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Locking up parolees for minor infractions costs city $190 million per year: report

August 27, 2019 David Brand and Noah Goldberg
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While the citywide jail population continues to fall, the number of people incarcerated for technical parole violations has grown steadily over the last four years — costing the city millions, a new report found .

From 2014 to 2018, the daily average population of the city’s jails fell from nearly 11,000 to 8,400. But the number of people held for suspected technical parole violations — which include offenses from missing curfew to using drugs to not updating a parole officer about a change of address — grew from 550 to 650. A 2018 report by the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice found that 16 percent of detainees were jailed for technical violations in 2018.

“We’re literally now building floors on jails for technical violators — people who missed appointments or tested dirty,” said Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of Columbia University’s Justice Lab and a former commissioner of New York City Probation. “People are living in homeless shelters, they have drug problems, they can’t get jobs — and instead of helping them we’re spending [hundreds of millions of dollars] locking them up.”

Holding people in city jails while the state determines whether or not to send them back to state prison currently costs New York City about $190 million per year, according to the report, which was conducted by the city’s Independent Budget Office. And while the state used to fork over a fraction of that cost — about $12 million per year from 2005-2008 — Albany has not contributed anything since 2009.

As part of the plan to close the jail complex at Rikers Island by 2026, the city hopes to reduce the number of people incarcerated in city jails for technical parole violation to 400 by 2022. But the recent spike in those violations could jeopardize that mission, Schiraldi said.

“If parole didn’t exist and you were to invent something new, you would never invent something like we have right now,” he said. Schiraldi is the founder of Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, a coalition of dozens of current and former parole and probation commissioners who want to reform parole and probation laws to reduce reincarceration.

New York reincarcerates more parolees for technical violations than any other state except Illinois. A bill designed to reform parole and limit reincarceration for technical violations failed in the state legislature last year, despite support from the Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorneys. The number of people incarcerated on Rikers Island due to technical parole violations ballooned to 720 in 2019, according to State Sen. Brian Benjamin, who sponsored the bill, which will be reintroduced in the upcoming legislative session.

Parole officers face a dilemma based on rigid state law regarding violations, while the city has its hands tied when it comes to jailing former offenders who violate the conditions of their parole — even if that means missing curfew by just a few minutes.

“If you have a night job or you get a day job and because of the subway [and] you get home a little late, you can be violated for that,” Schiraldi said.

Between Jan. 1, 2014, and Jan. 1, 2018, the number of people jailed for technical parole violations increased by 15 percent, according to detention statistics from MOCJ. During that same period, the number of people jailed for misdemeanors decreased by 44 percent, the number of jailed for nonviolent felonies decreased by 23 percent and the number of people jailed for violent felonies decreased by 16 percent.

“If New York is serious about fast-tracking the closure of Rikers Island and reducing our local jail population, the city must do more to minimize the number of New Yorkers ensnared by technical parole violations,” said Lorraine Mc Evilley, director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at the Legal Aid Society in a statement. “The current practice is punitive, counterproductive, and a waste of precious tax dollars that could be spent on much needed rehabilitation and reintegration programming.”

The strict parole measures take a mental and emotional toll on parolees and their families, added Legal Aid Society attorney Michelle Fields.

“You’re walking on pins and needles. You don’t know when you’re going to be called into the office and told ‘We’re going to violate you because you missed curfew,’” Fields said.

“You don’t have a chance to reacclimate or readjust,” she added. “It’s still punitive instead of, let me have redemption, let me re-enter society, let me have the opportunity to be a productive citizen. You have this whole supervision hanging over your head.”

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