Rikers Closing Imperiled by High Number of Parole Violators

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Rikers Island

Rikers jail complex, New York City. Photo by Formulanone via Flickr

As city officials continue to push forward the closing of the derided Rikers Island jail, one of the world’s largest corrections facilities, one obstacle is proving difficult to overcome:  People who are trapped in the cycle of incarceration because they have violated terms of parole.

In Rikers, as in other corrections systems around the country, a significant number of the violations that bring individuals back to prison arer for “technical” issues, such as a missed meeting with a supervisor, that present no threat to public safety. A 50-state review released by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that parole or probation violators accounted for 45 percent of admissions to state prisons

The cry for parole reform is strengthening, with calls for a smaller system that would enable parole authorities to concentrate resources on those who need the most services and supervision.

The plan to close Rikers hinges on reducing the population to 4,000—that’s the number that the four newly proposed borough jails could handle.  Criminal justice activists say meeting this goal will require fewer arrests, less pretrial detention thanks to bail reform, and faster case processing so jail stays are shorter.

It also means reducing the number of alleged parole violators in city jails.

The number of people incarcerated in New York City jails has dropped by more than 2,000 over the past three years, but number of parole violators has not declined, and is a major barrier to closing the Rikers jails, says the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

This month, the commission released a report, “Stopping Parole’s Revolving Door,” outlining the problem and suggesting ways to solve it.

Nearly 20 percent of the people jailed in New York City on any given day—the majority of whom are held in the massive jail complex on Rikers Island—are incarcerated because of alleged parole violations, including approximately 600 people accused of technical violations and approximately 500 people accused of new offenses who otherwise would be ineligible for pretrial detention under recent bail reform legislation

The commission also found that nearly 40 percent of the people sent to state prison in New York in 2018 were incarcerated for technical parole violations. Every day, more than 1,000 additional people are held in county jails across New York State for allegedly violating their parole.

These violations can include a curfew, drug testing, travel restrictions and more.

If a person on parole is suspected of violating any of those rules, or arrested for a new crime, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision can issue a parole warrant and have the person tossed in jail to await a preliminary hearing within 15 days.

If the hearing officer believes there’s probable cause to think a violation has occurred, she can order the person held for up to 90 more days for a final hearing. If not, she can dismiss the case.

The commission reported:

People on parole face serious challenges to successful community reintegration. Many employers, landlords, schools, and training programs are unwilling to accept people with criminal records. Homelessness is a growing problem for people on parole, with the number of people sent straight from prison to a New York City shelter nearly doubling from 2014 to 2017. Lack of family support, low levels of literacy, dependency and mental health issues, physical and mental disabilities also pose barriers to securing the stable housing, income, and health care essential to success in the community.

Among the reforms proposed in the report include:

  • ending mandatory detention on parole warrants and ensuring everyone accused of a crime gets a bail-type hearing at the outset of the case;
  • limiting the amount of time someone can be incarcerated for a parole violation so that any punishment is commensurate with the violation; and
  • speeding up parole violation adjudications so people no longer spend up to 105 days in jail before receiving a final revocation hearing.

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, formed at the request of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito, is an independent body of experts, policymakers, and advocates charged with exploring the ways to reduce the population held at Rikers, the feasibility of moving the jail facilities off Rikers Island, and the feasibility of alternate uses of Rikers Island itself.

In April 2017, the Commission issued A More Just New York City, an evidence-based set of recommendations for improving New York City’s criminal justice system, including closing the dysfunctional jail complex on Rikers Island, significantly reducing the number of people in jail, and shifting to a modern system of smaller facilities located near the borough criminal courts.

“Jailing so many people on parole warrants does little for public safety and is counterproductive to the success of people who are reentering society from prison,” wrote the Independent Commission, also known as the Lippman Commission and the body that in 2017, under the direction of former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, recommended closing Rikers.

The long-term plan to shift to smaller facilities that will replace Rikers is not without opposition. Such plans for smaller jails closer to courthouses in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx is being contested by some community groups.

Earlier this month, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz came out against the plan for a new Kew Gardens jail, saying that a 1,437-inmate jail next to the existing courthouse was too big. While her decision to reject the plan is advisory, it represents another setback for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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