On March 1st, 2022, the Less Is More Act – a historic, transformative piece of criminal justice reform legislation that addresses New York State’s outmoded and senselessly punitive parole practices – was supposed to go into effect.
Only days later, the Act’s central intent – to ensure that New Yorkers are not needlessly imprisoned over technical violations by guaranteeing them a hearing within 24 hours of arrest on a parole warrant – is being challenged by the recalcitrant indifference of New York’s carceral machinery.
The Less is More Act requires the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to ensure that every New Yorker held at Rikers Island on a parole warrant receives a hearing within 24 hours to determine whether or not they should be released. While DOCCS is only holding these hearings for some of these new cases, corrections officials have erroneously claimed that the new law does not require hearings to be held for people detained before the parole changes went into effect – thus depriving eligible incarcerated citizens an opportunity for release and nullifying the Legislature’s goal of ending mandatory detention.
This brazen refusal to execute the will of the state Legislature represents a violation of the rights of dozens of incarcerated New Yorkers currently being held at Rikers Island for minor parole violations – all of whom are eligible for an expedited hearing under the new law. In picking and choosing which of the law’s provisions they implement, DOCCS is flagrantly violating the spirit and explicit intention of the Less Is More Act by refusing to hold release hearings for everyone in its custody.
Indications that DOCCS might do something other than faithfully and fully implement the provisions of the new law have been mounting since Governor Kathy Hochul signed it last September. Less Is More requires that DOCCS carry out a major overhaul of its operating procedures throughout cities and correction facilities across the state. These requirements are unambiguous and yet, DOCCS has consistently refused to effectively plan for the implementation of the new law. This willful negligence has a real impact on real families and real communities.
Another major provision established by Less is More – that parole violation hearings must now occur in courthouses, as opposed to behind closed doors at Rikers Island – also appears to be the casualty of a faulty, bad-faith effort. In early February, DOCCS casually asserted that Department officials will continue holding parole revocation hearings inside jails after March 1 for people who are detained – no matter what the law says. This is especially egregious because the purpose of this measure is to provide public and community awareness as well as visibility into the workings of the parole process; DOCCS is refusing to comply with providing this necessary transparency.
Notably, the Governor’s response has been ineffective at forcing DOCCS to change their position and provide hearings in compliance with the law.
In response to DOCCS’ striking lack of commitment to following the law and implementing the reforms set out by Less Is More, The Legal Aid Society filed a mass writ of habeas corpus on March 2nd – a day after the law went into effect – seeking the immediate release of the 91 incarcerated people currently being denied hearings in violation of their rights on Rikers Island. If DOCCS is unwilling to afford New Yorkers the due process they are guaranteed under the law, then litigation is a necessary measure to protect them from unjustified incarceration.
But without tenacious, vocal support from those who fought so hard for these crucial reforms, there is no assurance that the spirit of Less Is More’s transformative policies will ultimately be mirrored in reality. Governor Hochul must bring to heel obstinate DOCCS officials who continue to flout the will of the people by fully implementing Less is More and ensure that New York’s destructive mandatory detention practices become a relic of the past. Free the Rikers 91!
Lorraine Mc Evilley is the Director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at The Legal Aid Society. Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest represents the 57th Assembly District, which consists of the neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and parts of Bed Stuy, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights.