ALBANY — Lawmakers were set to end legislative session late Thursday after passing a handful of criminal justice measures while killing several others that downstate progressives and advocates this week rallied for the hardest.
The Senate and Assembly each passed the Less is More Act on Thursday to restrict incarcerating New Yorkers for technical and non-criminal parole violations and require hearings to happen more quickly.
The bill will take effect March 1, 2022.
“Once people are on parole, they should not be reincarcerated for technical violations,” said Correction Committee Chair Assemblymember David Weprin, D-Queens. “This is a fault in our parole system for many, many years.”
Technical parole violations, as defined in state Penal law, include any violation of a condition of parole outside a felony or misdemeanor offense.
About 35,000 New Yorkers are on active parole supervision.
Senators passed Less Is More with a vote of 39-24. It cleared the Assembly with a tally of 89-60.
The vast majority of Republicans rejected loosening the rules on reincarcerating parolees.
“It’s a right and laudable cause to want to reintegrate people into society,” Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, said on the floor Thursday. “I think it’s great you have some hope for some individuals, and hopefully they can [reintegrate] into society.”
About 24,270 incarcerated New Yorkers are in prison for violent felony offenses, while 8,000 are imprisoned for non-violent felony offenses, the assemblyman said, citing statistics he received from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
“I wanted to share that for the good of the body,” Walczyk added, before voting against the measure.
It was sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk for his signature.
The Less Is More Act was the only one of three main pieces of parole reform legislation to pass this session after months of discussion and debate.
Dozens of advocates rallied outside the Capitol for parole reform each day this week, demanding lawmakers pass the sweeping reforms supported by many progressive Democrats. The 2021-22 legislative session marked the Democrats’ first with a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers.
Fair & Timely Parole, which would require the state Parole Board to evaluate incarcerated people for release based on current merit and behavior instead of their past crimes, was moved out of committee last week and expected to be passed this week. Legislative leaders did not bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
Elder Parole, which would make inmates over 55 years old who served 15 or more consecutive years automatically considered for parole, died in committee in both chambers this session.
“We’re here to stay,” said TeAna Taylor, whose father is incarcerated in a New York prison. “We are going to mourn the loss of more loved ones because these bills are not passed ... but we’re never going to give up.”
Taylor, a member of People’s Campaign for Parole Justice, was one of several people to speak outside the Capitol on Thursday.
Activists slept in tents in West Capitol Park on Tuesday and Wednesday, surrounded by dozens of signs made to look like tombstones with the names of incarcerated New Yorkers who died behind bars. They showed a documentary Wednesday night about the carceral system on an inflatable projection screen.
“Until the sun gives out, we will continue this fight,” said Anthony Dixon, 59, who was incarcerated in state prisons for 32 years. “We’ve never been this close.”
Dixon, originally from Queens, is the director of community engagement with the Parole Preparation Project. He was released from prison nearly five years ago after serving in eight state prison facilities from the North Country down to Fishkill in the Hudson Valley.
An incarcerated person lives to age 58, on average. The state’s Parole Board denies about 60% of applicants, Dixon said, adding the majority of incarcerated and rejected people are Black, Hispanic or Latino.
“[Gov. Cuomo] is Italian,” Dixon continued. “If one out of every four Italian-Americans ended up inside prison, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. ...We are believing punishment is the answer to everything that goes wrong in our community, and the answer is to lock them up and throw away the key. If they are producing a 60% denial rate, something is wrong with the system. If you invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in individuals for 20, 30, 40 years, but you never give them the opportunity [for release], the investment was for nothing.”
Lawmakers compromised to pass other criminal justice reforms Thursday, including bills that will prohibit placing handcuffs, shackles or other restraints on children ages 21 and under in family court and raising the floor of the minimum age of juvenile delinquency jurisdiction to 12 years old, up from age 7, requiring police to not detain a person in custody for more than 24 hours and replacing the word “inmates” with “incarcerated individuals” or similar variation.
The Clean Slate bill was also expected to pass, but ultimately did not make the floor for a vote Thursday night after technical drafting error Wednesday. The error required Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a waiver for the requirement for the bill to age three days before legislators could vote to pass it.
Clean Slate would automatically seal about 2.3 million New Yorkers’ criminal records after three years of the start of a sentence for a misdemeanor offense and seven years for a felony.
The bill was originally set to seal and expunge criminal records after one year for misdemeanors and three years for certain felonies.
Assemblymembers appeared poised to reconvene at an undetermined time Friday to finish voting and the Senate will likely reconvene to take up confirmation votes for Cuomo’s MTA nominations later in the month.
The governor remained largely absent from end-of-session policy pushes as he toured the state promoting COVID vaccination sites and economic recovery. Even amidst multiple ongoing state and federal investigations, Cuomo continued to flex his political muscle this week, hammering out an 11th-hour deal Thursday with legislative leaders to restructure the leadership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Lawmakers confirmed several of Cuomo’s judicial and other nominations to state agencies this week.
The Assembly’s impeachment inquiry into the sexual harassment allegations against the governor and other scandals surrounding his administration will continue and potentially ramp up during the summer.
“As our scheduled session concludes tonight, we are proud of the historic progress we made this year,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement after the Senate concluded late Thursday night. “If ongoing discussions on any outstanding issues require action, we stand ready to come back when and if necessary.”
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.