New York can’t wait for ‘Less is More’
A technical parole violation killed William Brown last week.
When Brown, 55, died on Dec. 14, he became the 16th person to pass away in a New York jail this year. His death came a few days after our “justice” system took the life of Malcolm Boatwright, a 28-year-old man with autism. The city jail system suffers from what a federal monitor calls “disorder and chaos.”
Earlier this fall the state of New York took the morally proper step when Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law the Less Is More Act, which aims to soften the draconian parole laws that disproportionately harm people of color and put them in jail for minor violations. Nearly 200 New Yorkers re-joined their families as soon as the bill became law, and were free from Rikers Island amid escalating pandemic deaths in city jails.
Unfortunately, “Less Is More” doesn’t go fully into effect in March 2022. For Brown, Boatwright and many people like them, the wait for March has become a matter of life or death. It needs to take effect immediately.
New York has had the worst parole system in the country with its use of incarceration for non-criminal technical violations, like for missing an appointment or being early for a job — yes, early — if it violates parole requirements. The state spent more than $680 million on this misguided system in 2019 to reincarcerate people on such violations, including more than $270 million in New York City. This not only harms individual lives and families without improving public safety, it increases the state prison population. New York imprisons more people for non-criminal technical violations of parole than any U.S. state. There are about 35,000 people in New York state under active parole supervision. Of those, more than 800 are incarcerated for technical violations.
Of course, the racial disparities are stark. Black people are incarcerated for technical violations at five times the rate of white people in New York state. In the city, that rate grows to 12 times. Hispanics are nearly 30 percent more likely to face incarceration for a technical parole violation than whites. Technical violations rob weeks, months and even years from people’s lives, keeping them stuck in the prison system. Sending people to jail for non-criminal activity does not increase our public safety, but it does wipe away the progress that a person has made after returning home — like finding a job and a place to live, and reconnecting with family.
COVID remains an even deadlier threat to people in prisons and jails. With the new variant, lives of the most vulnerable in the city continue to be at risk. We know the infection rate for people in prisons and jails is more than five times as high as the rate for the average American, and that at least 2,000 people have died of COVID while detained. We also know the only viable option to blunt the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is through decarceral measures.
Opponents wrongly argue that “Less Is More” is bad public policy that only gained popularity because of so-called one-party rule by Albany Democrats. But many of the provisions in “Less Is More” come from other states that have already implemented similar reforms , reducing community supervision populations and curbing violations while also increasing public safety. The reforms mimic successful ones in red states, who have pioneered parole reform, including Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Utah. These states saved money and reduced incarceration — and found that recidivism dropped.
In New York, more than 300 community, advocacy and faith groups support the act along with eight district attorneys and law enforcement leaders, including the Albany and Erie County sheriffs. Victims’ rights groups like the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault also supported the act. Additionally, “Less Is More” aligns with reform principles outlined by current and former community corrections officials from across the country.
Time in a New York jail is a death sentence. Not only must we speed up the implementation timeline, we must also protect the law from baseless attacks with questionable motives. Gov. Hochul must implement the act as soon as possible to urgently confront this humanitarian crisis.
We need to focus on abolishing technical violations across the United States to provide relief to millions of Americans and bring focus to what we’re really fighting for: the chance for millions of families and communities to reunite, for a second chance to feel like one and build a life that everyone deserves. With “Less Is More,” New York will be at the forefront of shifting parole from being overly punitive to being supportive.
Ashish Prashar (@Ash_Prashar) is the Global CMO at R/GA and a justice reform activist. He sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Just Leadership, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.