New York’s new law to keep minor parole offenders from returning to jail offers a roadmap for Illinois, which sends the most parolees back to prison, criminal justice advocates said.
“Looking at the earlier attempts at reform that were made in Illinois and what New York has done is something that we are doing,” said Patrice James, director of community justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Illinois.
“I was following that legislation a bit and really looking at some of the provisions in it to see if there are things in which we could use and model here in Illinois or use as a model for future legislation in Illinois.”
Though a recent effort to update that state’s parole laws stalled this year, bill sponsor state Rep. Rita Mayfield (D) said she intends to bring it back in January, following New York’s example.
“It was my understanding that the bill had support in the Senate it just wasn’t called,” she said in an email. “Bills such as this one that provide hope and open the door to a second chance are needed and any support to provide a return to parole is appreciated.”
Illinois sends the most people back to prison for technical parole violations, according to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. These offenses include missing appointments with parole officers, missing curfew, or failing a drug test. New York came in at second before Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed the Less is More Act Sept. 17. Black people accounted for a significant percentage of those sent back to prison for technical violations.
People on parole account for 45% of all state prison admissions, according to 2019 data from the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. Nearly one-fourth of those are for technical parole violations.
New York’s lead could encourage other states that haven’t moved toward alternatives to prison for minor parole violations, advocates said.
Proof of Success
Illinois eliminated parole in 1978, creating the process of mandatory supervised release (MSR). Though it is similar to the traditional parole system, supervised release doesn’t entitle someone to an early release like parole can, James said.
In order for the state to boost arguments for parole reform, it must see proof that other states are making these changes and succeeding, said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison reform advocacy group. New York took the first step in providing that proof.
“One of the first questions that legislators and policymakers ask when advocates propose a reform is ‘who’s doing it and who’s doing it well?’” Vollen-Katz said.
“So anytime there’s another jurisdiction that makes the change before we do, it provides guidance and information and data to work off of, and it’s always helpful to look at the efforts going on around us and use them to help drive change in Illinois.”
Even though New York wasn’t the first to enact this type of parole reform, it’s still a leader on progressive changes in criminal justice. At least 20 states have already enacted legislation around parole reform including South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma.
But New York tells remaining states that preventing those on parole from returning to prison is a good thing, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“It gives courage and information to other states about how ‘look the sky hasn’t fallen in,’” she said.
Black Community Hit Hardest
Black parolees bear the brunt of technical parole violations, being sent back to jail at disproportionate rates.
For example, 3,210 Black individuals in Illinois went back into custody between January 2019 to September 10, 2021, due to technical violations, according to data that James sought from the state. This was the highest rate for that time, compared to 1,482 White people, 400 Hispanic people, and less than 20 Asian and American Indian people.
“The numbers reflect what you would see in the prison population, that Black folks are disproportionately impacted,” she said.
In New York, for example, Black people accounted for 22% of New York State’s population, but also made up 62% of technical parole violations and jail detention, according to a 2020 report by the Columbia Justice Lab.
“The current draconian parole revocation system has long harmed BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities by driving mass incarceration through incarcerating individuals for non-criminal, technical parole violations,” said April Frazier Camara, incoming president and CEO of The National Legal Aid & Defender Association.
“Less Is More brings New York State in alignment with best practices across the country that have long recognized that there are more effective non-carceral strategies to these issues.”
However, law enforcement sees New York’s legislation as a threat to Black people and other minority communities.
“Just because one state does it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for others to do it too. You think you’re helping the Black and brown community, but you’re just setting them up for more failure. You’re actually giving them a rope to hang themselves,” said Jim VanBrederode, president of the chief’s association in Rochester and police chief in Gates, N.Y.
VanBrederode added that other corrections officers and parole officials may be too afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.
The American Probation and Parole Association, National Association of Probation Executives, and New York’s Fraternal Order of Police didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The move from New York and potential action from other states like Illinois offer evidence that criminal justice changes can increase public safety since parole reform can only be done at the local level, said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.
“There’s no denying that crime increased in 2020, and [while] I’m never going to be one to downplay it and the needs for real policy solutions to it, I think there was a concern that seeing crime increase would discourage people from pursuing criminal justice reform policies,” Grawert said.
“So, hopefully, it’s a good counter to claims that we can’t do criminal justice reform in this political moment. Now, that incarceration will be relatively rare for technical violations, it’s cutting off of one big pathway that lands people back to prison that will help break that cycle of prison-parole-prison-parole that we’ve seen.”