Policymakers often talk about the problem of recidivism. Too often, they fail to recognize that most people who return to prison are incarcerated for failing to abide by non-criminal parole conditions, not for new criminal convictions.
The numbers are stunning.
In 2018, a person on parole in New York was six times more likely to be sent back to prison for a rules violation than for a new criminal conviction. That year, nearly 8,000 paroled people were returned to prison in New York for these so-called “technical” violations, accounting for almost 40 percent of everyone sent to prison in the state.
Parole is a hidden force behind mass incarceration across the United States, but New York is an outlier—and not in a good way. New York incarcerates more people for technical violations, such as missing appointments or failing a drug test, than every other state but Illinois. Its parole failure rate is almost double the national average, according to a report from the Columbia University Justice Lab.
Last month, a task force of distinguished judges, public defenders, district attorneys, and criminal justice experts convened by the New York State Bar Association reached a stark conclusion: New York’s “longstanding policy of reincarceration is counterproductive and costly, both in human and financial terms, and should be promptly addressed through remedial legislation.”
People who are returning from prison face a gauntlet of challenges. Stable and affordable housing is hard to come by. Economic opportunities are limited by time out of the workforce and by employer bias. People on parole disproportionately struggle with substance use and physical and mental health problems exacerbated by their time inside. After years in prison, many have fallen out of contact with family and support networks that are crucial to success.
Under these difficult circumstances, conditions of parole such as curfews, travel and residence restrictions, mandatory parole appointments that may require hours of waiting, drug tests, and other rules can become tripwires to incarceration.
Locking someone up for failing to fully abide by these conditions can wipe out hard-won progress towards stability. Even a few days in jail can send people back to square one—or worse.
Nor can incarceration be justified in the name of safety. In the words of the State Bar Task Force, “there is little or no evidence that the current revocation process for persons accused of technical parole violations in New York actually enhances public safety or reduces recidivism as intended.”
Imprisoning people for technical violations is not only counterproductive in most cases. It is also tremendously expensive. Each year, New York taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of dollars to incarcerate paroled people, according to a report from a criminal justice commission chaired by the former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman—money that could be much better spent on helping people succeed.
Parole officers themselves are not necessarily to blame. They have a difficult job. They are over-burdened with too many people to effectively supervise. They can be disciplined if someone they supervise commits a new offense. Without the resources to provide the help that people need, the parole officer’s primary tool is the power to send someone back to jail—a “resource” that never seems to be in short supply. With these perverse systemic incentives, it is no surprise that so many people end up incarcerated for technical violations.
To fix this broken system, the State Bar Task Force called for basic reforms like permitting paroled people to remain in the community while their cases are pending, using incarceration only as a last resort, and capping incarceration for violations at 30 days or fewer. The Task Force also recommended allowing paroled people to earn good time credits, a reform that would encourage positive behavior and lighten caseloads, so parole can focus on the individuals who are most in need of assistance.
These changes are incorporated in the Less Is More Act sponsored by State Senator Brian Benjamin and Assembly Member Walter Mosley. It is supported not only by activists, but also by district attorneys and current and former law enforcement officials. Enacting Less Is More would reframe parole to help people succeed when they return home, rather than funneling them back to jail and prison.
Many of these reforms have already been enacted successfully elsewhere—including traditionally punitive states like Louisiana, South Carolina, and Missouri. Thanks to good time credits, incarceration caps, and more, those states have seen parole violation rates drop, caseloads fall, and crime rates decline.
In the upcoming legislative session, New York’s legislature should pass the Less Is More Act and lead the way towards a new paradigm for community supervision: a smaller and much less punitive system that seeks to help people facing difficult situations rather than punish them when they slip up.
Tyler Nims is executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. Vincent Schiraldi is Co-Director of the Columbia Justice Lab and former Commissioner of New York City Probation.