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Hochul releases 191 prison inmates as part of parole reform

Governor Hochul's office

Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered the immediate release of 191 state prison inmates Friday. Under terms of a new parole reform law signed by Hochul, they are no longer required to be incarcerated for committing technical parole violations. The governor also is taking steps to improve what she called “hell on earth” conditions at New York City’s notorious Riker’s Island jail.

Hochul said the new law — the Less is More parole reform legislation — ends the practice of sending people who have already served their sentences back to prison for what’s known as a technical parole violation. These include: missing an imposed curfew, failing a drug test, or showing up late for a parole appointment.

She said New York state incarcerates more people for parole violations that any other state in the nation.

“That is a point of shame for us, and it needs to be fixed,” Hochul said. “And it’s going to be fixed today.”

At the bill signing ceremony, Hochul was joined by legislative leaders, several district attorneys and the state’s recently appointed lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who was a prime sponsor of the bill during his time as a State Senator. Benjamin said Black and Latinx New Yorkers are disproportionality sent back to prison for parole violations, compared to whites. He says sometimes the sentence imposed as punishment for the technical parole violation is longer than the original length of their parole.

“You say to yourself, ‘was this done particularity to harm poor Black and brown communities, or was this done to keep us safe?’” Benjamin said. “It is hard to imagine it was done to keep us safe.”

Under the terms of the legislation, the changes don’t take effect until March 2022 but Hochul used her executive powers to immediately rescind the prison sentences for the 191 inmates.

The governor also took steps to relieve severe overcrowding at Riker’s Island. On a recent tour of the prison, state and local lawmakers say they witnessed unsafe and unsanitary conditions including rotting food, feces, and dead cockroaches.

Hochul said she’s working with the city of New York to transfer 40 prisoners per day from Riker’s Island to other state-run facilities with cleaner and safer conditions.

“People will be leaving Riker’s, a volatile tinderbox, and be allowed to go to another state facility,” the governor said.

Hochul recounted how, as a teenager in 1971, she followed the deadly Attica prison uprisings, and skipped school to attend the resulting trials as a volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union. She said she does not want to see anything like that repeated at Riker’s.

“The question is, do we step back and let a possible Attica be erupting under our watch?” Hochul asked.

New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio did not attend the announcement. Hochul’s predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal, famously feuded with the New York City Mayor. Hochul warned that no one should read anything into the mayor’s absence, and she said she won’t cast aspersions on the mayor’s handling of Riker’s so far. She said she wants the state to support the city’s efforts to try to improve conditions at the jail.

The parole reform measure has long been championed by progressive groups, who praised the governor’s actions.

The head of the state’s Republican Party, Nick Langworthy, condemned the new law, and accused Hochul of catering to the “radical left.” He said the measure will make “every single New Yorker less safe.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.