Parole In New York: How To Improve Criminal Justice and Save the State Money

New York’s parole system is as expensive as it is ineffective. Parole should be a mechanism through which the state can safely reduce its incarcerated population and allow New Yorkers to return to their communities and the workforce. Instead, the New York parole system is a vehicle for needless reincarceration and an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money.

On the front end of the parole system, an understaffed parole board and infrequent consideration of an individual’s rehabilitative record has led to too few parole releases. On the back end, New York’s use of incarceration to respond to technical, noncriminal violations of an individual’s conditions of release has made New York a national leader in incarceration for parole violations.

This system wastes millions of taxpayer dollars on a system that has disrupted families and communities both emotionally and financially and failed to meaningfully improve public safety. New York State spends an estimated $600 million annually on wasteful incarceration for noncriminal violations of parole.  At the same time, parole denials in the month of December 2020 alone could cost the state up to $11.6 million.

The year 2020 was especially challenging for the Empire State. The COVID-19 Global Pandemic has taken the lives of more than 38,000 New Yorkers. In an effort to combat the spread of this deadly virus, New York’s economy was brought to a halt and the government struggled to keep individuals afloat financially. The state currently faces a $15 billion dollar budget deficit. There are many options available to help alleviate our fiscal strains. A costly, unfair, wasteful criminal justice system is one target area for immediate reform – and the parole system in particular provides a clear path for the legislature to improve the lives of thousands while saving the state and its taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

The Costs of New York’s Failure to Grant Parole

Currently, 40 percent of the New York state prison population is serving an indeterminate sentence.[1] This means they have been given a sentence with a minimum and maximum prison term. In most cases, once the individual has completed the minimum term of their prison sentence they are eligible for parole. Individuals eligible for parole appear before the parole board for an interview, at which point the board decides whether to release the individual on parole (during the term of which they will be required to adhere to a set of conditions for the remainder of their maximum sentence) or continue the individual’s incarceration until another hearing can be held in two years.[2]

The current understaffing of the Board of Parole, instances of deeply ineffective parole commissioners[3], as well as law that permits parole commissioners to reject a parole application despite evidence of rehabilitation has led to troublingly high rates of parole denials in New York. Following a review of parole interviews between January 2016 and December 2018, the Correctional Association of New York concluded, “The result of New York’s parole system is that tens of thousands of people who are potentially eligible for release remain in prison – with devastating personal consequences and at great public expense – for reasons not linked to public safety or original sentence length.”[4]

The public expense is indeed great. The most recently available estimate of the average marginal cost to incarcerate someone in the state of New York for one year is $21,640.73 (adjusted from 2011 dollars to 2020 dollars).[5] Based on this figure, each parole denial costs the state up to $43,280.[6] In the month of December 2020 alone, while COVID-19 reached a fever pitch in DOCCS facilities, the Board of Parole conducted 629 parole hearings and issued 268 denials.[7] These denials alone will cost the state of New York, and its taxpayers, up to $11.6 million over a two-year period.[8] If these rates were to hold for an entire 12-month period, it could cost New York taxpayers up to $139.2 million if each individual denied were to wait an additional two years until a second hearing.

Alternatively, the estimated average annual marginal cost of community supervision under parole is $2,282 (adjusted from 2011 dollars to 2020 dollars).[9] If the parole denial rate for December 2020 decreased by just 25 percent, the state would save roughly $2.6 million over two years.[10]

These costs cannot be justified by improvement of public safety, as empirical evidence has repeatedly shown that the length of incarceration does not have a significant deterrent effect. A study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust concluded, “for a substantial number of offenders, there is little to no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents additional crime.”[11] New York’s own data shows that people can be safely released onto parole without a discernible threat to public safety. For example, in 2016 only 3 percent of New Yorkers on parole were removed from community supervision to incarceration due to a new criminal sentence.[12] In fact, the overwhelming reason for reincarceration of individuals on parole in New York State is for noncriminal, technical violations of parole terms.

Length of Parole Supervision

Unnecessary continued incarceration is a key driver of wasteful spending in New York’s criminal justice system. However, lengthy terms of community supervision under parole contribute greatly to New York’s wasteful spending on punitive criminal justice strategies, as well.

Under New York law, individuals released on parole are required to remain under supervision until they serve their maximum sentence or receive merit termination of parole – which allows certain eligible individuals to be released from parole early after a period of uninterrupted, unrevoked parole.[13] In 2019, only 20 percent of discharges received merit termination of parole.[14]

Given that the majority of individuals serve the entirety of their parole sentence, an individual given an indeterminate sentence for a Class C felony could spend anywhere from 10 to 14 years on community supervision if granted parole at their initial hearing.[15] Such an excessive period of community supervision comes at a great cost to the taxpayer. If an individual were to serve 14 years on parole, the cost to the state would be an estimated $31,948 and an estimated $22,820 were the individual to serve ten years on parole.[16]

Requiring an individual to serve lengthy periods of community supervision is a significant misuse and waste of resources. A report from the Columbia University Justice Lab on community supervision in New York state notes, “most re-offenses under community supervision occur within the first year or two of supervision, after which the impact and utility of supervision wanes.”[17] The excess years of community supervision thus come at a great cost to both the individual and the state with little return on public safety.

The exorbitant costs of Parole Revocations

Perhaps the greatest source of waste in New York’s parole system is the revocation process. In New York, an individual on parole who violates any of the conditions of their release is subject to reincarceration, both while the violation is adjudicated and in response to a sustained violation. New York is currently a national leader in wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary incarceration in response to technical violations of parole, which are violations that do not constitute criminal behavior.

Under current law, an individual who stands accused of a technical, noncriminal violation of their conditions of release is subject to up to 105 days of incarceration in a city or county jail while the violation allegation is adjudicated.[18] Individuals accused of violating their parole do not have the possibility of bail or a release on their own recognizance.[19] According to the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on the Parole System, individuals in New York City were detained while their violation allegations were adjudicated for an average of 61 to 67 days.[20] Individuals in the rest of the state were detained on average for 58 days while the state determined if they had committed a noncriminal violation.[21] It is estimated that New York localities, including New York City, spend $300 million incarcerating individuals with violation allegations.[22]

If a technical violation of parole is sustained, the individual accused of the violation can be returned to incarceration. Individuals found to have committed even a low-level technical violation can face up to six months of reincarceration. New York is second only to Illinois in the number of individuals incarcerated in state prisons for a technical violation of parole.[23] As of July 2019, there were 4,293 individuals incarcerated for a parole violation.[24] It is estimated that New York state spends $359 million per year incarcerated individuals for noncriminal, technical violations of parole.[25]

In total, New York spends an estimated $600 million on incarceration for individuals who have either been accused or found guilty of noncriminal, technical violations of the conditions of their parole.

Critically, this costly approach to parole supervision has not resulted in improved outcomes. In 2016, the rate of New Yorker’s exiting parole into incarceration was 47 percent – nearly double the national average of 28 percent.[26] These results are consistent with what criminological research has shown. For example, a 2008 study by the Vera Institute found higher rates of recidivism among people under community supervision who received punitive sanctions than those who did not.[27]

The failures of a heavy handed approach to parole violations has led 24 states to enact reforms designed to curtail or eliminate the use of reincarceration as a response to technical violations of parole.[28] One such state, South Carolina, enacted reforms to allow a parole supervision officer to use administrative responses, such as written warnings, in lieu of parole revocation. These reforms resulted in a 46 percent decline in compliance revocation.[29] As a result of these and other sentencing reform provisions, the prison population in South Carolina declined at a rate that enabled the state to close six prisons and save $491 million between 2010 and 2016.[30]

Conclusion

New York’s parole system is an enormous waste of taxpayer money. The state spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on incarceration that not only devastates families and communities, but fails to improve public safety. Facing a $15 billion dollar hole and a pandemic that continues its terrible course through the state, New York cannot afford to waste a single dollar or unnecessarily incarcerate and put at risk a single individual. The state should pass comprehensive parole reform to eliminate egregious waste and allow New Yorkers who have served their time and demonstrated rehabilitation to safely return home to their communities where they can work and support their families.

[1] Amanda Fries and Edward McKinley, “State: Fewer parole decisions amid pandemic part of prison trend,” Times Union, December 7, 2020. https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/DOCCS-Fewer-parole-decisions-amid-pandemic-part-15773312.php

[2] N.Y. Exec. Law § 259-i, https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/EXC/259-I

[3] Reuven Blau and Stephen Rex Brown, “Cuomo’s parole board is woefully short-staffed and includes two political hacks, advocates say,” New York Daily News, August 14, 2018. https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-metro-parole-board-cuomo-20180813-story.html

[4] “Systemic Issues with New York’s Parole Release Process,” Correctional Association of New York, 2019. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b2c07e2a9e02851fb387477/t/5c5ae3dab208fc4e62abe588/1549460443165/CANY+Fact+Sheet+-+Parole.pdf

[5] Marc Shabses, “Cost Benefit Analysis for Criminal Justice: Deployment and Initial Application of the Results First Cost Benefit Model,” New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, October 2013. https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/resultsfirst/rf-technical_report_cba1_oct2013.pdf

[6] This figure is based on the marginal cost of incarceration in New York for two-years, the maximum time allowed between parole interviews under N.Y. Exec. Law § 259-i.

[7] “Parole Board Interview Calendar: December 2020,” New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. https://publicapps.doccs.ny.gov/ParoleBoardCalendar/default?name=A&month=12&year=2020

[8] This figure was estimated by assuming the 268 denials for the month of December would serve another two-years under DOCCS custody, at a marginal cost of $21,640. (268 x 21,640) x 2.

[9] Schabses, 2013.

[10] This figure was estimated by finding the difference of two years of incarceration and two years of parole superivision for 67 individuals (one-quarter of the number of denials). (67*21,640*2) – (67*2,282*2).

[11] “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return on Longer Prison Terms,” Pew Charitable Trust’s Center on States, June 2012.https://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/reports/sentencing_and_corrections/prisontimeservedpdf.pdf

[12] Danielle Kaeble, “Probation and Parole in the United States, 2016,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 2018 https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus16.pdf. Appendix Tables 5 and 7.

[13] “Merit Termination of Sentence and Discharge from Presumptive Release, parole, Conditoinal Release, and Post-Release Supervision,” New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, September 7, 2017. https://doccs.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/11/9221.pdf

[14] “Community Supervision Legislative Report: 2019” Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, February 2020, https://doccs.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/02/community-supervision-legislative-report-2019-final.pdf.

[15] New York Penal Law Section 70.00. https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/PEN/70.00

[16] These figures were estimated by calculating the cost of both fourteen and ten years on supervision using a marginal cost of parole of $2,282 per Schabses, 2013 adjusted to 2020 dollars.

[17] Vincent Schiraldi and Jennifer Arzu, “Less is More in New York: An Examination of the Impact of State Parole Violations on Prison and Jail Populations,” Columbia University Justice Lab, January 29, 2018. https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8RZ0Q06

[18] “Report of the New York State Bar Association Task Force on the Parole System,” New York State Bar Association, November 2019. https://nysba.org/NYSBA/Advocacy%20and%20Leadership/House%20of%20Delegates/November%202019/NYSBA%20Task%20Force%20on%20the%20Parole%20System%20Final%20Report.pdf

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kendra Bradner and Vincent Schiraldi, “Racial Inequities in New York Parole Supervision,” Columbia University Justice Lab, March 2020. https://justicelab.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/NY%20Parole%20Racial%20Inequities.pdf

[24] “Inmates Under Custody: Beginning 2008,” New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, last updated July 2, 2019. https://data.ny.gov/Public-Safety/Inmates-Under-Custody-Beginning-2008/55zc-sp6m

[25] New York State Bar Association, 2019.

[26] Brander and Schiradli, 2020.

[27] Andres F. Rengifo and Christine  S. Scott-Hayward, “Assessing the Effectiveness of Intermediate Sanctions in Multnomah County, Oregon,” Vera Institute of Justice, June 2008, iii. http://archive.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/Final_Multnomah_Report.pdf

[28] Schiraldi and Arzu, 2018.

[29] Elizabeth Pelletier, Bryce Peterson, and Ryan King, “Assessing the Impact of South Carolina’s Parole and Probation Reforms,” The Urban Institute, April 2017. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/89871/south_carolina_jri_policy_assessment_final_0.pdf

[30] South Carolina Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee Status Report, 2015. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/citizensinterestpage/SentencingReformOversightCommittee/Reports/StatusReportJune2015.pdf