At a recent rally outside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, DeAndre Simmons clutched his hoodie as he walked slowly toward the impromptu microphone, pausing several times before the words came out.
“I’m freaking nervous right now,” Simmons, 20, said.
“Take your time!” someone in the crowd shouted back at him, a volunteer with the Youth Anti- Prison Project.
That organization, which provides mentoring, jobs and housing support services for young parolees such as Simmon, hosted the rally to urge Cuomo to sign recently approved legislation that would reduce how often the formerly incarcerated can be ordered back behind bars for missing an assigned curfew, failing to meet with a parole officer at an assigned time, remaining unemployed or testing positive for drugs and alcohol.
Simmons and this group of activists are demanding parole reform in New York state. They hold signs that compare parole to living in a mass surveillance state. They say that the terms under which parolees live are precarious. Breaking one rule, no matter how small, is enough to get a parolee sent back to prison. That practice, Simmons says, has left his friends and community paralyzed and empty.
“A lot of kids don’t know where to go and where to start when they get out of prison,” Simmons said. “A lot of us need help.”
The bill is known as the Less is More Act and it limits to 30 days the amount of time someone can be re-incarcerated for a technical violation of parole and pares the list of infractions that are deemed technical violations. It will see that no person on parole in New York state is able to be locked up for a petty violation of the terms of their parole. Further, the bill will create earned time credit for parolees. Under this system, good behavior will gain a parolee time off from the conditions of their parole.
In a report issued earlier this year, the Columbia University Justice Lab concluded that 40% of incarcerations statewide in 2019 were due to technical parole violations. This is almost three times the nationwide average that year. Black people were 12 times and Latinos four times more likely than white parolees to be reincarcerated for technical violations of parole.
Technical parole violations have come under increasing scrutiny nationwide. Data from the Columbia University Justice Lab study shows that high rates of recidivism are common in states with strict rules on these technical parole violations. Activists for the bill say there is currently no transparency in the reincarceration process. A violation of technical parole terms can be determined by a parole officer and send someone back to prison without citation or hearing. These new sentences can be months to years long.
An expensive legal limbo
“Being on parole feels like you’re a dead animal on the side of the road. Nobody wants to touch or nobody wants to look at you,” said Avion Gordon, 24, a volunteer organizer for the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice that arranged the rally.
Gordon is one of 35,000 people currently on parole in New York state. Sixteen- to 20-year-olds accounted for roughly 2% of New York’s parolees, according to a 2019 report from the New York State Corrections and Community Supervision.
“A parole officer can come at any time. Any night.” Gordon said. Gordon shares his home in Long Island with his brother, three children on the weekends and two elderly parents. Even during the height of the pandemic, parole officers would arrive unannounced.
Activists have long said that the current parole system creates a legal limbo not just for the formerly incarcerated person, but also for their entire family and loved ones.
“My son had football games and it’s hard to explain to him sometimes,” said Gordon, of having to miss some games due to his curfew. “It’s hard because he’s 13 years old, he doesn’t get it.”
Gordon must maintain employment while on parole. A considerable feat with all of the restrictions he is under. The job must be regular enough with hours that will allow him to be home in time for an 8 p.m. curfew. The employer must be ok with hiring a convicted felon. All of this has taken a toll on Gordon and his young family who are just getting used to having him back home since his release from prison earlier this year. He was convicted on a charge of sex trafficking that he said he did not commit.
“When one person is on parole, your whole family is on parole,” Gordon said.
In 2019, $685 million was spent to reincarcerate parolees on technical violations. That’s a big price for a bad return, activists argued at the rally.
Restorative justice as solution
“All this work has been done in New York City and across the state to recognize the problem of mass incarceration,” said Emily NaPier Singletary, co-founder and co-executive director of Unchained, which also helped to draft the legislation.
“Parole is a time when our society has an opportunity to fulfill an obligation of care towards people who are coming out of prison,” said Fainan Lakha, deputy chief of staff for Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest (D-Brooklyn), who is away on maternity leave.
Forrest and State Sen. Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan), drafted the legislation.
“The current parole system, with the ease with which people can be assigned a technical parole violation… creates immense psychological anxiety and just leads to failure and people being sent back behind bars,” Lakha said.
He didn’t know where to start
After his speech in front of Cuomo’s office, Simmons, calmer by then, addressed a friend of his recently sent back to prison for a technical parole violation. He doesn’t know what his friend did to get himself sent back.
“My son was smart,” Simmons said, referring to his close friend. “He coulda been a ballplayer. He was nice. I really loved him. I woulda done anything for this kid.”
In his own neighborhood, Simmons said he sees that this current system is not working with the opaque terms of parole that have disappeared his community.
“They want to make it seem like because you did this when you was younger, you’re going to keep doing it as you get older. That don’t make sense to me,” he said.
“My friend didn’t know where to start when he came home.” Simmons added. He was only home for a short time as he struggled to find housing, work and understand the rules of his parole.
If Gov. Cuomo signs the legislation, it’s possible, Simmons said, that he and his friends could get the help they need. Cuomo could sign it and provide immediate relief to thousands of New Yorkers or delay the implementation into 2022.
“A lot of people need help and they don’t got it,” Simmons said.