The current system of parole in New York State is costly.
Ames Grawart is the Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School. He points to the hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars spent each year to maintain post-release supervision as an example wasteful spending.
“At a simple, fiscal level, we know that it costs around $20,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New York State prisons,” he said. “By comparison, a year of parole supervision costs around $2,000.”
Even though it is cheaper than prison, Grawert said whenever a parolee goes back to prison on a technical violation, that’s more money out of tax payer pockets.
A 2018 report by the New York Bar Association estimated the state and its localities spend around $359 million a year on people returning to prison on technical parole violations.
“That means that every time someone is wrongfully denied parole or every time a parole board is not as free with parole grants as they should be,” Grawert said. “That means a significant cost to New York State tax payers.”
There is also a human cost to this problem.
One of the conditions of parole is that a parolee cannot associate with felons, a problem for people of color who return to their communities, said Vincent Schiraldi, the Co-Director of the Columbia University Justice Lab.
“If you say to everybody, you can’t associate with somebody with a felony conviction, people of color are much more likely to run into that, and Black men in particular,” he said. “With their brothers, their cousins, their co-workers than white people are.”
Rico knows this all too well. In February of 2020, he was staying at the Bissonette House, a halfway house in the City of Buffalo for men assimilating themselves back into society.
He asked that his real name not be used for this story out of fear of repercussions from his parole board.
“While you’re on parole you’re not allowed to associate with anyone that is on parole, or that has had a felony in their life,” Rico said. “But [at the Bissonette House], we are living together, we leave together to go to meetings, we go to the store together. To me, it’s so hard to understand.”
He said he was fortunate in being able to find a job out of prison.
“I held jobs before I was incarcerated,” Rico said. “So, of course I never burned any bridges, so I was able to go back to these employers and get my jobs back.”
But Grawart said being employed after prison is not an indicator of future monetary success.
“Brennan Center research shows that people who have spent time in prison earn, on average, about half of what their colleagues who’ve never been to prison earn,” He said.
Grawart said this translates to around half of a million dollars in lost earnings by the end of their career.
“It’s very difficult for people who have criminal justice experience to find a job, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “And that is just compounded by the risk of technical violations and re-incarceration stemming from them. And other overly restrictive parole conditions.”
The prospect of reform looks somewhat promising with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push to end mass incarceration and the Less is More Act, aimed at revamping the parole system. Less is More is sponsored in the State Senate by Harlem Democrat Brian Benjamin and currently sits in committee.