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Parole Reform Bill Set to Pass in Albany After Rikers Deaths

A sign at the entrance to Rikers Island warns about the strict policies for entering the jail complex, Jan. 22, 2019.
A sign on the road to Rikers Island.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

State lawmakers struck a deal Tuesday to overhaul New York’s parole system to limit when formerly incarcerated people could be re-jailed.

Under the “Less Is More Act,” parole officers would no longer be able to automatically toss people back into jail if they violate curfew or fail to notify their parole officers of a change in employment. The measure also requires officials to speed up hearings for parolees accused of violating the conditions of their release.

A parole officer currently can send someone back to jail immediately if “reasonable cause” for a violation exists. Among the potential violations: a failed drug test (including marijuana), a blown curfew or changing residence without approval.

“There are too many people who are being re-incarcerated on parole for low-level offenses, and all we’re accomplishing by doing that is fueling the epidemic of mass incarceration,” said State Sen. Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan), the lead sponsor of the measure in the Senate.

The legislative deal comes days after THE CITY reported on the deaths of two men on Rikers Island who were sent back to jail for new low-level arrests that violated their parole.

Thomas Braunson III, 35, a new father jailed for allegedly shoplifting, died inside the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers on April 19. Braunson’s wife gave birth to their daughter, Vinessa, three months before his death.

Thomas Earl Braunson III died on Rikers Island on April 19 after being arrested for a parole violation.
Thomas Braunson.
Courtesy of Braunson Family

On April 30, Richard Blake, another detainee held on a parole violation due to a new arrest, died shortly after he told staff he wasn’t feeling well inside the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers.

The city’s Medical Examiner’s office has not yet determined causes of death. Officials released no further details but initial reports didn’t indicate any visible injuries.

Broad Support

As for the proposed legislation, the full package of bills is expected to be voted on by the full Senate and Assembly on Thursday, the last day of the legislative session, according to state lawmakers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign the reforms into law when they make it to his desk, according to the supporters of the measures.

Richard Azzopardi, Cuomo’s top spokesperson, did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

Under the current system, parolees who are sent back to jail can sometimes wait weeks for their cases to be heard by an administrative judge.

The new laws would require a preliminary hearing within five days of detention. Their hearing must also be completed within 55 days — rather than taking up to 105 as is currently happening.

Parolees will also be allowed the right to counsel and those accused of non-criminal technical violations would be issued a written notice of violation with a date to appear before a hearing officer. Their hearings should be completed within 35 days.

The Less Is More Act was initially introduced in 2018 and has the support of more than 275 faith-based and community organizations from across the state, as well as three of the city’s five district attorneys. Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and Staten Island DA Michael McMahon have not signed letters backing the legislation.

In May 2019, the City Council passed a resolution supporting the Albany legislation.

Death Sentence

Other recent deaths on Rikers have involved men locked up on parole violations. Michael Tyson, 53, the first detainee with COVID-19, died on Feb. 28, 2020, THE CITY reported. He was sent to jail after he failed to report to his parole officer.

Raymond Rivera, 55, also died from complications from the coronavirus on April 3 after he was locked up on a parole violation tied to a shoplifting arrest.

Supporters of the legislation, including the New York State Bar Association, say there is little or no evidence that jailing parolees for minor violations enhances public safety or reduces recidivism.

Jose Rivera spent 33 days in jail before he died in Bellevue Hospital.
Jose Rivera.
Obtained by the City

According to the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, New York reincarcerates more people for technical violations of parole than any other state in the nation — without any proven public safety benefits, said Gabriel Sayegh, the co-executive director at the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice.

Meanwhile, Black and Latino people in New York are under parole supervision at 6.8 and 2.5 times the rate of white people, respectively, according to a March 2020 study by Columbia University’s Justice Lab Center.

At the same time, Black and Latino New Yorkers are more likely than white New Yorkers to be stopped by the police — and more likely than their white counterparts to be charged with misdemeanors.

Not everyone supports the proposed changes.

The Public Employees Federation (PEF), the state’s second largest municipal employee union, which represents parole officers, opposes the measures.

PEF President Wayne Spence, who worked as a parole officer, argues they should be given leeway in deciding whether to lock up parolees who violate the conditions of their release.

Backers of the reform act hope people on parole will now get added drug counseling or other care as opposed to jail time.

“For too long, New York’s parole system has had a framework of punishment, rather than a framework of care,” said State Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest (D-Brooklyn), a prime sponsor of the legislation in the Assembly.

“Our society has an obligation to provide support to those who are leaving prison and their families.”

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