End the Parole-Prison ‘Revolving Door’, says former NY Chief Judge

Authorities should put “hard limits” on the degree to which people can be imprisoned for technical violations, and use the cost saving to invest in housing, job opportunities and other services to help reduce recidivism, says former  New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

Authorities should put “hard limits” on the degree to which people can be imprisoned for technical violations, and use the cost saving to invest in housing, job opportunities and other services to help reduce recidivism, says former  New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

The approach that has already sharply reduced recidivism in traditionally punitive “red” states such as Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana, Lippman wrote in an op ed for the New York Daily News, co-authored with Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia Univwersity Justice Lab.

After Louisiana limited punishments for parole violations, recidivism dropped by 22 percent, and the state saved $17 million per year in correctional costs, the authors said.

“Instead of paving the way for people to come home, parole has become a revolving door back to incarceration,” they wrote in a call for New York State to follow suit.

Noting that community supervision after prison has “become one of biggest drivers of jail and prison populations in New York State,” the authors cited “dismal” statistics showing that  30 percent of those sent to state prison are there “for breaching parole restrictions,” not for new criminal convictions.

“Most of them are imprisoned for non-criminal “technical” violations, such as missing an appointment or failing a drug test,” the article said.

The op ed said a first step in the process is to allow people to earn “good-time credits” for good behavior, thus reducing their time on parole.

Such a move would “not only incentivize success, but also shrink the number of people under supervision,” the authors said.

The resulting cost  savings from a lower prison population should be used to facilitate more “access to housing, job opportunities, health care, substance abuse treatment and other services,” they said.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Wisconsin Probation, Parole Policies Fuel Racial Disparities: Study

The community corrections system is a pipeline to mass incarceration in Wisconsin, according to a report by the Columbia University Justice Lab.  Instead of serving as a viable alternative to prison, it exacerbates racial disparities, researchers said.

For thousands of justice-involved people in Wisconsin, the musty halls of the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) are a grueling pitstop on the road to reincarceration.

According to a report from the Columbia University Justice Lab, more than 65 per cent of the individuals stranded in technical limbo between probation and prison in 2017 were African American, and 62 percent were diagnosed with a mental health condition.

They are confined to overcrowded cells without sunlight, fresh air, exercise or visitations for 20 hours a day, and those who fail to satisfy the many conditions of probation or parole are placed on “hold” without judicial review, as they await hearings for their reincarceration without bail.

At the end of 2017, 86 percent of individuals warehoused at MSDF had not committed a new crime.

Their offenses?

Technical violations such as failure to pay onerous fines and fees for their own supervision, or vague notions such as engaging in conduct “not in the best interest of public welfare or rehabilitation.”

The report calls the MSDF a prime example of how Wisconsin’s byzantine probation and parole policies are driving mass incarceration in the state, and cites recommendations from the nation’s leading probation and parole administrators for bucking the state’s current trends.

“[C]ommunity-based mechanisms [such as probation and parole], which originated as alternatives to incarceration, are actually contributing to its rise in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States at the very time when the foundations of mass incarceration have been rejected by many on both sides of the aisle,” the report said.

“The good news is that states around the country have begun to safely and effectively reduce their rates of both supervision and revocation, as well as return to prison for violations.”

Truth in Sentencing

To understand the depth and complexity of Wisconsin’s community supervision woes, the report said, one must begin with Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing statutes.

Enacted in 2000, Truth in Sentencing is a cluster of laws and policies ensuring that those convicted of crimes serve 100 percent of their sentence with little hope for early release for good behavior.

Among the most punitive statutes in the nation, Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing mandates extended supervision after time served, which places returning citizens on probation for at least 25 percent of the duration of their completed sentence. Violation of any of the conditions of supervision can send individuals back to prison without credit for time served.

There are at least 18 conditions with which those under community supervision must comply.

Some are clear-cut, such as regularly reporting to a supervisory agent, offering a blanket consent to search of person and property, and regular drug tests. Others are left to the discretion of the supervising officer, such as avoiding conduct “not in the best interest of public welfare or rehabilitation.”

Individuals under community supervision are also subject to a litany of fees, including annual supervision fees amounting to $240-$720 depending on income, drug test fees, and payments for their own electronic monitoring devices. Failure to pay can result in violation of the conditions of supervision and result in reincarceration or an extension of supervision.

Mass Supervision by the Numbers

The Justice Lab offered empirical evidence from state-level data to argue that Wisconsin’s community supervision policies have spurred a net-widening relative to other states’ incarceration trends at a time when most states are seeing a net decrease in incarceration.

The first indicator is outcomes for people exiting supervision. In Wisconsin in 2013 (the most recent year with available data), 39 percent of these individuals were returning to prison, compared to the national average of 28 percent.

Of those reincarcerated in Wisconsin that year, a technical, non-criminal violation had led to 75 percent of all revocations.

The second indicator is a static count, or snapshot, of the proportion of incarcerated people in Wisconsin who had formerly been under community supervision: roughly 12,000 of the 23,000 individuals at the end of 2017.

This figure is technically an under-count, as it does not take into consideration individuals with shorter sentences for technical violations not present during the snapshot. Thus, when calculating based on total annual admissions to prison, the share of individuals formerly under community supervision rose to 60 percent in 2017.

The third indicator is the number of individuals incarcerated without judicial approval on “hold” from violating the conditions of probation or parole, who are not counted in the prior figures. An additional 3,700 individuals were admitted to Wisconsin Department of Corrections facilities in 2017 under these conditions.

The Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility is one state facility created precisely to house these people and to ease the burden of overcrowding on county-level jails.

A fourth indicator is the overall growth of Wisconsin prisons relative to national averages. Since 2009, states have seen an average decline of 5.9 percent in total incarcerated individuals. While the Justice Lab did not offer a concurrent statistic for Wisconsin since 2009, it noted:

Wisconsin’s community supervision numbers and the impact they are having on incarceration are best understood in the context of the overall growth of Wisconsin’s prison system. Wisconsin’s prison population has more than tripled since 1990, when there were 6,788 people incarcerated. By 2000, there were 20,612, and by 2016 there were 22,975 people incarcerated in Wisconsin, a state with only 17,742 total prison beds.

Wisconsin is bucking the national trend in this respect. Since 2009, the absolute number of people incarcerated in the United States has declined by 5.9%, or 135,300 people, while the rate of U.S. incarceration has declined by 12.2%. Even conservative states like Texas and Mississippi have seen their imprisonment numbers decline by 13% and 11%, respectively.

Importantly, the Justice Lab argued that the population explosion in Wisconsin prisons is likely not attributable to an increase in crime, noting that property crimes have steadily decreased since 2013 and are 27 percent below national averages.

Violent crimes, still 21 percent below national averages, have slightly increased over recent years.

Finally, Wisconsin exhibits a strikingly skewed racial impact in its community supervision and incarceration outcomes. African Americans, comprising just 7 percent of the state’s population, make up 41 percent of state prisoners and 65 percent f all those held at the MSDF.

They also represent 76 percent of all supervision revocations issued to those at MSDF.

These racial disparities highlight that while community supervision is a major pipeline for reincarceration, it most acutely and disproportionately affects people of color in the state.

The Justice Lab argues that these disparities begin in part with uneven enforcement of the law in contact with police officers, such as in traffic stops and the issuance of municipal warrants.

Charting a Path Forward

In August 2017, the nation’s leading probation and parole administrators signed and released a statement in which they acknowledged the central role of community supervision in perpetuating mass incarceration, noting that:

“[I]ncreasingly sophisticated research has shown that we can responsibly reduce probation and parole populations. […] [I]t is possible to both significantly reduce the footprint of probation and parole and improve outcomes and public safety.”

Later, in February 2018, they released a collaborative report setting the ambitious goal of reducing the community corrections population by half to focus on individuals with “the greatest need.”

The Justice Lab’s report ends with multiple recommendations for accomplishing a similar feat in Wisconsin.

  • Close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, as it offers a perverse incentive to continue reincarcerating individuals due to technical violations of their conditions of supervision.
  • Support the development of localized Alternative to Revocation programs which provide incentives for individuals to comply with the terms of their supervision while helping them to reintegrate successfully into their communities.
  • Revise the Truth in Sentencing statutes to allow for shorter probation and parole sentences and to permit individuals to accrue “merit time” or earned compliance credits that would allow them to end their sentences early for good behavior.

The Justice Lab report was prepared by Jarred Williams, Director of Research at the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice; Vincent Schiraldi, Co-Director of the Columbia Justice Lab; and Kendra Bradner, Senior Staff Associate with the Columbia Justice Lab.

 A full copy of their report can be downloaded here.

Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. He welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Life After Prison: Nebraska’s ‘Growing Pains” With Probation Reform

Nebraska began shifting more inmates into stricter post-release supervision regimes to relieve prison overcrowding after legislators passed a sentencing reform package in 2015. But it’s added a new burden to already-stressed local jails and courts.

In 2018, the justice system in Nebraska’s Dodge County found itself navigating a new responsibility: rehabilitating individuals returning from the state prison system.

Hundreds of ex-offenders completing prison sentences were returning home. But for many, prison was the easy part. The real challenge was just starting. Now, many were embarking on the second part of their sentence, which would be served within their communities.

Beginning in 2015, prison sentences on class III, IIIA and IV felonies started to include a mandatory sentence of “post-release supervision,” an intensive rehabilitative probation program that requires offenders to pursue services after prison in hopes of keeping them out for good.

But county officials say the sentencing change has had consequences on offenders and local justice systems alike.

It shifted a new class of higher-risk felony offenders onto new and demanding regimens of supervision. And it shifted the burden of supervising them from the state to the counties.

“The rehabilitative process falls back on the probation office and the county attorney’s office and the courts, because when people come back in the community from their prison sentence, they have to report to probation and they begin their term of PRS,” said Dodge County Attorney Oliver Glass.

Post-release supervision was created as part of a package of reforms passed in the 2015 criminal justice reform law known as LB605. The law also created a “presumption of probation” directing judges to put offenders on probation on most class IV felony cases, which led to an increase in community-based probation sentences in lieu of prison.

The law took aim at the state’s overcrowded prison system, then at 159 percent capacity and now under mandate to make significant reductions by 2020.

High Volumes, Limited Resources

But it also put more individuals into community services that are already dealing with high volumes and limited resources. And it put local justice systems in charge of an increasing number of individuals who face legal repercussions for violating the terms of their probation or post-release supervision.

That brings more cases before an already-crowded court docket, and potentially more inmates into a rapidly growing jail population housed in Saunders County.

“Probation now has all these people they have to deal with, either through presumption or post-release supervision,” said District Court Judge Geoffrey Hall.

“I know that the court system has been efforting to ramp up, but it takes time, effort and dollars, so it’s a burden on the system.”

Last year was Dodge County District Court’s busiest caseload on record. In 2018, the court saw 891 filings, the most since at least 2007 and up from 766 in 2015, according to the Nebraska Judicial Branch.

Felony probation and post-release supervision contributed to that growth. In 2018, there were 50 motions to revoke probation or post-release supervision filed in Dodge County District Court, according to the district court clerk’s office. In 2017, there were only 13, and in 2015, there were only three.

Hall has previously expressed frustration with the large number of motions to revoke post-release supervision being filed in court.

“These people get in trouble, I have to issue an arrest warrant, they get court-appointed attorneys and they spend time in jail and many of them don’t seem to be inclined to change their ways,” Hall told the Tribune in an October interview.

An individual may violate their probation or supervision by committing a new crime, but may also receive sanctions for things like missing classes, testing positive for drugs or alcohol, or missing scheduled drug tests. Punishments can include administrative sanctions, like additional classes, or custodial sanctions — short bursts of county jail time that rarely last more than a few weeks.

A motion to revoke felony probation or post-release supervision can be filed in court if a probationer has amassed 90 days’ worth of custodial sanctions, committed a new crime, or absconded. Once a motion is filed, that will bring the individual back before the court and could place them in jail as their case progresses.

If revoked, a probationer could be incarcerated in either prison or jail to serve out the remainder of their time. But data released by the state’s Office of Probation Administration in November shows that burden is increasingly falling on county jails.

In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, 57 percent of all individuals revoked from felony probation and post-release supervision in the state were sent back to prison, compared to 43 percent to the county jails. This past fiscal year, those numbers reversed: prisons housed 37 percent of revoked probationers, while jails housed 63 percent.

Seventy percent of traditional probationers successfully complete probation, according to statewide data. Only 35 percent of discharges from post-release supervision last year were successful. Another 32 percent were classified as “unsuccessful completion,” where they were not revoked but failed to fulfill all the requirements. And another 32 percent were revoked.

Even those who were discharged successfully may have faced custodial sanctions at some point in their term. — there were 1,795 custodial sanctions issued statewide last year, up from 1,056 the year before.

Many, Hall and Glass included, see the value of LB605, and understand the state’s need to find solutions to its prison conundrum.

‘Change is Hard’

“It’s very expensive to house prisoners, and I think history would show it’s probably not always the best way to deal with, especially, non-violent crime,” Hall said. “Change is hard, and with change comes issues, and I think we’re in that process right now.”

Patty Lyon, chief probation officer for District 6 office, the local arm of the state probation agency, is hopeful that the system will help offenders in the long run by giving them the tools to keep them from re-offending — ultimately improving community safety. Additionally, the state probation office notes that keeping people on probation has a significantly lower price tag than keeping them in prisons.

But the new law has created some “growing pains” for counties, she acknowledged.

Previously, the only system of post-incarceral supervision in Nebraska was parole. But parole violators were sent back to prison — not jail — and the supervision was less intense or rehabilitative than probation or post-release supervision.

And because parole is only granted to prisoners who are released before they’d served their maximum prison time, many prisoners avoided it entirely by choosing to stay in prison for their entire sentence, a practice known as “jamming out,” meaning that they’d be released without any supervision.

By design, the probation system is dealing with a higher-risk population that traditionally received prison time and often avoided community supervision. But even in cases where they aren’t successful, those individuals are getting services that they’ve never had before. The state probation office says that research shows such supports can help reduce recidivism in the long run.

“These are participants that never had [PRS] before and in many cases don’t want it,” Lyon said. “But those are also the individuals that once they accept the program, or accept what’s being offered to them, they can make huge changes, too.”

Among the biggest challenges in compliance with post-release supervision is getting offenders to buy into it once they leave prison. Often, they see it as a second punishment.

“A lot of guys and gals that’s on that post-release supervision, they really resent it,” said Jim Jones of the Lincoln-based Community Justice Center, which works with ex-offenders returning to the community.

Chelsea Burk understands the feeling. The Lincoln native and mother of two is currently serving yearlong post-release supervision out of Lancaster County, after completing a prison sentence on a 2016 charge of possessing methamphetamine. She left prison in July — serving only nine months of her 18-month sentence after receiving good time — with a new lease on life: sober and with money saved up from a work-release program.

Her post-release supervision sentence was more daunting than her prison sentence, she says. She was required to maintain employment while also attending early morning classes and drug tests three times a week that wouldn’t allow her to be even a minute late. She couldn’t associate with people who had criminal records, ruling out just about everybody she knew. She felt lonely and anxious.

Since September, Burk has made significant strides, remaining sober and employed, making new friends and reconnecting with her family in North Platte. But early on, overcome with loneliness and anxiety, Burk relapsed. She felt overwhelmed and started to miss classes and drug tests. She served two custodial sanctions of five and 15 days, and the fear of losing all the gains she’d made in prison drove her to do better.

But while she believes that the strict regimen is necessary to get through to offenders, she also notes that probationers may face a slew of challenges that require more flexibility from the system: a lack of reliable transportation to get to mandatory appointments on time, unexpected changes in probation officers, mental health issues and substance abuse relapses.

Some probationers, she says, “can’t fathom” maintaining the demanding schedule that probation requires, and often leave prison without the supports necessary to help them.

“People that go to prison, there’s an underlying factor to what happened, and a lot of times it’s mental health, and sometimes it’s the substance abuse that’s deteriorated mental health,” she said.

“This is an uncomfortable, icky feeling to be out here doing things by myself. If you don’t know that that’s coming, it’s going to cause some problems — it’s going to cause you to end up right back in court.”

Dodge County, with an average daily jail population that has grown from 61 to 81 since 2012, is not alone in seeing new strains on its justice system. Nationally, pretrial incarceration rates in rural county jails have increased 436 percent between 1970 and 2013, according to the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.

The consequences of mass incarceration are often felt more acutely at the local level, where there are fewer resources and less space to accommodate growing volume, says Jasmine Heiss, the director of outreach and public affairs for Vera’s “In Our Backyards” project, which studies incarceration trends.

Sentencing reforms have played a role in driving jail growth nationwide, Heiss said.

That’s because probation, seen by lawmakers as an enticing alternative to incarceration in states with overcrowded facilities, often simply becomes a nebulous extension of the incarceral system.

Officials should use discretion when deciding which violations trigger an incarceral response, she said. Glass noted that his office is working to do that, and communication with Lyon’s district 6 office on finding other solutions is ongoing.

“These systems just create a tripwire for people to go back into [incarceral] systems,” Heiss said.

James Farrell, a staff writer for the Fremont Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This article was written as part of his fellowship project. The complete version can be accessed here.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Do We Really Need Probation and Parole?

As initiatives like the REFORM Alliance surge forward, it is important that they take an elemental, rather than incremental, approach to reforming probation and parole.  Activists should ask how much, if at all, we need to employ government workers to watch those who have broken the law, writes a former  New York probation commissioner.

A man nine years out of a New York prison proposes marriage to his girlfriend who also has a criminal record.  Because it is against the rules to associate with someone with a prior record, his parole is revoked and he is returned to prison for a year─after which he marries the same person, this time with his parole officer’s permission.

A Texas woman is sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to vote while on felony probation.  She cast a provisional ballot that was not counted and claims that she did not know she was prohibited from voting while under supervision.

More than 10 years after he had been sentenced to probation as a teenager, an award-winning Philadelphia hip-hop artist is imprisoned for two to four years for a technical violation for a traffic infraction and breaking up an altercation in an airport.  Both charges against him were ultimately dismissed.

The above three cases represent the broad range of behavior─some of it barely illegal, some illegal only for those under supervision, some not illegal at all─for which a person under probation or parole can be deprived of their liberty.

Although “mass supervision” on probation or parole has not yet garnered the attention of “mass incarceration,” its impact is no small matter.

There are 4.5 million people under community supervision in America, twice as many as are incarcerated, a figure that amounts to more than the population in half of all U.S. states.  About four in ten people entering America’s prisons and jails each year are under supervision.  Many of those are incarcerated, not for committing new crimes, but for breaking a wide array of supervision rules.

Community corrections has been slowly gaining attention commensurate with its size and contribution to prison growth.

  • From 2013 to 2016, the Harvard Kennedy School convened 28 community corrections officials, researchers, prosecutors, advocates and formerly incarcerated people into an Executive Session on Community Corrections. The executive session published papers and convened public forums arguing for sweeping reforms, including shrinking the number of people under supervision and reducing revocations to prison.
  • In August 2017, every major association representing community corrections endorsed a Statement on the Future of Community Corrections, along with 35 prominent probation and parole administrators and 45 leading prosecutors. The statement asserted that, “community corrections has become a significant contributor to mass incarceration,” recommending that “that the number of people on probation and parole supervision in America be significantly reduced.”
  • A few months later, Meek Mill, the Philadelphia hip-hop artist profiled above, was returned to prison for a technical probation violation, spurring a national outcry and bringing the issue of community corrections to the attention of a broader audience. A nationwide effort to #FreeMeek sprung up and #Cut50, a bipartisan effort co-founded by Van Jones to reduce mass incarceration, launched a #StillNotFree Campaign to extend the conversation beyond Mill’s case.
  • The Columbia Justice Lab began publishing a series of papers on the impact of probation and parole nationally and in selected states coinciding with this explosion of interest in probation and parole reform. Too Big to Succeed – a national look at probation and parole authored by 20 leading community corrections administrators was followed by reports focusing on New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the latter of which we release collaboratively with JustLeadershipUSA.
  • Columbia’s New York report inspired the Less is More Act filed in January 2019 by Assemblymember Walter Mosley and Senator Brian Benjamin aimed at reducing the number of people violated on parole in New York State. New York returns the second highest number of people to prison for non-criminal, technical violations and people incarcerated for state parole violations are the only population that is increasing on Rikers Island.

This brings us to Wednesday’s launch of the REFORM Alliance, an organization inspired by Mill’s case, committed to advancing criminal justice reform.

Van Jones of #Cut50 (and a CNN host) has been tapped to lead the initiative, whose board is co-chaired by Mill and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, and includes musician-entrepreneur Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and other titans of business, entertainment and sports.

As these various initiatives surge forward, it is important that they take an elemental, rather than incremental, approach to reforming probation and parole.

Probation and parole were established in the 1800s in America with the ambitious goal of helping people who had run afoul of the law turn their lives around.  As mass incarceration exploded over the last four decades, community supervision mimicked it, even rebranding itself as “community corrections” in an attempt to stay apace with its big brother, the prison.

It partially succeeded, growing almost four-fold since 1980, but receiving only one out of ten corrections dollars.

To be sure, efforts to shrink supervision and make it less punitive are worthwhile.  However, if the goal is to support people so they can flourish in their home communities, there needs to be a deeper examination of the best approaches to doing so.

New York City offers one example of how much probation can shrink substantially without producing undesirable consequences.  From 1996 to 2017, the number of people on probation in New York City declined by three-quarters and technical violations plummeted to three percent.  In 2014, 26 percent of people arrested for felonies in New York received unsupervised conditional or unconditional discharges while only four percent were sentenced to probation.

Did crime rise because of this massive reduction in community supervision in New York City?  Did the jail population explode as probation, sometimes viewed as an alternative to incarceration, receded?

Quite the opposite, there was a 57 percent decrease in violent crime and a 55 percent decline in jail usage in New York City during that time.

And although the probation department’s budget rightly dropped, its per person expenditures doubled because of the sharp decline in its population, allowing me, as department head, to increase our contracts for community programs from two to 54 during my tenure there.

Former New York State Parole Director and New York City Probation Commissioner Martin Horn has proposed abolishing parole supervision and channeling the savings from reduced revocations to provide vouchers for persons on parole to buy their own services and supports.

Horn believes that parole is not particularly good at rehabilitating people on its caseload because parole is about taking risks and government is risk-averse.  He reasons that individuals convicted of a new crime during the time they would have been on parole should be given moderate additional punishment, but should not be violated for non-criminal acts.

Give Returning Citizens More Responsibility

By putting programmatic decision-making into the hands of returning citizens, Horn also believes services will flow into the neighborhoods they live in.

Horn’s watershed proposal, and the experience of New York City, force us to ask basic questions about the proper role of government in helping people reacclimate to their communities.

High caseloads, scarce resources and a “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em” attitude that replaced the Progressive-era’s rehabilitative ethic has rendered community supervision too big, overwhelmed and punitive to succeed.

There is not much evidence that revoking and imprisoning people contributes to public safety or rehabilitation, but we know it has a devastating and disproportionate toll on poor, young men of color.  In contrast, recent research by Patrick Sharkey has found that increasing community programs helps improve community safety.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Instead of marginal fixes to the largest part of America’s system of punishment and control, this new wave of activism should ask how much, if at all, we need to employ government workers to watch those who have broken the law, versus how much we should be bolstering communities to help their neighbors turn their lives around.

Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work.  He was formerly Commissioner of New York City Probation.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Meek Mill Launches $50 Million Crusade for Justice

The hip-hop superstar may be the most famous American caught in a byzantine system of probation and parole that can send former incarcerees back to prison for “technical offenses.” With support from wealthy friends in the sports, finance and entertainment worlds, he’s now spearheading a movement to develop alternatives.

Meek Mill, hip hop artist-turned-justice crusader, is using his star power to fuel an ambitious $50 million campaign to shrink the number of individuals caught inside the U.S. probation and parole systems—a 4.7-million-strong group of which he may be the most famous member.

The campaign, called the REFORM Alliance, was launched Wednesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York with an event that brought together VIPs from the worlds of music, sport, media, politics and finance, all pledging their support for justice reform.

meek mill

Meek Mill, Jay Z and Van Jones (L-R) arrive for the launch Wednesday of the REFORM Alliance. Photos by Vincent Papandrea

“I didn’t ask to be the face of reform,” Mill told the packed forum, in a reference to his year-long battle with Pennsylvania courts over a decision to revoke his parole and send him back to prison for a “technical” violation—which in turn provoked a nationwide protest that resulted in his release last April.

“I don’t want to be the face of anything. I just want to bridge gaps and try to bring people together and make the world a better place, especially for my culture and the environment where I grew up, where the system is targeted against people who look like me.”

Mill said he decided to channel the anger and frustration he felt into a movement that could help the millions of others who didn’t have the kind of celebrity profile that finally persuaded authorities to spring him from prison. (Officially he is still subject to the community supervision system until 2023. Released on bail, he had to receive permission from his probation officer to attend the launch.)

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “But there are people who don’t have a voice, and I’m here to speak for [them].”

Joining Mill on stage were some of the influential figures who had lobbied for his release and were now founding partners and board members of the REFORM Alliance: music mogul Jay-Z; Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; Third Point LLC CEO and founder Daniel Loeb; Galaxy Digital CEO and founder Michael E. Novogratz; and Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai.

The eighth board member, Robert F. Smith, CEO & Founder of Vista Equity Partners, was unable to attend.

The new alliance did not offer any detailed plan for how it would use the $50 million in private capital supporting the initiative, but the newly appointed CEO of the group, CNN’s Van Jones, said it was intended to promote activities already underway by “grassroots” groups to develop alternatives to the community supervision system—with an early focus on New York and Pennsylvania.

“We are here to add capacity, to amplify the voices, to lift up the people who have been screaming for so long, with so little attention,” said Jones, who has co-founded numerous advocacy organizations dedicated to justice reform, including #Cut50, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, ColorOfChange.org, and the Dream Corps.

Editor’s Note: Jones was named the 2017 “Justice Media Trailblazer”  by The Crime Report.

‘Fight Different’

Unveiling the group’s catchphrase, “Fight Different,” Jones said the new organization should be seen as part of the continuing efforts across the country to develop bipartisan support for fixing the justice system.

“We are not here to reinvent the wheel,” added Jones, whose lobbying for successful passage of the watershed federal criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, earned him a spot last month behind President Donald Trump at the White House signing ceremony.

“We are here to accelerate the wheel that has already been built by grassroots organizations.”

The well-funded REFORM Alliance adds more heft to the increasing trend towards private investment of justice reform initiatives in a climate of reduced federal funding, and the participation of Mill and Jay Z also accelerates the involvement of entertainment and sports celebrities, ranging from John Legend to football star Colin Kaepernick, in controversial social justice issues such as police bias.

“I think attention is being brought to this [probation] issue because of his celebrity,” said Jay Z in a reference to Mill, adding that he and others hoped they could now use the celebrity attention to make a difference.

They already proved they could get the attention of politicians.

Sitting in the front rows of the audience was a gallery of political heavyweights, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf; Cook County (Ill.) State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx; Brooklyn (N.Y.) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Topeka Sam

Topeka K. Sam. Photo courtesy New York Foundation

But arguably, given REFORM’s mission to serve those most adversely affected by the criminal justice system, the event’s most important attendees were not part of any blue-ribbon guest list.

They were a group of young people and grassroots activists who joined Topeka Sam, founder and Executive Director of the Ladies of Hope Ministries in Brooklyn, N.Y., on stage as she delivered her own take on the need for reform.

“So often we only speak about the 2.2 million people who are currently incarcerated in our prisons and jails in our nation,” she said. “We don’t speak about the 4.7 million people who are incarcerated in our communities through probation and parole.”

She continued: “Why is this number so high? Because people are being sentenced to lengthy terms of post-incarceration and probation, and are then being subjected to arbitrary harassment, which leads to violations, then prison, then parole, then probation, then prison again.

“(It’s) an ongoing cycle that [never] ends. And it ends today.”

The Justice System’s “Revolving Door”

Meek Mill’s case is an example of what Jones called the “revolving door” of the justice system that spins millions of Americans in and out of prison and the courts, as a result of a system of byzantine rules that govern their lives for years after their release from incarceration.

Jay Z

Jay Z. Photo by Vincent Papandrea

Mill was arrested for violating the terms of parole granted a decade earlier after serving eight months on gun and drug charges. His offenses: “popping a wheelie” on a dirt bike (a traffic offense), and his alleged involvement in an airport fight. On November 2017, a Pennsylvania judge sentenced him to two-four years in state prison despite recommendations from his probation officer and the District Attorney’s office that he face no sentence.

Reform advocates say such “technical violations”—like arriving late to a meeting with a parole officer or failing to inform him in advance of travel—regularly send more than two-thirds of those under community supervision back to prison in a system that they charge is especially weighted against people of color.

“We are going to dismantle this revolving door,” pledged Jones. “We are going to put our love against the hate that built this system.”

Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Ohio, Idaho Lead Nation in ‘Correctional Control’: Study

Oklahoma has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, but Ohio and Idaho jump into the lead when probation and parole is included, says a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative.

When it comes to ranking U.S. states on the harshness of their criminal justice systems, incarceration rates only tell half of the story.

More than two million people are in prisons and jails, but 4.5 million people nationwide are on probation and parole, and several of the seemingly “less punitive” states put vast numbers of their residents under these forms of supervision, says the Prison Policy Initiative in an updated report.

The advocacy group calculated each state’s rate of correctional control, which includes incarceration as well as community supervision (probation and parole). The report includes over 100 charts breaking down each state’s correctional population.

The report also includes an interactive chart that ranks states on their use of correctional control.

Among the findings:

–Ohio and Idaho surpass Oklahoma – the global leader in incarceration – in correctional control overall.

–Pennsylvania, which revoked Meek Mill’s probation last year, has the second-highest rate of correctional control in the nation.

–Rhode Island and Minnesota have some of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but are among the most punitive when community supervision is accounted for.

Many of the highest rates of correctional control are in states with high rates of probation. “All too often, probation serves not as a true alternative to incarceration but as the last stop before prison,” says report author Alexi Jones. Jones proposes  reforms and highlights flaws in current probation systems:

Probation imposes time-consuming conditions and fees that people struggle to meet, and which the report says can paradoxically hold them back from turning their lives around.

Violating even the most minor requirement (such as missing a meeting) can result in incarceration.

Probation terms can go on for years after the original offense, meaning even model probationers can serve decades under state scrutiny.

Jones says, “States are putting people on probation when a fine, warning, or community treatment program would suffice,” putting more people at risk of incarceration.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington  Bureau Chief of the Crime Report.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Probation and Parole Called a ‘Monstrous Drain’ on State Resources

Today’s community supervision systems damage the lives of the formerly incarcerated and are a poor use of taxpayers’ dollars, say two policy researchers. A bill currently being considered by the Pennsylvania legislature is a promising effort to change course.

Probation and parole were envisioned to help reduce the prison population and provide some structure and aid to those re-entering society. However, these systems have metastasized into a monstrous drain on state resources, even as they have damaged the lives of the formerly incarcerated.

Jesse Kelly

Jesse Kelly

By reforming the system of supervision, the criminal justice system can accomplish its goals of seeking justice for victims, while rehabilitating those who have become involved in crime.

Probation and parole serve similar but distinct functions. In both cases, the individual is under state supervision in lieu of detention and must adhere to certain conditions. Yet while probation allows a defendant to be released for a certain length of time in lieu of incarceration, parole involves the release of a prisoner before his or her sentence is completed.

Arthur Rizer

Arthur Rizer

Despite their shared goal of keeping people out of prisons, both systems are creating an additional layer of state-sanctioned control and surveillance, as well as exacerbating rather than inhibiting the cycle of crime in a community.

In Pennsylvania alone, more than a quarter of a million people are supervised by the Board of Parole and Probation.

Indeed, a report by the Columbia Justice Lab listed Pennsylvania as having the third-highest supervision rate in the country, noting that “in Pennsylvania, one out of every 34 adults is under community supervision, a rate 36 percent higher than the national average.”

Given the number of people under supervision, those employed as probation and parole officers have massive caseloads, which decreases the effectiveness of supervision.

*In Pennsylvania, each county probation officer actively supervises 113 people at any given time.

Larger caseloads can increase recidivism rates. In fact, the Journal of Crime and Justice studied how larger caseloads can worsen probation outcomes and found that a larger caseload increased the rate of recidivism by roughly 30 percent.

Aside from these overwhelming caseloads, the extended length of probation and parole does not increase public safety. The risk of an inmate reoffending once released on supervision decreases after the first year. The National Institute of Justice has studied this phenomenon and found that of those prisoners who were re-arrested, more than half — 57 percent — were arrested before the conclusion of the first year.

And in New York, those released early from probation were less likely to be arrested for a new felony in their first unsupervised year than those who were on probation for their full term.

For individuals on probation or parole, it can be difficult to comply with the terms for long periods of time, and violating these terms can result in re-arrest. Generally, a few terms are present in any type of supervision — such as securing or maintaining employment and drug abstinence — but special conditions from a judge can be added to individual cases.

And at times, these conditions can give far too much leeway to a judge’s interpretation of what counts as a violation.

For example, in New Jersey, one judge ordered that probationers “not enter disreputable places or associate with disreputable people.” One client under said condition was arrested in a bar for simply being in that bar and having a drink.

In addition to any criminal fines or court costs, a person on supervision must pay a monthly supervision fee. Failure to pay supervision fees may be viewed as a probation or parole violation, which could result in the court revoking an individual’s parole or probation and imposing a predetermined prison sentence on that individual.

For those who have not committed any infraction other than failing to comply with parole or probation conditions, jail time is all too often the result.

Anthony Williams

Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony Williams

As Pennsylvania State Sen Anthony Williams (D) has said, “Approximately one-third of all beds in state prisons are occupied by people who have violated the conditions of their probation. These are often individuals who pose no real danger to society.”

In an effort to reduce this overwhelming statistic, as well as the other issues that create barriers to effective parole and probation, Sen. Williams introduced a Senate Bill 1067 earlier this year.

The bill — now awaiting a hearing in the state Senate Judiciary Committee — aims to limit the length of probation. Additionally, the legislation would limit a judge’s ability to jail probationers for technical violations that do not threaten public safety and would incentivize good behavior by allowing judges to reduce probation time.

To combat supervision officers’ burdensome caseload and decrease the negative impact of excessive supervision on individuals in the justice system, exploring solutions — like those proposed in SB 1067 — can lead to reforms that ultimately produce positive strides toward greater public safety.

Jesse Kelley is a Criminal Justice policy analyst and Arthur Rizer is Director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Policy at R Street.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Boom in For-Profit Diversion Programs Raises Caution Flags

Illinois is a hotbed for the for-profit industry that contracts with authorities to run diversion programs keeping defendants out of jail or prison but under supervision. But, while counties save money through outsourcing, are they being fair to fee-paying defendants?

Illinois is a hotbed for the for-profit industry that contracts with authorities to run diversion programs keeping defendants out of jail or prison but under supervision, ProPublica‘s Illinois Reporting Project reports. The expansion of private, for-profit diversion programs comes as states struggle with the costs of their prison populations and counties grapple with their own financial woes. But it concerns criminologists and others who see in it the intersection of two troubling trends: the outsourcing of crucial operations of the criminal justice system to the private sector, and the growing imposition of fees on mostly low-income defendants.

Diversion programs typically require suspects to pay fees and take courses related to their charges. Prosecutors also may add conditions such as community service or drug or alcohol testing. Fees are divided between the companies and the prosecutor’s office, though the companies typically receive most of the money. These practices raise a host of legal and ethical questions, including whether they create an uneven playing field for criminal defendants, with those able to pay gaining an advantage over those who cannot, and whether they create financial incentives for prosecutors to dispose of cases in ways they might not otherwise. Twenty-four Illinois counties contract with CorrectiveSolutions, or a sister firm, Victim Services Inc., to run fee-based diversion programs, mostly in bad-check cases but sometimes for more serious crimes, including theft, drug and alcohol offenses, and even domestic violence. At least 10 Illinois counties contract with another firm, BounceBack Inc., that offers diversion programs for suspects in bad-check cases. Nationwide, nearly 200 prosecutors’ offices in at least 22 states contract with CorrectiveSolutions or BounceBack, according to a February report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Officials at CorrectiveSolutions say they operate in approximately 100 jurisdictions.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Justice Reform’s New Target: One in 55 Americans on Probation or Parole

The size of the U.S. adult population under community supervision—about 4.5 million people—threatens to surpass mass incarceration as the nation’s biggest criminal justice challenge, according to a nationwide review by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

The growing number of Americans on probation and parole threatens to surpass mass incarceration as the nation’s biggest criminal justice challenge, according to a comprehensive nationwide review.

About 4.5 million Americans—one in every 55 adults—were in some form of community supervision in 2016, the latest year for which comprehensive statistics were available, according to a briefing paper summing up research into the parole and probation system by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

That represents more than twice the number of Americans currently held in jails and prisons, said the review, which was co-sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF).

“The sheer size of the population means that current failure rates [in probation and parole] contribute significantly to the nation’s volume of arrests, drug misuse and incarceration,” the study said.

Although the review found that the population on probation or parole has dropped in concert with crime rates since 2007 in 37 states, the overall national trend has continued to rise. Since 1980 the number of American adults under supervision has increased by 239 percent.

The briefing paper, with 11 separate charts documenting the community supervision landscape in the U.S., was released last month together with an announcement by the LJAF that it would “make major investments” supporting research into alternatives to the current community supervision system without endangering public safety.

The ratio of those in community supervision varies widely from state to state, from as low as one in 105 adults in Virginia to as high as one in 18 adults in Georgia, one of the charts shows.

The challenge of community supervision has been “largely overlooked” in the movement for justice reform, researchers said.

“Probation and parole failures contribute to exceptionally high incarceration populations, increased taxpayer burdens, and decreased public safety,” said Kelli Rhee, president and CEO of LJAF, in a separate statement accompanying the review.

“If we can reform these systems so they better position people for success—providing access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment, for example—we will make an enormous impact on the justice system and individual lives.”

The review noted that, in contrast to the prison population, most of those on community supervision had been sentenced for nonviolent crimes: about eight in every 10 probationers, and two-thirds of parolees.

“If individuals under supervision for drug crimes and those for property crimes each made up a city, they would make among the 10 largest cities in the U.S.,” according to one of the charts released in the study.

Although about half of those on probation and parole successfully complete their terms, failure for the remainder often means a return to prison, and a significant number find themselves again behind bars as a result of “technical violations” of their post-release terms, rather than for new crimes, the review noted.

Researchers also found that African Americans disproportionally comprise 30 percent of those on community supervision (they represent 13 percent of the U.S. adult population) and that 3.5 times as many men as women were on supervision—though the number of women on probation or parole has doubled to more than one million since 1990.

A key section of the study focused on states whose emphasis on treatment and post-release counseling, or on reducing sanctions for violations for probationers and parolees, had reduced supervised populations.

For example, after Louisiana established a 90-day cap on jail or prison terms for first-time technical violations, the length of incarcerations dropped by 281 days and new-crime revocations fell 22 percent.

But it noted that “many people under supervision who could benefit from treatment do not receive it because of strained budgets, limited options in the community or other factors.”

“Research has shown that it is possible to have less crime and less correctional control,” said Jake Horowitz, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

“Community supervision agencies across the country may need a nudge, but they are well positioned to implement reforms that will safely reduce incarceration and increase the number of people who are successful on supervision.”

The charts and full report can be downloaded here.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Five Ex-NYC Commissioners Call for End to Pot Testing of Probationers

Marijuana testing for individuals on probation and parole serves “little public safety purpose” and should be stopped—even in states where pot has still not been legalized, five former New York City probation commissioners said Tuesday in testimony to the New York State Assembly.

Marijuana testing for individuals on probation and parole serves “little public safety purpose” and should be stopped even in states where pot has still not been legalized, five former New York City probation commissioners said Tuesday.

The five former commissioners—Martin F. Horn, Michael Jacobson, James Payne, Raul Russi and Vincent N. Schiraldi—said research showed that revocations of parole as a result of failed marijuana tests were a major driver of high incarceration rates and disproportionately affected African-American and Hispanic individuals.

“What we want is that people under supervision lead law-abiding lives and meet their obligations as citizens,” the ex-commissioners said in a written statement presented to the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committees on Codes, Health, Governmental Operations, and Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

“As long as they do, we should be no more concerned about them using marijuana than we are of them having a glass of wine.”

Vincent Schiraldi

Former NYC Probation Chief Vincent Schiraldi

The statement, read by Schiraldi, called specifically for New York legislators to “codify” the ban on marijuana testing as New York prepares to draft a bill to legalize all forms of marijuana use, including recreational.

If the bill passes, New York would be the 10th state—and the second most populous state after California—to legalize recreational pot.

Marijuana for medical use is already legal in New York State.

The commissioners said the possibility of full marijuana legalization in New York only makes it more imperative to end a practice that has effectively undermined the state’s success in reducing prison populations.

Despite the closure of 13 New York prisons and a 39 per cent reduction in the inmate population between 1999 and 2017, prison admissions for parole violations increased by 21 percent between 2015 and 2016 alone, the commissioners said.

They noted that the vast majority of those sent back to prison were found guilty of technical violations, and in many cases, those violations were related to either failures in drug tests or absconding from probation and parole because of fear they would fail a drug test.

“Anecdotally, we know that our clients would skip appointments when they knew they couldn’t pass a pot test,” the statement said. “Thus fear of testing inhibits our staff’s ability to provide support to people under supervision for housing, employment, family support, medical care, or mental health care without adding public safety value.”

Below is an edited version of the written statement, presented by Vincent Schiraldi.

Good morning:

Today we hope to provide evidence about how those on probation and parole should be treated if marijuana is taxed, regulated and legally consumed. Our professional lives have helped us reach the conclusion that testing for marijuana as a blanket condition of supervision serves little public safety purpose, even absent legalization. If marijuana consumption ceases to be a criminal act, we urge you to codify protections for those under supervision to prevent needless incarceration for actions that would be legal for anyone else.

We begin with a quote from New York Federal Judge Jack Weinstein from July. Rather than revoking community supervision for marijuana use for an otherwise compliant defendant, Judge Weinstein decided to end his supervision, explaining that he would no longer revoke people for marijuana consumption, writing:

Like many federal trial judges, I have been terminating supervision for “violations” by individuals with long-term marijuana habits who are otherwise rehabilitated. No useful purpose is served through the continuation of supervised release for many defendants whose only illegal conduct is following the now largely socially acceptable habit of marijuana use.

We argue that the same reasoning Judge Weinstein used in Brooklyn Federal Court should apply to those on probation and parole in New York.

The Growth in Scope and Burden of Community Supervision

First, [here is some] background on the growth of probation and parole in the United States, and on the burden that conditions of community supervision can pose to those required to abide by them.

Both probation and parole were created in the 1800s as an up-front diversion from incarceration in the case of probation, or as a back-end reward for good behavior in the case of parole. Both have since mushroomed right alongside prisons and jails, suggesting that they have become add-ons, rather than alternatives to, incarceration.

There are over four and a half million adults under supervision in America—more than double the number incarcerated. This is more than a three-fold expansion since 1980 and is more people than live in half of all U.S. states.

Former NYC Probation Commissioner Martin Horn

The nature of community corrections has changed, as well. Like the entire criminal justice system, probation and parole have become more focused on punishment, deterrence, and surveillance, than rehabilitation. The number of rules that individuals under community supervision must abide by have ballooned.

Recent reviews of supervision conditions have found that most jurisdictions have around 15 “standard” conditions, with the possibility of additional “special” conditions; thus creating a rule structure that can be nearly impossible to abide by, 100 percent of the time.

This has led the leading probation and parole organizations and 35 leading probation officials to sign on to a Statement on the Future of Community Corrections stating “community corrections has become a significant contributor to mass incarceration… [and] we recommend that the number of people on probation and parole supervision in America be significantly reduced.”

Thus, community supervision has become not only a deprivation of liberty in its own right, but also a substantial contributor to mass incarceration. Setting conditions, which in many cases cannot be met, contributes to a revolving door in which individuals who cannot meet those obligations cycle back and forth between community supervision and incarceration without improving public safety.

Trends of Mass Incarceration and Mass Supervision in New York State

Turning to New York, over the past two decades, our state has been a leader in reducing incarceration and closing prisons, driven by a reduction in prison commitments from New York City. There was a 31 percent reduction in the number of people in New York’s prisons between 1999 and 2017, allowing us to close 13 prisons and save over $160 million annually.

However, while the prison and community supervision populations have been shrinking, the number of people incarcerated on parole violations in state prisons and in city and county jails has been growing. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, our prison admissions for parole violations increased by 21 percent .

Michael Jacobson

Former NYC Probation Commissioner Michael Jacobson. photo by dan@danzphoto.net

In fact, for every ten people who successfully completed their parole in New York in 2016, nine ended parole by being incarcerated, ranking us seventh nationally in parole failure. That year, nearly half of all New York parole exits were to incarceration, compared to only 27 percent nationally.

New Yorkers released on parole are five times more likely to return to incarceration not for new convictions, but for violating parole. Within three years of their release, more than half of those released from our state’s prisons in 2012 had been reincarcerated. Of those, an overwhelming 84 percent were reincarcerated for a technical violation, while only 16 percent had returned because of a new crime.

This also impacts the city’s jail. State and city leaders generally agree that Rikers Island should be closed, and all other pretrial and sentenced populations have declined by double-digits at Rikers over the past four years. During that time, only one population in the jail has increased, also by double digits: people held for state parole violations.

These sanctions fall more heavily on African-Americans than whites. African-Americans on parole are more than 12 times as likely to be detained for a parole violation than a white person on parole in New York City.

The Disconnect between Marijuana, Testing, Violations and Public Safety

So, probation and parole have become much larger than originally intended, with burdensome conditions that serve as tripwires to incarceration rather than as alternatives. In New York, parole revocations are still exerting upward pressure on incarceration especially for people of color.

 Now, let’s look specifically at revocations for marijuana use.

In short, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that marijuana use threatens public safety. As NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill wrote in a New York Daily News op ed recently “[t]he NYPD sees zero value in arresting people for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no direct impact on public safety.”

Likewise, there is no public safety justification for routine testing for marijuana as a condition of probation or parole. What research does exist suggests that drug testing as a component of community supervision increases the likelihood of incarceration for violations, but does not reduce criminal behavior.

However, there is an established link between drug testing and absconding from probation or parole. This is confirmed by our experience as Commissioners – anecdotally, we know that our clients would skip appointments when they knew they couldn’t pass a pot test. Thus, fear of testing inhibits our staff’s ability to provide support to people under supervision for housing, employment, family support, medical care, or mental health care without adding public safety value.

Furthermore, as the New York State Health Department’s report on marijuana legalization indicates, studies of some states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana use have seen reductions in both opioid deaths and opioid prescribing. Heroin use ameliorates some of the same pain as marijuana, but also disappears from the bloodstream more quickly.

Testing for marijuana thus creates a perverse incentive – the riskier drug, heroin, is the one less likely to be detected. Once marijuana use is legal, we should make sure that those under community supervision don’t feel compelled to make this risky gamble.

Apart from these pragmatic reasons to avoid testing for a legalized substance, there are also legitimate fairness and racial justice concerns at hand. African Americans and Latinos are arrested for marijuana at eight and five times the rate of white people in New York City despite equal marijuana usage rates.

Since African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use, and twelve times more likely to be detained for a parole violation, their chances of a violation for marijuana are much greater than for a white person.

As the (New York City) Health Department’s report stated, “Subject matter experts noted one of the biggest drivers of racial disparities in criminalization and incarceration rates is marijuana, and the best way to address it is to legalize marijuana.”


For all of these reasons, we recommend that, once marijuana is taxed, regulated and legally consumed, prohibition of marijuana use should not be imposed as a condition of probation or parole except in rare and specific circumstances. It follows then that people on probation and parole shouldn’t be routinely tested for it. We recommend that you codify these protections, but we also encourage state and local parole and probation to implement them now, prior to legalization.

In limited cases, we suggest that prohibition of marijuana use might be added as a special condition. However, in the interest of due process and to limit potential abuse, that condition should only be added by a judge, if an adversarial hearing finds that marijuana was connected to an individual’s criminal behavior, and in which the defendant has had a right to be heard.

Raul Russi

Former NYC Probation Commissioner Raul Russi

If a supervising officer suspects that a client’s marijuana use is hurting their ability to meet the other conditions of supervision, we suggest that, with supervisor approval, a single test for marijuana could be conducted. Data on testing for marijuana use, whether it be by supervisor approval or court order, should be reported to the Department of Criminal Justice Services so it can be monitored by this body and state officials.

In either of these special circumstances, we feel strongly that the outcome of testing for marijuana should never be used as the basis to revoke a person’s probation or parole. Instead, a positive test can be used for intervention, such as targeted treatment to aid successful completion. If these interventions fail, then only other problematic behavior, not marijuana use, should be the basis for revocation.

What we want is that people under supervision lead law abiding lives and meet their obligations as citizens. As long as they do, we should be no more concerned about them using marijuana than we are of them having a glass of wine. This is similar to the practice in Oregon and Washington, where marijuana is legally consumed.

This has been done successfully in New York City.

When I was Probation Commissioner, we administratively stopped testing for marijuana. Revocations fell by 45 percent, our relationships between staff and clients improved, and only 4 percent of our clients were re-convicted for a felony in the year following their completion of probation.

If that’s already possible, why not leave it to the discretion of community corrections administrators?

Well, (former) Commissioner Horn was my immediate predecessor, and had also ceased testing for marijuana, experiencing the biggest drop in probationer arrests in the state. Yet, in just the few months that separated us, testing for marijuana crept back into the daily practice of the department. Protections of this sort need to be codified so they’re not left to the vicissitudes of changing bureaucracies.

There is little evidence that blanket policies of testing for marijuana serve any public safety purpose. [These policies] can actually work against a department’s efforts to rehabilitate its clients, and threaten to exacerbate already-stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

As Judge Weinstein wrote, “Many people from all walks of life now use marijuana without fear of adverse legal consequences…[But the criminal-justice system] can trap some defendants, particularly substance abusers, in a cycle where they oscillate between supervised release and prison.”

We urge you to codify protections against routine testing for marijuana and to prohibit revocations to incarceration for marijuana use. These protections do not endanger public safety, but do serve the liberty and rehabilitative interests of the individuals on probation and parole. Revocations for marijuana use made little sense before, and will make no sense once marijuana use is legal for the adult population.

The full statement, with all citations, is available here.

The five ex-commissioners who signed the Oct. 16 statement, and their current positions, are:

  •  Martin F. Horn, Distinguished Lecturer in Corrections at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York; former Commissioner the New York City Departments of Correction and Probation; former executive director of the New York State Division of Parole; and former Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections.
  • Michael Jacobson, Director, Institute for State and Local Government, City University of New York (CUNY), Professor, Sociology Department CUNY Graduate Center; and former Commissioner of New York City Departments of Correction and Probation.
  • James Payne, criminal/juvenile justice consultant; former Commissioner of New York City Probation; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney; and former Chief of the Juvenile Division of New York City Corporation Counsel.
  • Raul Russi, Chief Executive Officer, Acacia Network; former Commissioner of New York City Probation; former chairman of the New State Parole Board; and former Chief Executive Officer of the New York State Division of Parole.
  • Vincent N. Schiraldi, Co-Director, Columbia University Justice Lab; Senior Research Scientist, Columbia School of Social Work; former Commissioner, New York City Department of Probation; former Senior Advisor, New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice; former Director, Washington, DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. 

Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org