NYSBA’s Unique Role in Shaping State Law

By Hank Greenberg

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For more than 144 years, the New York State Bar Association has shaped the development of the law, protected the citizenry’s rights, and contributed to the history of our state. Indeed, from its inception, NYSBA has played a quasi-public role: Doing the public good by serving as a resource for all three branches of government.

Our connection to the State Capitol is fundamental, as NYSBA was incorporated by an act of the Legislature in 1877. The decision to establish NYSBA occurred the year before in the Assembly chamber of the old State Capitol in Albany. For years NYSBA was headquartered on the first floor of the new Capitol. Then, as now, we served as a “voluntary and public association, for the benefit of the people of the state, and of the bench and bar of the state.”

Many groups advocate for lawmakers to act on proposals that reflect their beliefs and priorities. But NYSBA is different. No special pleader, we provide lawmakers with dispassionate analysis and recommendations that reflect the diverse perspectives of our membership and consider all sides of a given question.

The work of NYSBA’s Task Force on the Parole System exemplifies our unique role.

New York reincarcerates more people on technical violations of parole – such as missing a curfew, changing one’s residence without approval or failing to attend a mandated program – than all but one other state. Nearly 40% of persons sent to state prison in New York each year are incarcerated not for a new criminal conviction, but for a technical parole violation.

New York’s parole failure rate is nearly twice the national average. These reincarcerations add an estimated $359 million annually to state prison costs and some $300 million to local jurisdictions’ costs, yet do little to enhance public safety or to reduce recidivism. There are also huge human costs connected with the reincarceration of parolees for technical violations.

Periods of reincarceration can result in the loss of jobs and housing and interrupt schooling or community-based treatment. That can derail any progress parolees have made since their release and place them on a path to return behind bars.

New York requires anyone arrested on technical parole violations to be held without bail. The State Board of Parole reported in 2015 that these individuals were held for an average of 61 days before a final violation hearing. A 2018 Columbia University study found that in New York City alone, one-third of those held had parole violation warrants lifted and were released after an average of 53 days in local jail, while two-thirds were moved to state prison after an average of 60 days.

It is time to fix our broken parole system. There is no evidence that reincarceration on technical violations leads to positive outcomes. Despite the politics of the past, there is now widespread agreement that reform is sorely needed.

In June of this year, NYSBA empaneled an ideologically diverse group of experts – including prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, victim rights advocates, and academics – to serve on a Task Force on the Parole System. The Task Force’s mission was to look at how parole functions in New York and make recommendations for changes that could be implemented quickly and would have an immediate impact.

The Task Force wanted to ensure its work would be useful for the Governor and Legislature during the coming 2020 legislative session. To that end, under the leadership of past NYSBA President Seymour James and William T. Russell, Jr., the Task Force worked diligently to complete its first report in time for consideration by NYSBA’s policymaking body, the House of Delegates, on November 3, 2019.

The Task Force’s report represents a careful and balanced analysis on an issue that avoids politicization. Its recommendations include:

• Eliminating mandatory pre-adjudication detention of a parolee for a non-criminal alleged technical parole violation, such as missing a meeting with a parole officer;

• Establishing a system of “earned good time credits” to incentivize good behavior while on parole, which would reduce a parolee’s time under supervision; and

• Increasing the number of parole commissioners from 19 to 30, to alleviate the currently excessive case-to-commissioner ratio.

The Task Force’s report – which can be viewed at  – was unanimously approved by the House of Delegates and immediately shared with policymakers at the Capitol. The need for reform is indisputable; the human toll taken by the status quo indefensible.

Moreover, the State faces enormous fiscal challenges in the coming year. The savings associated with parole reform are significant. That, hopefully, will increase the chances the Task Force’s proposed reforms will soon become law.

The legal profession can only survive and flourish if its energies and services are responsive to public needs. Helping to shape the law is part of NYSBA’s mission. Our commitment to fulfill that mission is every bit as strong as it was when NYSBA held its first meeting 144 years ago in the Assembly chamber.

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