JJIE: Nonprofits push parole reform and housing for parolees

By Anna Deen | via Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Since being released from New York City’s Rikers Island jail — where he’d been sentenced to four months for not being where his parole officer expected him to be on a certain day and time — Dakem Roberts has been living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter. 

It was his latest incarceration since, in the late 1970s, when he was 16, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. He’d been arrested for his involvement in a robbery whose victim died the next day of heart failure, he said.  

“They said I took off my mask in front of somebody and showed my face to one of the kids in the neighborhood,” said Roberts, who maintains that he was falsely accused. He said the arresting officers smacked him around in the car, singing “happy birthday.” 

“I was still in high school,” Roberts said. “I didn’t understand it when they said, ‘You’re going away for life.’”

During much of the first three of 21 years behind bars for that original conviction, he was sent to solitary confinement. He was shuttled among several maximum security prisons, while also earning a high school diploma and, eventually, enrolled at Skidmore College. Since being granted parole in 1999, he’s advocated for prison reform and worked at the Legal Aid Society of New York — and spent a total of five more years in jail for such technical violations of his parole as missing curfew and absconding, New York State’s official term for what landed him at Rikers for those recent four months.

Some among the 3,614 formerly incarcerated persons living in city shelters in 2019, as one example, spent stints in city jails for their own technical violation of parole that, according to advocates aiming to provide stable housing for the formerly incarcerated, make it hard to build a better life outside of prison. Those persons represented 52.3% of all individuals returning to New York City from state prisons in 2019, according to a Coalition for the Homeless annual report, based on New York City Department of Corrections and Community Supervision data. 

With limited housing options, many parolees land in shelters

Nonprofit organizations providing re-entry services, including groups that are developing housing for the formerly incarcerated, are supporting provisions of the Less Is More Act for parole reform. Passed by the New York State Legislature last month, the bill would cap at 30 days the length of jail time for people sanctioned for most technical parole violations. 

Supported by the Fair Chance for Housing Campaign, among other nonprofits, that measure, if, as expected, is signed into law by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, bars landlords from refusing housing to someone because they’ve been arrested or have criminal record.

Newly appointed New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, co-founder of the Columbia University Justice Lab, said there is a link between the number of parolees living in shelters and the comparatively high number of technical parole violations. Part of the issue is that parole officers have limited resources to assist formerly incarcerated people in reintegrating into mainstream society, but infinite resources to punish them, Schiraldi said.

“You go to a homeless shelter to fail after prison, not to succeed,” he said.

Because parolees must provide a home address, many who are unable to live with relatives or find a place of their own list a shelter address. Nevertheless, many individuals don’t regularly live in the shelters because of what many see as unsanitary and unsafe conditions, said Andre Ward, associate vice president of the Fortune Society’s David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy. Instead, they couch-surf, living with whomever allows them in, until a parole officer learns they aren’t at a shelter.

An official with the city’s corrections and community supervision department wrote, via email, that the agency does not issue a technical parole violation for missing a curfew once; and that officers must follow protocols before, as a last resort, issuing an arrest warrant. But, Ward countered, parole officers have wide discretion on when to issue a technical violation. 

On at least two occasions, parolee Roberts said his parole officer was waiting for him as he returned to his Brooklyn shelter to meet his 8 p.m. curfew. Roberts said he fears being cited, over and over, for technical violations. Situations he cannot control, including being delayed while commuting, make him vulnerable.

Nonprofits are planning housing for parolees

Roberts hopes to move out of the shelter and in with his wife, who is retired. Wed seven years, they’re currently applying online for housing through Housing Connect, a City of New York-run site aimed at helping New Yorkers find affordable housing, a supply that has plummeted in recent years. Even with his wife’s pension and the $1,260 housing subsidy the city has earmarked for him, they’re getting turned away by landlords. Over a span of 30 days, Roberts estimates that they’d applied to more than 20 apartments without getting a response.

Plus, said the Fortune Society’s Ward, roughly 90% of city landlords conduct background checks and frequently will not even consider applicants with a criminal record. The Fortune Society is co-leading the Fair Chance for Housing campaign to pass a law prohibiting landlords and real estate brokers from inquiring about criminal records.

In a March report, the Columbia University Justice Lab highlighted the Osborne Association’s Kinship Reentry program, which received funding from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Trinity Church Wall Street, as one example of a nonprofit building low-cost housing that would help formerly incarcerated people not rely so heavily on shelters. The program, slated to launch in mid-July and expand in the months after, will provide families with direct financial support and counseling, and, according to the report, cost $10,000 per person. 

The Osborne Association also is collaborating with Trinity Church Wall Street to transform the closed Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx into the Fulton Community Reentry Center, which is set to open in February 2022, offering 130 transitional beds for those coming home from prison. 

“We also intend it to be a neighborhood resource, with spaces to hold community meetings and classes, training sessions, support groups, and events,” said Jonathan Stenger, an Osborne Association spokesperson.

But some say that providing reentry support shouldn’t just be left up to nonprofits. 

“It should be the obligation of the state to make sure that at least, for the first year, that prisoners are housed independently and that they receive training when they are out,” Roberts said. 

Parole reform bill is gaining traction

“Passing Less Is More would basically allow people to exhale,” said Hylton, who speaks from experience, having been incarcerated as an adolescent. “If you’re young, you don’t know what you’re going to do tomorrow — it changes, and it’s okay if it does,” said Donna Hylton, president and co-founder of A Little Piece of Light, another housing and re-entry organization.

Someone released from prison who’s still figuring out what work suits them and which employers will hire them shouldn’t have to feel at risk of getting jail time for a technical parole violation related to leaving their job, Hylton said.

A Little Piece of Light is one of nonprofits that led the campaign for the Less Is More Act to reform the parole system. The coalition of almost 300 individuals and organizations — including the mayor, district attorneys, sheriffs, parole officers, and nonprofits — is statewide. 

Last November, at the outset of his four-month sanction for that technical violation, Roberts learned about the Less Is More Act while at Rikers Island.  After he was released from that jail in March, Roberts joined the Katal Center to campaign for the Less Is More Act

“Even laws like Less Is More is not enough,” said Roberts, whose housing search continues.