Even law-and-order states have grasped the need to refashion so-called hair-trigger community supervision systems that reflexively and unnecessarily send people to prison for minor infractions that have no bearing on public safety. Some have hired additional case workers to make their systems more effective, have given newly released inmates better access to drug treatment or mental health care, or have developed community sanctions that send only the most troubled or repeat-prone offenders back to prison.
A recent analysis by the reform-focused Council of State Governments Justice Center found that states like Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas have seen dramatic reductions over the last decade in recidivism connected to probation or parole.
Then there is New York. The state, which has closed more than a dozen prisons over the last decade alone, is a national standout when it comes to sentencing reform. But a new study from Columbia University’s Justice Lab calls on state lawmakers to do significantly more to address the problems with the community supervision system, which come at a considerable cost to the local jails where most of the people locked up for state parole violations are held.
At a time when the number of people being detained in New York City jails is shrinking, state parole violators represent the only subgroup of offenders that is growing. Between 2014 and 2018, for example, the percentage of people held on technical violations of parole increased by 15 percent, even as the overall jail population declined by 21 percent.
A November 2017 snapshot count of city inmates found 1,460 people in New York City’s jails for state parole violations. If this were a stand-alone group, the report’s authors note, it would be larger than the population of any jail in the state, with the exception of New York City’s sprawling Rikers Island complex. Among other things, this population is an obstacle to the city’s goal of closing that historically troubled complex altogether.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called on the State Legislature to make changes that would help those in custody for parole violations, such as abolishing money bail for people accused of misdemeanors, eliminating state supervision fees for people on parole and reviewing how child support is calculated for people incarcerated for more than six months.
But the Columbia study calls on the Legislature to do a lot more. It recommends that the state adopt several common-sense reforms, most of which have already shown promise in other states. These include: adopting a system of graduated sanctions and rewards, instead of automatically dumping people into jail for minor infractions; capping jail terms for minor parole violations; requiring a judicial hearing before parole officers can jail people accused of technical violations; shortening parole terms for people who stay out of trouble for specified periods of time; and using the savings reaped from cutting the prison population to expand education, substance abuse and housing opportunities for parolees, who need considerably more help than they’re getting to forge stable lives in their communities.
These proposals would be a heavy lift in the conservative New York State Senate. But they make good policy and economic sense, and would bring the state to the forefront of the parole reform movement.