Queens Daily Eagle:Gov. signs parole reform bill, releases nearly 200 from Rikers

By Jacob Kaye via Queens Daily Eagle

With the crisis on Rikers Island nearing a breaking point, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill into law Friday that would spur the release of hundreds of people incarcerated on non-violent, technical parole violations in the city’s notorious jail facilities. 

The Less Is More bill was signed into law a week after a group of elected officials toured Rikers and demanded the governor take action, and following years of advocacy from criminal justice reformers, including the now Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. 

“New York State incarcerates more people for parole violations than anywhere in the country – that is a point of shame for us,” Hochul said. “It needs to be fixed and it's going to be fixed today.”

The law will make it so that people out on parole won’t be sent back to jail if they commit a technical parole violation, which could include driving, drinking alcohol or hanging out with someone who also has a criminal record. The law won’t go into effect until March 2022.

Though advocates urged the governor to change the date the law goes into effect, she said Friday that she was legally unable to.

“I would like nothing more than to implement the law now,” she said. “I legally cannot change the effective date, only the legislature can, we examined this and looked hard. “

In order to address the mounting crises on Rikers right now, the governor ordered 191 people currently being held on technical parole violations in the city’s jail to be released Friday.

“They have served their sentences under the dictates of the new Less is More, but they shouldn't have to wait for the enactment date,” Hochul said. “Separately from the parolees, we have a combustible situation still at Rikers because of overcrowding.”

Additionally, over the next five days, Hochul has ordered 40 people who have already been sentenced but have yet to be moved off Rikers, be sent to state correctional facilities per day. The state will incur the cost of transportation for the first 200 incarcerated people.

The governor stressed that the passage of Less is More, the transfers and the release of detainees were all done in collaboration with the city and the city’s Department of Correction.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio called on Hochul to sign Less is More earlier last week when he released his five-point action plan to address the situation on Rikers, Hochul called on the mayor to take action to get the jail’s staffing situation under control.

“I believe that while we take these first steps, we encourage the city of New York to do what they need to do to alleviate the staffing situation and the other crisis situations,” she said.

De Blasio celebrated the passage of Less is More Friday and said that while he waits for the law to go into effect, the city will work “with the state to offer our rehabilitation and support services to people on state parole eligible for Less is More.”

Hochul pushed back at the suggestion that the state should step in and take control of the jail complex.

“I'm not going to ever stand here and point fingers, I'm going to say I've seen what [de Blasio’s] steps have been taken,” the governor said. “He is trying to make sure that the workforce stays on the job and we will have to, perhaps take extraordinary measures, and that is what has to be occurring. He understands that this is his responsibility.”

The bill’s signing was a long time coming for advocates who have been pushing for reform for years.

Donna Hylton, the executive director of Little Piece of Light, was incarcerated on Rikers in the ‘80s. She said she was disheartened to see that conditions have not gotten any better in nearly 40 years.

“I'm thankful that today the governor instituted immediate action, because she recognizes the humanitarian crisis that we've been suffering with for decades,” Hylton said. “This just didn't happen and we can’t continue to have stuff like this happen.”

New York City’s district attorneys were on hand to witness the signing of the bill. When asked what they were doing to help lower the population on Rikers, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez said the he had “directed my staff not to ask for bail unless a public safety reason exists.”

DA’s across the city have requested defendants be held on bail, including Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, who said the passage of Less is More “advances the importance of rehabilitation and allows us to further administer justice with compassion.”

A spokesperson for the Queens DA’s office said “the DA is a strong proponent for no cash bail and has advocated for this from the start.”

“However, today, we must work within the confines of what is currently in place,” the spokesperson added. “The DA seeks the least restrictive means to assure a defendant’s return to court.”

Queens Assemblymember David Weprin, who chairs the Committee on Corrections, said that he was “excited” to see the law pass and even more excited to see Hochul order the release or transfer of nearly 400 of the 6,000 people currently incarcerated on Rikers.

“That's big,” Weprin said. “That, of course, will make a big difference with the current crisis of shortage of staff, overcrowded conditions, some of the negative conditions that have been highlighted at Rikers in the last couple of weeks. I think that's all positive developments.”

DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, who came under fire during a City Council oversight hearing on Rikers last week, thanked the governor for passing the bill into law.

“Eliminating non-criminal, technical parole violations is the decent, humane thing to do and it will only increase public safety by disrupting the incarceration cycle at a critical point, when people are reintegrating into the community,” Schiraldi said in a statement to the Eagle. “I also wholeheartedly thank the governor for using her discretionary power to implement facets of the bill that we can benefit from immediately without waiting until March.”

Benny Boscio, the president of the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association, said that while he appreciates the governor’s attention on Rikers, he “respectfully disagree[s] with how effective this legislation will be.

“This legislation releases 200 of the over 6,000 inmates in our custody. Most of the inmates in our custody are facing felony charges, many of which are non bailable,” Boscio said in a statement to the Eagle. “Less criminals in our custody only means more crimes will be committed in our streets, creating more victims and that is an injustice.”

Hochul vehemently denounced the narrative that Less is More would lead to an uptick in crime.

“These are people who have already paid their debt to society who are on parole for a technical violation,” the governor said. “There's always a risk to everything but the question is, do we step back and let a possible Attica be erupting under our watch? Or do I, as a state leader, have the courage to say, ‘No, here's what I can do.’”

“I know what a pressure cooker looks like, I've worked in a kitchen a few times, and I'm trying to make sure it doesn't blow up,” she added.