New York removes some 8,000 felons from parole obligations

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ALBANY — As the result of legislation advocated by prison reform groups and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, an estimated 8,000 convicted felons were discharged this week from parole supervision. The Less is More Act was authored by Hochul’s co-pilot in state government, Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, when he was a state senator.

The act allows those on parole to earn as many as 30 days of credit for their sentence obligations every time they go 30 days without violating their release conditions while under supervision.

Many law enforcement executives question the measure, warning the removal of parole requirements for so many formerly incarcerated persons at once could increase crime rates in New York communities. But since the supervision requirement is only now being removed, it will likely take time to determine just what the public safety consequences are from ending active supervision for those felons.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, a former state corrections officer who voted against the legislation, said it would be prudent for the state to create a database to track whether those benefiting from “Less Is More” stay on the right side of the law after being relieved of the obligation to check in with parole officers.

Jones and Sen. Mike Martucci, R-New Windsor, noted that parole officers play a constructive role in the lives of paroled felons by guiding them to employment opportunities, assisting them with housing questions and advising them about the availability of substance abuse counseling.

“This represents a tremendous change in criminal justice policy,” Martucci said. “There’s absolutely no doubt that data should be collected (on the released felons) and that it should be forward-facing.” But he predicted the Hochul-Benjamin administration would not want to compile such records because “they don’t want the public to know who is re-offending.”

Advocates for “Less Is More” centered their push on the argument New York has been reincarcerating more people for parole violations than any other state in the nation except Illinois. Most of those returned to prison had been written up for “technical” violations of their parole conditions, they said. But Jones said he investigated claims that parolees were being sanctioned for being 10 minutes late for an appointment or missing a phone call. “I didn’t find that to be happening,” the assemblyman said.

“Given the rising crime rates we have right now, do we really want to be providing less supervision for these individuals?” Jones added.

Anthony Annucci, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), whose agency also oversees parolees, said department staffers worked for weeks to prepare for discharging thousands of former inmates from parole requirements. “Parole officers will continue to play a vital role in keeping our communities safe, while leveraging a variety of resources to ensure successful outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals,” Annucci said.

He said after Hochul signed the legislation, “In the spirit of the law, DOCCS staff immediately went to work implementing some provisions long before the law took effect,”

Patrick Phelan, director of the New York State Association of Police Chiefs, slashing the amount of time an offender remains on parole supervision undermines the goal of helping former inmates transition back to communities. “Parole officers are part social worker and they’re part law enforcement,” Phelan said. “They provide very valuable services to the parolees and help them acclimate them back to society.”

Phelan called Less Is More “a terrible idea,” suggesting those on parole will no longer fear the consequences of violating their release conditions.

As to whether the state will develop data on the successes and failures from the new approach, Tom Mailey, spokesman for the prison agency, said: “DOCCS tracks recidivism rates, so if an individual were to be convicted of a new crime and came back into the Department’s custody, DOCCS would add that to our research data.”

He continued: “If they were arrested locally on a minor charge or in another state, DOCCS would not be aware of that.”

Mailey also noted: “The individuals being discharged under the Less Is More Act have completed their court ordered sentences and are no longer under state supervision.”

The new wave of discharges is expected to leave the state parolee population at fewer than 20,000 individuals. In February, more than 31,000 people were under parole supervision.

Also watching implementation of the new law closely is The Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services to low-income people and has hailed the Less Is More Act.

The organization’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit “will monitor implementation to ensure that our clients are afforded the justice provided by this new law,” Tina Luongo, who supervises the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society, said last month.

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