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February 12, 2018

NY Times editorial laments "The Problem With Parole"

This new New York Times editorial, headlined "The Problem With Parole," discusses problems with offender supervision that are not confined only to parole policies and practices. Here are excerpts:

States that set out a decade ago to trim prison costs have learned that success lies in a few areas — rolling back draconian sentencing that drove up prison populations in the first place, and remaking parole and probation systems, which have, in numerous cases, sent as many or even more people to jail for rule violations as the courts do for new crimes.

Significant progress has been made on both fronts.  Yet New York, a national leader in reducing its prison population, could do much more to reform its parole and probation systems.

These systems were established across in the United States in the 19th century.  The premise was that steering people who commit minor offenses to probation, rather than prison, and shortening prison sentences with parole in exchange for good conduct further the goal of rehabilitation.  But that notion fell out of favor after the country embraced mass incarceration in the late 20th century, driving up the prison population from about 200,000 at the start of the 1970s to a peak of 1.6 million at the end of the 2000s.

The woefully underfunded parole system fell in line with the jail-first agenda.  Parole officers, who were buried under massive caseloads, sent parolees back inside for technical violations, like failing drug tests, missing curfew or socializing with friends they had been forbidden to see.  With nearly five million people in the nation under supervision — more than twice the number housed in prisons and jails — the parole and probation systems have become what corrections researchers now describe as a significant driver of recidivism.

Even law-and-order states have grasped the need to refashion so-called hair-trigger community supervision systems that reflexively and unnecessarily send people to prison for minor infractions that have no bearing on public safety.  Some have hired additional case workers to make their systems more effective, have given newly released inmates better access to drug treatment or mental health care, or have developed community sanctions that send only the most troubled or repeat-prone offenders back to prison.

A recent analysis by the reform-focused Council of State Governments Justice Center found that states like Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas have seen dramatic reductions over the last decade in recidivism connected to probation or parole.

Then there is New York. The state, which has closed more than a dozen prisons over the last decade alone, is a national standout when it comes to sentencing reform. But a new study from Columbia University’s Justice Lab calls on state lawmakers to do significantly more to address the problems with the community supervision system, which come at a considerable cost to the local jails where most of the people locked up for state parole violations are held....

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called on the State Legislature to make changes that would help those in custody for parole violations, such as abolishing money bail for people accused of misdemeanors, eliminating state supervision fees for people on parole and reviewing how child support is calculated for people incarcerated for more than six months.

But the Columbia study calls on the Legislature to do a lot more. It recommends that the state adopt several common-sense reforms, most of which have already shown promise in other states. These include: adopting a system of graduated sanctions and rewards, instead of automatically dumping people into jail for minor infractions; capping jail terms for minor parole violations; requiring a judicial hearing before parole officers can jail people accused of technical violations; shortening parole terms for people who stay out of trouble for specified periods of time; and using the savings reaped from cutting the prison population to expand education, substance abuse and housing opportunities for parolees, who need considerably more help than they’re getting to forge stable lives in their communities.

These proposals would be a heavy lift in the conservative New York State Senate. But they make good policy and economic sense, and would bring the state to the forefront of the parole reform movement.

February 12, 2018 at 05:22 PM | Permalink


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