One of the most significant parole reforms in the country took effect on March 1. Known as the “Less is More” Act, it curbs the practice of sending people back to jail for minor offenses or parole violations. Supporters of the law believe that less mass incarceration equals more safety and justice.
However, implementation of the law has faced some setbacks. Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Laura Eraso, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit, about the law and issues surrounding its implementation. The defense unit represents people who are accused of parole violations through New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYS DOCCS).
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter: What is the Less is More Act and who will it impact?
Eraso: The Less is More Act will impact anybody who is on community supervision through NYS DOCCS and it essentially has four features:
- It ends automatic detention for anyone accused of some technical parole violations. (Technical violations are alleged conduct that doesn’t involve a crime, such as missing a curfew, being late to an appointment with a parole officer, failing a drug test or being unable to secure employment.) Ending automatic detention is a hugely transformative feature of the bill. For almost 50 years, the parole revocation system was automatic jail time for any minor technical violation.
- It improves due process by entitling everyone to a revocation hearing within 24 hours and moving the process to community courts. It raises the standard of proof that these hearings require. Before the Less is More Act, someone would be detained in jail for the entirety of the process. Now, people are entitled to see a judge within 24 hours of being detained on a parole warrant. New York State was the worst at incarcerating people for technical violations. Under the bill, there are a handful of technical violations that can receive no jail time, for example, curfew violations or for testing positive for a controlled substance like marijuana.
- The Less is More Act will also put a cap on the time detained due to other technical violations or absconding (violations that may require jail time, like failing to maintain contact with the assigned parole office or not notifying parole officer of a change in residence)
- It creates a pathway to finish parole early. There’s a provision that allows for earned time credit essentially to get off parole earlier if someone is doing well on parole.
Epicenter: What prompted this legislation?
Eraso: For some history, the NYS Department of Corrections is the prison system in New York state. There used to be a separate state agency that was responsible for handling the reentry of people on parole supervision. In 2011 the state merged those two agencies. The prison system was then, in essence, responsible for overseeing community supervision — but also for incarcerating people. In many ways, the way they wrote the regulations that govern the parole violation process were meant to feed people back into the prison system they created.
New York State was essentially the worst state to be on parole in. New York was incarcerating more people than any other state on technical violations right up until the bill passed. There has been a back door to the mass incarceration system. I never knew that there was a so-called judicial center on Rikers Island where the parole violation cases were heard. It was an eye opening experience to see exactly the way that DOCCS was holding court for parole violation hearings — hearings that people’s liberty literally depended on — were happening in a jail behind closed doors, with people handcuffed behind their back throughout the course of the hearing. There are just inhumane conditions at every step of parole supervision.
Epicenter: What exactly was implemented on March 1?
Eraso: March 1 was the effective date for almost every provision in the bill. One thing that took effect before March 1 were the sanctions for technical violations. It had a big impact in getting people out sooner who were accused of solely technical violations. On March 1, the whole violation system should have changed. Parole revocation hearings should have been conducted in the community, in a courthouse — not in a correctional facility. That’s what the bill says and that is not happening. Everything was supposed to change, except for the retroactive earned time credits, DOCCS has until September to calculate the two-year retroactive earned time credit, but everything else under the bill should have gone into effect on March 1.
Epicenter: How successful has implementation been so far?
Eraso: What should have happened on March 1 is that DOCCS should have coordinated with the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to figure out what courthouses the hearings would take place in. They should have figured out a way to get each person a day in court. OCA should have told them, ‘What do you need? We’re going to give it to you,’ but they have not been transparent about what is needed.
In a way they are obstructing the implementation of the bill. Another thing that should have happened is that the law is clear that now a parole warrant is temporary, it is only something that somebody can be detained on for 24 hours before seeing a judge. However, for the almost 500 people that are on Rikers on parole warrants, DOCCS did not even attempt to coordinate and give those people the same process that someone coming in the system after March 1 would get. Somebody who was arrested on Feb. 28 did not get to see a judge within 24 hours because the law didn’t go into effect until March 1, but someone detained on March 1 did. It is as if saying “Oops, sorry, you’re one day late, you didn’t get the revocation hearing. Now you’re stuck at Rikers. You should have gotten arrested on March 1.” That has been incredibly frustrating. The law was essentially meant to limit jail time as punishment for parole violations, but DOCS is interpreting that to their benefit because they don’t want to do the work required to make it happen.
Epicenter: How many people will be released from jail?
Eraso: The Vera Institute of Justice has a daily tracker for Rikers. The number of people detained for technical violations as of March 9 was about 92; 434 people are detained with open cases and a violation of parole. Combined, there are over 500 people detained at Rikers Island who haven’t been afforded the same rights under Less is More, they haven’t been afforded the same procedure as those detained after March 1.
Epicenter: Will the Less is More Act impact public safety?
Eraso: The legislature didn’t write a law saying ‘release everyone from jail.’ The legislature recognized there was a need for a new procedure that corrected some of the wrongs that have been gutting people’s lives for over 40 years. People were losing years of their lives to technical parole violations. Now there is a process.
Epicenter: Are there support programs for folks who are just now being released from prison?
Eraso: The law does require that parole officers facilitate contact with reentry service providers and facilitate their presence in the preliminary and final hearing process. They have not done that. If the law was implemented the way it was supposed to on day one, detainees were supposed to be in a courthouse and the law very clearly requires that they facilitate the presence of nonprofit reentry service providers at each and every preliminary and final hearing. If people could connect with counselors from the Fortune Society and Exodus Transitional Community in the courtroom, it would be easier to give people what they need.
Exodus Transitional Community has been a great model for clients who have been connected to hotels and are living there and are almost on a track to become counselors themselves. Clients speak so highly of the program they feel like they’re spoken to with respect—like they’re human, they’re treated like people and have their own space, their own rooms.
Epicenter: How do you see implementation of the law progressing?
Eraso: We’ll have to see what happens with the mass writ of habeas corpus we filed to try to get those currently detained parole revocation hearings and see if we can get them released pending the proceedings. The judge had adjourned the case to March 16 to make a decision.
We were under the impression that when a law goes into effect, the state has to follow it. I don’t think we foresaw having to fight a legal battle on every single little issue around implementation. The governor should open her eyes to every way that DOCCS is obstructing the law from going into effect.