independent Budget Office, costing the city about $190 million annually.

The number of those re-jailed for violations has steadily gone up since 2014, according to state records. Currently, 726 such people are in city custody, the highest total since 2013.

The spike comes as the overall population of parolees in New York City has gone down over the past five years, from 13,748 in 2013 to 12,606 this year.

Reasons for the increase remain unclear.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top criminal justice advisor  contends that some parole officers have been slow to change their hardline approach to people who violate any rules.

“It’s an issue of real concern for us. It’s one reason why we are strong supporters of the parole reform,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The union representing parole officers points out that technical violations also include people who abscond.

“If somebody is on parole and they stop reporting that’s the equivalent of escaping jail,” said Wayne Spence, president of the Public Employees Federation and a parole officer since 1993.

Criminal justice reformers contend the system has long been unfair.

“Technical parole violations – failing to obtain a job, discuss changes in residence, or missing a curfew — have plagued our clients for decades and have fed mass incarceration in New York State,” said Lorraine McEvilley, director of the parole revocation defense unit at The Legal Aid Society.

“These reforms are drastically needed to overhaul a highly punitive system that adds little to promote public safety and only serves as barriers to our clients’ successful reentry back to their communities,” McEvilley added.

A Legislative Fix

State Sen. Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Walter Mosley (D-Brooklyn) introduced legislation in February to limit the circumstances under which parolees could be re-jailed and strip parole officers of the ability to do so over technical violations.

Under the current system, a parole officer can send a parolee to jail immediately if “reasonable cause” for a violation exists. Once there, a person could wait up to three months behind bars without bail to see a judge, who would ultimately determine whether the parolee can be released or sent back to prison.

“My biggest issue is how technical parole violation occurs in the first place,” said Benjamin. “It goes down to which parolees are getting more attention from parole officers and what kind of politics exist among that. It’s not a particularly good system.”

“I don’t believe anyone sees the job of the parole officer to be the determiner of incarceration,” he added, suggesting that parole officers should serve more as social workers to help reintegrate individuals back into society.

Decisions over incarceration “should have a judge as part of that process,” he added.

Spence said he also supports changing what he calls an  “archaic” system. Parolees, for instance, should not be forced to stay away from other people with criminal records at all times, he argued, noting that rule is difficult for many to follow.

Although the state measure received the backing of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, neither the Senate nor Assembly voted to pass the bill this past legislative session.

But Benjamin hopes to make “real progress” on the bill this upcoming session and has been meeting with parole officers and criminal justice advocates to reach a consensus.

“Even a brief period of incarceration on a technical parole violation … can result in the person losing his or her job and housing and can render, both them and their families homeless and with no viable source of income,” the bar association’s report stressed.