Parolees typically have dozens of stipulations they must follow, very few of which are actual laws — stipulations such as curfews, prohibitions on frequenting bars and no contact with anyone else with a criminal record. Parole officers can even dictate whom parolees can date, or where they can live. A few years ago, a parolee claimed he was violated for wearing a hat.
Research has shown that such rules don’t actually help people successfully complete parole. In fact, it seems they’re more likely to hurt. Each year, New York finds 7,000 parolees in violation, more than any state but Illinois. And about 65 percent of the parolees are sent back to prison for technical violations, not for committing new crimes.
Legally, the state has 90 days to hold a hearing after an alleged violation, but Albert says that each time the state offered Wright a plea bargain, which he refused, they restarted the clock. That, too, isn’t uncommon. “It’s a Wild, Wild West type of system,” says Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and a former commissioner of New York City’s probation system. “You have parole officers with dozens of cases who get nothing if a client successfully completes their sentence, but who could lose their job if a client commits a new crime. It’s just a deeply profound trivialization of people’s liberty.”
One parole officer told Gothamist that the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) “is interested in only one thing: making sure they don’t get blamed when a case goes bad. So their solution is simply to lock everybody up that you can.”
Allegations of parole violations are supposed to be heard by impartial administrative law judges. But those judges work for DOCCS as well. In Wright’s case, they worked out of the same office. They’re represented by the same union, and media inquiries are handled by the same communications office.
The anonymous official also told Gothamist that because of new leadership, the administrative law judges were being “stripped ... of their independence and discretion,” and that the system was "biased ... in favor of re-incarceration.”
Judges who opt to re-incarcerate, for example, can do so independently. But to free someone found to have violated his or her parole required consultation with a supervisor, off the record, and outside the presence of the parolee and any attorney who might be present with the parolee. (Remember, there’s no right to an attorney here.) The result is a system that is opaque, hostile to media inquiries and generally closed to the public.
This isn’t how parole is supposed to work. Allegedly, the entire goal of parole is to successfully transition formerly incarcerated people back into society. But on an individual level, parole officers are incentivized to find violations, not to help their clients succeed. And on an institutional level, the more successful the parole system is at its idealized vision, the fewer parolees there will be, which could well mean fewer parole officers, fewer administrative judges and perhaps a smaller budget. New York certainly isn’t alone when it comes to these problems, but it does seem to be lagging behind much of the rest of the country. According to research by the Columbia University Justice Lab, about half the state’s parolees are eventually re-incarcerated, vs. less than 30 percent nationwide.
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