Inmates at Rikers Island Prison Complex (Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP)

New York’s laws on parole could be transformed by the end of June if Democrats are successful in pushing through a series of reforms aimed at reducing the number of people incarcerated.

Lawmakers are advocating for legislation that would allow more individuals to become eligible for parole under certain conditions, and keep others from returning to jail after their release.

Support for the latter bill has been fueled in recent weeks by a report in Gothamist, a New York City news site, that claimed administrative law judges at the Rikers Island Judicial Center were being pressured to incarcerate individuals for minor, technical parole violations.

That bill, sponsored by State Sen. Brian Benjamin, D-Manhattan and Assemblyman Walter Mosley, D-Brooklyn, would remove the option for judges to send individuals under community supervision back to jail for technical violations in most cases. It would also cap the number of days a parolee can be sent back at 30 days.

“They have people there that shouldn’t be there, who pose no risk to the greater society or themselves,” Mosley said. “I think it’s a waste of time for the Division of Parole and the [NYC] Department of Correction, as well as a waste of time and energy for those put back into the system.”

Benjamin and Mosley introduced the bill months before the Gothamist article came out. It’s been amended a few times since then, but both lawmakers were confident the bill could be passed before the end of session in June.

“We’re looking forward to getting this bill passed, if not soon, relatively soon,” Mosley said. “We’ll see about getting it on the calendar, hopefully, by the end of the year.”

Both lawmakers said the idea for the bill, which is new this year, came from criminal justice advocates who have long lambasted the state’s laws on parole. It has the support of former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and defense attorney organizations, such as the Legal Aid Society.

Benjamin said there’s also support from prosecutors for the legislation. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark have each endorsed the bill.

Opposition to the legislation has come, in part, from the Public Employees Federation, a union in New York that represents public employees, including parole officers. PEF President Wayne Spence, who is a parole officer himself, said it’s a public safety issue for his members.

“The bill is going to be disastrous for the communities we serve,” Spence said. “I really believe this bill, left unchecked, is going to increase more violent crimes in neighborhoods of color, because that’s where people on parole are.”

The union isn’t against parole reform, Spence said; they just think it should be done differently. He suggested that lawmakers, for example, consider boosting funds for public defenders and 18-b attorneys to provide better legal representation for low-income individuals.

Benjamin said they’re planning to hear the union’s concerns and may make changes to the bill before it’s brought to the floor of either chamber for a vote.

“We think it’s in a good place but we just want to make sure it’s a perfect bill, there’s no reason to rush unless we do it right,” Benjamin said.

Spence is planning to be in Albany later this month with parole officers and administrative law judges to review the bill and make recommendations on how it could be changed to meet their concerns.

Administrative law judges have their own stake in the legislation: they’re currently tasked with evaluating whether a parolee should be incarcerated for violating the terms of their supervision. Benjamin and Mosley’s bill would, instead, have local criminal court justices conduct a recognizance hearing for a parolee before they’re detained over an alleged violation.

Those justices would be precluded from incarcerating parolees and others under community supervision for their first and second technical violations in most cases. Technical violations are defined in the legislation as any violation of community supervision other than a felony conviction and certain misdemeanor crimes, such as assault or strangulation.

There would be exceptions to that rule. Individuals who abscond, which is when someone doesn’t tell their community supervision officer of a change in residence to avoid being monitored, can be sent to jail for up to seven days for their first violation. Certain other violations, such as when someone leaves the state without permission, would be treated the same.

Vincent Schiraldi, the former New York City probation commissioner and current co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab, said those limits are important because offenders often don’t intend to commit technical violations — life just gets in the way.

“You have to ask yourself why is that happening? Why would you miss an appointment … if you could go to prison for it?” Schiraldi said. “I think the answer is that these folks are so in need of assistance that their lives are in such a jumble that it’s difficult for them to meet the terms of parole.”

The bill includes an incentive for those under community supervision to avoid committing a violation. For every 30 days someone remains violation-free, their community supervision period would be reduced by 30 days. That would significantly cut down on the amount of time someone spends under community supervision.

Another bill, from State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, and Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Queens, would allow inmates over the age of 55 who’ve served for 15 years or more in prison to become eligible for parole. Those offenders wouldn’t be automatically paroled, which is how the bill has been characterized in some cases by opponents.

Republicans, particularly in the State Senate, have come out strong against the legislation in recent weeks. Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk, has criticized the bill, among others, as an attempt by Democrats to legislate a “criminal’s bill of rights.”

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, told reporters this week that Democrats have not discussed the bill privately, meaning it’s unlikely to come to the floor for a vote in the immediate future.

Both bills, along with others aimed at parole reform, have yet to make it out of committee in either chamber. Lawmakers have the next five weeks to wrap up any legislative business before they leave Albany for the year in June.


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