At a July 15 rally outside Governor Cuomo’s midtown Manhattan office, Rashaan Brown said he was working as a credible messenger — a person who has been involved with guns, but who now dissuades young people from gun violence. Brown, who has been home from prison for two years, said he has also been working as a contact tracer for the city since last summer. He exhorted Cuomo to sign a bill passed by the state assembly and senate called “The Less Is More Act.” The bill would effectively end incarceration for non-criminal violations of parole, long a problem in New York.
“Why are these parole officers trying to put me back in prison for technical parole violations such as missing a curfew, when I’m out here saving the city?,” he asked.
New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has the worst record in the country in terms of rearresting people for technical parole violations, rearresting over 6,000 people a year. But that is set to change with the legislation, which passed both houses of the state legislature in June.
As they await the governor’s pen, communities are starting discussions about the best way to allocate the estimated cost savings that would otherwise go to arresting people. By loosening restrictions on parole, a study from Columbia University’s Justice Lab estimates that the state and local governments will save $680 million a year.
“Technical parole violations” include missing appointments with parole officers, staying out past curfew or testing positive for drugs or alcohol. In 2016, 65 percent of the 9,843 New Yorkers who were rearrested while on parole had been taken back in for these non-criminal violations. By 2018, that percentage had increased to 66 percent. , On an average day in 2019, there were over 5,700 people incarcerated across state prisons and county jails for technical parole violations, according to the Justice Lab. 40 percent of all prison admissions in the state that year were for technical parole violations.
Directly impacted supporters of the legislation want the money saved to strengthen support systems for people returning home from prison, as well as to ensure stability for people at risk of being arrested.
There is no language in the Less Is More legislation that dictates where cost savings would go, although organizers say the plan is to add this language with future legislation.
“The initial thought was to include the system reforms and a mechanism for reinvestments but the coalition made a strategic decision to parse those out,” said Kendra Bradner, Director of the Probation and Parole Reform Project at the Columbia Justice Lab. “They want to focus on reducing the harm first,” she says.
New York’s state government spends $319 million rearresting people for technical parole violations, with the remainder of the cost paid by its local governments. NYC spends $273 million a year, and counties outside of New York City pay about $91 million a year to hold people for these violations. The money is not reimbursed by the state.
That means that many of the decisions about reinvestments will be made by local governments and not statewide legislation. But there are smart ways to reinvest the state’s share, says Jared Trujillo, policy counsel with NYCLU. “You can reinvest it into some of the things that led people to be incarcerated in the first place,” Trujillo says. He suggests investing in housing for domestic violence survivors, pointing out that many women who are incarcerated are survivors of domestic violence and would benefit from housing not connected to their partners.
Donna Hylton, executive director of A Little Piece of Light, one of the core groups supporting the legislation, suggested the money should go to so-called “million-dollar blocks,” neighborhoods where governments are spending upwards of a million dollars a year to incarcerate community-members. She suggested affordable housing, jobs, and childcare.
Some members of the coalition with incarcerated loved ones have already given a lot of thought to where the money should go, and will work to redirect it when more formal conversations begin.
Emelissa Curo is a member at the Katal Center. She said that her loved one, who she did not wish to identify by name to protect his employment opportunities, is supposed to be released on parole in December, although they were not given a date yet. She has talked to other people whose loved ones are on parole and heard how easy it is to be rearrested.
“I have heard and witnessed so many different stories behind the parole system and how they have gone back to prison for a violation that is not even a new crime,” she said. “I want him to thrive in the community and have a regular normal life.”
Curo says she would spend the saved money on housing, an idea she says came up immediately at a community meeting organized by the coalition.
“I strongly believe that it’s hard for anyone who comes out of prison to be successful in life if they don’t have a place to call home,” she says adding that being released into a shelter can be traumatizing to someone released from prison.
Curo’s loved one was “thanking God” that he has family to stay with when he is released on parole, she says. Another man he met while locked up was about to be released, but didn’t have a place to go, he told her.
The other prominent ask is for more jobs, says NaPier Singletary, a co-executive director of the non-profit Unchained, another of the core groups that pushed for the legislation. Singletary’s husband, Derek Singletary, is currently incarcerated and is co-executive director of Unchained. While Mr. Singletary’s current sentence is not for a technical parole violation, he has been returned to prison for them in the past, his wife says, and helped write Less Is More legislation from prison.
NaPier Singletary says the lack of jobs is pronounced in upstate areas of New York, but that people also need better infrastructure to get them to those jobs.
“People feel like they need jobs but also the transportation to get there,” she says, adding that people childcare is also a need. “A lot of it is centered around making sure people have the structure and support in place to find decent-paying jobs and keep them.”
There is also a need for financial aid for the formerly incarcerated. Curo’s loved one’s conviction disqualifies him for most federal financial aid to go back to school, so reinvestment in state grants would be a good place to start. Her loved one also told her he needs to see a therapist when he gets home. “Being in prison is a trauma that they will have for the rest of their lives,” she says.
Reductions in sanctions for parole have been springing up in different states, although the Less Is More Act is the most comprehensive. Sixteen different states have put caps on the amount of time people can spend in prison for technical parole violations through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program funded by the federal government with data support from Pew Charitable Trusts. The states have had success — Louisiana, for instance, allowed people on parole to reduce their parole period through an incentive system. The state saved $12.2 million the first year after it passed the legislation, twice the initial projection.
The legislation will also alleviate the mental health burden for the estimated 35,000 New Yorkers currently on parole. Yamirca Vasquez, who spoke at the July 15 rally, said that being on parole was even more challenging for her than being incarcerated.
“When I was on parole it was anxiety at an all time high,” she said at the rally. She said her parole officer frequently called her a liar and accused her of pretending to have a job, despite the fact that Vasquez produced pay stubs for the officer. “I wanted to just do my time, go back to prison, I’d rather go back to prison than deal with her,” she said at the rally, adding that she still has mental health issues stemming from her time on parole.
“It’s giving them back physical freedom, but it’s like equally important that it’s giving people the mental freedom to not be walking around with that weight on their shoulders,” NaPier Singletary says of the legislation, “and to feel like no matter what I do, even if I try my best I can still go back on a technicality.”
“A lot of people feel like it’s just a system set up to catch them doing something and send them back,” she adds.
But no changes will be made in New York if Governor Cuomo does not sign the legislation, the purpose of the July 15 rally. “The only way we can get anything is to get it signed,” says Hylton.
This article is part of The Clean Slate, a series about how cities can use technology and policy to eliminate unjust fines, fees, and other barriers to economic mobility. The Clean Slate is generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.