EDITORIAL: Parole reform is needed, but do it correctly

web-prison.jpg

Remember what happened the last time, when the state Legislature took a whack at bail reform?

Not a lot of people were paying close attention. Lawmakers didn’t invest a lot of effort getting input from all those with a vested interest in the issue. And they didn’t fully explain their justification for the reforms to the public.

Yet they quickly passed a law, just so they could say they got it done and to cross it off their list.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a big flop, filled with loopholes and inconsistencies that actually allowed killers in some cases to go loose without having to post bail.

With their tails between their legs and hearing from an angry and frightened public, lawmakers had to go back and perform some patchwork on the law. They made it better, but it’s still not as good as it could have been had they done it right the first time.

Let’s hope they don’t repeat the same experience with parole reform.

There’s no doubt that the system — which sends formerly incarcerated people back to jail often for minor violations — is in serious need of reform.

Take the case of Michael Hilton, as reported in the Dec. 20 issue of the independent investigative newspaper The Intercept.

The 64-year-old Hilton was released last year from prison after serving 17 years for robbery.

With a host of medical problems, including HIV, he feared the dangers of living in a homeless shelter, where COVID protocols are hardly enforced.

So each time he was forced by his parole officer to live in one of those shelters, he moved out. Even though he informed his parole officer of his new address each time he moved, he was cited for multiple violations of his parole and sent back to Rikers Island, New York City’s notoriously horrible jail.

That’s just one example of the hundreds of released inmates sent back to prison for minor parole violations.

New York’s rate of re-incarceration is nearly double the national average. Prisoners often spend months awaiting disposition of their parole violations, unfairly and excessively punishing them, exposing them to violence and illness, and unnecessarily overburdening the prison system.

While some parole violations certainly merit a return to prison, many are technical violations committed by nonviolent offenders for which the punishment is far more punitive than the crime warrants.

In addition, as is the case with cash bail, the burden of a flawed parole system falls disproportionately on people of color.

Last week, advocates for reform — including lawmakers, activists and academics — held a virtual meeting in conjunction with Black History Month to address the need for reforms, the Times Union reported.

Among the reforms being sought is the Fair and Timely Parole Act, which would address the conditions for parole.

The act provides that the Board of Parole release inmates upon completion of their minimum terms of incarceration unless doing so presents an “unreasonable public safety risk or unless the inmate is unlikely to live without violating the law.”

Reform advocates are also pushing for elder parole reform, which would address the release of elderly inmates who pose no threat to society.

The advocacy group New Yorkers United For Justice says every facet of the system needs reform, from the way hearings are conducted, to the lack of due process, to the rules and adjudication process for parole violations that give former inmates about a 50-50 chance of winding up back behind bars after they’re released.

One shouldn’t be sent back to prison for a minor violation that doesn’t fit the crime.

Remember, these are rules they’re breaking, not laws.

These rules need to be modified to ensure that only the most dangerous or unreformed criminals are returned to prison.

But while there are many legitimate voices for parole reform, there are also those who believe the current system is necessary and that strict enforcement of parole violations protects the public.

This is where public safety may conflict with all the other reasons cited for reform.

And it’s why lawmakers need to learn the lessons of bail reform, and make sure every aspect of parole reform is considered and scrutinized.

They need to make sure they hear from all those with a stake in the reforms. That includes prosecutors, defense attorneys, social workers, parole board members and parole officers, judges, advocates for minorities and the poor, and advocates for public safety.

Hear what they have to say. Hold public hearings so the citizens can take it all in and evaluate the merits of each argument for themselves.

Make sure that every issue is given consideration so that we don’t wind up with the horse-turned-to-a-camel legislation that came from the original bail-reform effort.

Reform of an antiquated, discriminatory and ineffective system is needed.

But it has to be done right this time.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Leave a Reply