Criminal Justice Reform Empties Cells, Parole Fills Them Up Again

Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. While the number of state and federal prisoners continues to fall, former inmates are often reincarcerated because of technical parole violations.

Despite his longstanding position on law and order, delivered in a rhetorical style that can seem borrowed from “Walker, Texas Ranger,” President Trump in his State of the Union speech called for a reform of our prison system, committing his administration to helping “former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.” Presumably he wasn’t thinking only of Paul Manafort’s future. Liberals look at the country’s high incarceration rate and see the tragedy of racial animus; many on the right look at it and see the spreadsheet — another example of wasteful and ineffective government spending. Here there can exist a convergence of goals.

Advocacy around criminal justice reform in recent years has been increasingly fierce and successful. According to the latest government data, in 2016, the number of prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities fell for the third consecutive year. A movement to end or drastically curtail cash bail, and thus reduce the number of people held in pretrial detention for their inability to pay it, has swept across the country. New Jersey has nearly eliminated it altogether; in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed getting rid of cash bail for people facing misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges. Even Alaska, which has voted for a Republican in the last eight presidential elections, has reformed bail.

But the fate of prisoners when they return home remains a confounding problem, apart from the obvious difficulties of getting work. This is largely because of a parole system that replicates and often magnifies the anxieties of poverty, which in many instances served as the catalyst for an engagement with crime in the first place. Too often, former prisoners find themselves incarcerated a second or third time, not because they have done anything particularly wrong or pose a threat to their communities, but because they are found to have violated stringent rules that have little to do with maintaining public well-being. Famously last year the rapper Meek Mill was given a two- to four-year prison sentence for violating his parole, for breaches including popping a wheelie on his motorcycle in a music video.

Just this week a report from Columbia University’s Justice Lab examined the way the issue has played out in New York City. For the four years ending on Jan. 1, the city’s jail population declined by 21 percent, the result of decreases in the number of people held at Rikers Island, for the most part, before their trials begin. During the same period, though, one subgroup of the city’s jail population grew: the number of people held on technical parole violations. That figure increased by 15 percent. Between 2016 and 2017, the average daily population of those in jail for such infractions climbed to 20 percent. As Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Justice Lab and a former probation commissioner put it, these are people who most of the time “haven’t even jaywalked or jumped a turnstile.”

Typically what sends someone back to prison, Lorraine McEvilley, director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at the Legal Aid Society, told me, is a combination of a missed curfew or parole appointment and “dirty urine.” In New York, parole officers will often make unscheduled visits to the home to see that a parolee is there by 9 at night. A warrant can result from an absence. Former prisoners are also subject to drug testing and do often test positive for traces of pot. “In all my years of doing this,’’ she said, “I have not seen an instance of a curfew violation standing alone as any indication that a person was on the path of committing some offense.”

A major destabilizer in post-prison life revolves around housing. In New York, those just out of prison are not supposed to have contact with anyone in possession of a criminal record, an anachronistic rule that would keep released prisoners out of rehabilitation groups where they might share their experiences. Many people come out hoping to live with family, but if any members of the family have had contact with the system, then this is not possible. There are children 18 and 19 years old who cannot live with their parents. As a result, parolees are often sent to big homeless shelters where they are sure to encounter others with criminal records, and the nightmare of incarceration is simply extended. The fear of getting into fights, of having their things stolen, of relapsing, persists, and the stress of shelter life often insures that these fears are realized.

The case of Ismael Bonano almost perfectly illustrates how quickly things can go horribly wrong. After a criminal history that included serving a two-year sentence for robbery in the third-degree, he said, he was released to a shelter. He found work, and also began taking classes at Columbia. Eventually he found an apartment on Staten Island, but one night he returned home 30 minutes past curfew from a meeting at New York University where he had been trying to organize a poetry slam — his parole officer had showed up earlier. Getting to and from work was stressful, sometimes taking two hours, and he began smoking pot, which led to a 45-day stay last summer at Edgecombe, a correctional facility in Upper Manhattan for those dealing with addiction. As of last week, Mr. Bonano was in a residential drug treatment facility in Brooklyn.

The spike in the jailed parolee population began to appear right about the same time that the city started scaling back its use of stop-and-frisk policing, a practice that had put so many young minority men needlessly in jail. It is as if the system, despite the changing actors and their good intentions, were biased as a matter of organic configuration: it would find a way to contain young black men one way or another; it would exchange one dangerous habit for a second.

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