Represent NYC: Less Is More Bill & Parole Issues

September 22, 2019

Out in the midwest, the state of Illinois re-incarcerates more people on parole for “technical violations” than any state in the country, but New York falls in second. A person on parole cannot miss an appointment with their parole officer or even be late for curfew without being locked back into a cell. And, in 2016, sixty five percent of those re-incarcerated had supervision to blame.

Advocates across the nation are coming together to speak for those living behind bars for a simple violation. The Less Is More bill was introduced at the beginning of this year in hopes to fix the correctional system.

Represent NYC guest-host, New York State Senator Brian A. Benjamin, is joined by Tara Cobbins and Cedric Fulton of the Katal Center, and Tyler Nims, Executive Director of A More Just NYC to discuss parole issues and the Less Is More bill.

Airs September 22nd, 2019.


DISCLAIMER:  Please be advised that this transcription was done from an audio recording by an out of house service; therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted.  If there is an issue please contact MNN

Brian Benjamin: Hello and welcome to this edition of Represent NYC on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. I'm Brian Benjamin, and I represent Harlem, East Harlem and the Upper West Side in the New York State Senate.

Brian Benjamin: Since my democratic colleagues and I have taken control of the Senate at the beginning of 2019, we have achieved a great deal on voting rights, human rights, women's rights, housing justice, and most importantly, on criminal justice reform. Reforming our broken criminal justice system was one of the things that drove me to run for the state Senate, and so I'm happy to be joined today by three individuals who can speak about an important campaign in the fight to reform our criminal justice system, which is the Less Is More campaign.

Brian Benjamin: Less Is More is a campaign to reform the parole system in New York state. I'm joined by Cedric Fulton, a Katal Center community organizer, Tara Cobbins, a Katal member impacted by parole, and Tyler Nims, Executive Director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. Thank you all for being here.

Brian Benjamin: Let me start off by talking just for a few minutes about what we did accomplished in 2019. In 2019, we accomplished a couple of things. Number one, we passed speedy trial reform. We passed bail reform, and we passed discovery reform, which really sort of changed the way people experienced the criminal justice system. We wanted to stop the ability to have poverty be a big part of criminalization, and we did some really good things on that front.

Brian Benjamin: We also passed a bill at the end of session which would allow for individuals who have been incarcerated for under two ounces of marijuana, who are incarcerated for that, A, to have their records expunged and also, going forward, it will be decriminalized. Instead of being incarcerated for having marijuana, you would actually have... It will be a fine. We have more to do legalizing marijuana, something we're looking at next year, but we've done some things.

Brian Benjamin: One of the things that I'm so disappointed that we weren't able to do is deal with the issue of parole reform, particularly as it relates to Less Is More. We, right now, know that the fastest-growing population in Rikers Island is people who are going for technical parole violations, not people who actually have committed a crime, but because they are out on parole and they might've missed curfew or have dirty urine, et cetera, are being reincarcerated at incredible rates.

Brian Benjamin: Tyler, I wanted to start with you. Can you give us a little sense of the context for this conversation, what's going on in the state and how you see us moving forward?

Tyler Nims: People are increasingly realizing America's problem with mass incarceration. We've got more people in jails and prisons in this country at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world, than places like Vladimir Putin's Russia, than Iran, than China.

Tyler Nims: What people have less of a sense of is that behind this system of mass incarceration is a system of mass supervision, so a tremendous and growing number of people on probation and parole. That's one of the hidden drivers of mass incarceration. To put that in context with some numbers, today on Rikers Island, some of the most notorious and inhumane jails in the country, there are 650 people who were accused not of a new crime, as you said, but of violating the conditions of their parole, so things like missing curfew, missing appointments with a parole officer, failing a drug test, things of that nature.

Tyler Nims: We spend an incredible amount of money on that each year, almost $200 million a year just on those people. It's not just a problem that's confined to New York City. It's a problem in every county across the state. It's a problem in our state prisons. We've got to do something different. The system is broken. It's not helping people succeed. The Less Is More Act is an important way to get that done.

Tyler Nims: Something I want to emphasize is that people who are impacted by the criminal justice system, the advocates are behind this bill, but so too are the counties because they have to spend so much money incarcerating people, so are people who are district attorneys, and sheriffs, and former correction officers, and judges because they understand that the system is not keeping people safe. It's harming people.

Brian Benjamin: Tara, I actually heard a case where someone was actually violated because they were getting married to somebody who had a record. I mean and we hear all these stories, people who were getting violated because they're enter... even talking to family members who were previously incarcerated, just stuff that doesn't really make a lot of sense that has nothing to do with public safety. You have been impacted by the system. Can you talk a little bit about your story and anything you want to share with us about how difficult it is to navigate this system?

Tara Cobbins: It has had a great impact on me. My anxiety is bad. I have issues with sleeping. I currently take meds for that. Not only that, on a day-to-day basis, I'm a grandmother and a mother. On my ankle, I've had an ankle monitor for two years now, and the ankle monitor tells where I go.

Brian Benjamin: When you got out on parole, you was given that... You've been out for two years?

Tara Cobbins: No, I was out. I was given this monitor. I'm originally from Hudson. I was given this monitor when I came home. I walked into my family with another family. Whatever they were going through had nothing to do with me, but it still impacted me because I ended up with the ankle monitor because I was told I knew more than what I was saying. I had just come home. How can I know anything? You know what I mean? It happened the day before I came home.

Tara Cobbins: Since 2017, I've had this ankle monitor on my ankle. I have an 8:00 curfew in which the only time they've been letting me be out past my curfew is if I'm doing something with Katal. Otherwise, my mom, which is 66 years old, has to come to Albany and take my 12-year-old son out. If there's a game that's lasting to 9:00, I can go, but I have to take him from the game early. My grandchildren have Disney, different things for Disneys. I can go, but I have to leave early because of parole and the stipulations that have been put on me.

Tara Cobbins: I haven't had a new charge since I returned home. It isn't like I'm coming home getting rearrested for new charges. I don't have...

Brian Benjamin: When did you come home?

Tara Cobbins: I came home again. Well, last year I was wrongly incarcerated.

Brian Benjamin: Oh, I see. We got a bill for that, but we won't talk about that today.

Tara Cobbins: Okay. Actually my actual come home was in 2015. Then they reincarcerated me for a technical violation, and I came home a year later. When I came home, I ended up with the ankle monitor because some things that another family and my family was going through.

Tara Cobbins: Then, last year, I was incarcerated because something they said my son did. My son is currently incarcerated, but I was exonerated from any and all charges. At that time, I had the ankle monitor on too, so you can't put me in two different places. I know where is was, at home, but I sat from May until October the third. I was exonerated from the charges on my birthday last year, but I still had to sit because parole said that the charge was too severe to let me just... to revoke and restore me.

Brian Benjamin: Understand. Where do you work?

Tara Cobbins: I'm currently not working. I was working. Parole actually took me out of the work because they wanted me to engage in programs in which that... I'm not a alcoholic, so I shouldn't have to go to that Alcoholic Anonymous, and just I go to anxiety group and which I do need. She took me out of work just to go to groups that she felt as though that I needed, but I have a family to support.

Brian Benjamin: Cedric, listening to Tara's story, talk a little bit about the Less Is More campaign, what Katal is doing on this, obviously working closely with my office and Senate member Walter Mosley's office and other offices to try to get people on board. Talk a little bit about the campaign and how we can make sure that Tara's situation is not exacerbated in the future.

Cedric Fulton: I think it's all about public education. I think it's educating as many people as possible, talking to as many people as possible, listening to their issues and their own unique situations with parole and community supervision, and then bringing that to the forefront.

Cedric Fulton: When you go into places and we start spewing off these four tenets of the Less Is More bill, we start talking about restricting incarceration for certain technical violations. Folks want to know what that is, so what's the public education around that? What does due process mean, and how does that look different from what it is now? What does it mean when they talking about speedy revocation hearings and things like that? It's all about doing those, the public education, and then just drilling down the numbers and allowing folks like Tara to tell their story, setting that table, laying the platform and the groundwork where they can come in and they can share their stories.

Cedric Fulton: These are horror stories. Again, I heard you mention it in a previous conversation where people, they take for granted the everyday struggle, the everyday life. This is the things that she's talking about, and it's minimized, but it's a grand thing in her life.

Brian Benjamin: Right. You both came from Albany for this, so thank you.

Cedric Fulton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian Benjamin: Why are you in Albany? What's the reason for you being in Albany as opposed to being in New York City? What are you trying to accomplish with the campaign upstate?

Cedric Fulton: I think it's very critical, first of all, to be very transparent. I'm from the upstate area from the capital.

Brian Benjamin: Oh, okay. Well, that makes sense.

Cedric Fulton: I'm from Hudson along with Tara. I'm from Hudson also, which is only about 30 minutes from Albany, so being very familiar with Albany. We know it's very important also to do the work in Albany. This is a statewide issue. This is not a New York City issue. This is a statewide issue, and policies and laws are changed in Albany, so I think it's very critical to be there, to have a presence there, but not only just be there and educate folks there. Like I said, go across this state and make sure that we can bring as... have a base for folks maybe. Have a base for folks that's not out... that's not in New... Albany, to be able to come to Albany and set that platform so they can go out there and do the work.

Brian Benjamin: Cool. Tyler, one of the things that people have said to me is, "Oh, you got a bill that helps Meek Mills," right, or the Meek Mills type stories. Obviously, not everyone is familiar with the difference between probation and parole and how that all works. Also, give us a little sense of the bill itself and sort of what are some of the sort of macro things will be impacted by this bill?

Tyler Nims: This issue is very similar to the issue that Meek Mill was facing, but Meek Mill's context was probation. This is parole.

Tyler Nims: Probation is what is an alternative to a sentence when somebody is charged with a crime. They go under probation. They have to meet a bunch of restrictions. They have to meet with their probation officer. Parole is similar, but what it's intended to do is help people who are returning home from prison. What it's ended up doing, as Tara's story really illustrates, is keep people locked in a cycle of reincarceration, and it's harmful to those people. It's not helping keep us safe, and it's wasting a ton of money that should be spent on helping people and not putting them into jail or prison.

Tyler Nims: What Less Is More does, three main components. First one is good time credits for people to encourage them to behave well while on parole. That does a couple things. One is it incentivizes the behavior that we want to see, but it also means there are fewer people on parole so that people who are parole officers can focus their attention on people who need help.

Tyler Nims: The second thing it does is put due process in place so that you don't automatically go to jail, like it is today, when you're accused of a parole violation. Today, if you're accused of a parole violation in New York City, you go straight to Rikers Island. You wait there for up to 100 days until the state decides do we send you home or do we send you back to prison?

Tyler Nims: The third thing it does is it really limits incarceration for these technical violations because nobody is being helped by being incarcerated. Coming home from prison is one of the hardest things you can do. You've got to put things in place to help people succeed not send them back into prisons and jails.

Tyler Nims: Less Is More does all of these things. It would really transform the way that parole works in New York. These are reforms that have been done in many other places, done successfully in other places, including places like Louisiana and Missouri. If those States can do it, we can do it here in New York.

Brian Benjamin: One of the things I always felt, Tara, is when I listen to hearing about how the parole system works, I felt like we have a system that is set up with all kinds of trip wires and barb... It's almost a system set up to make sure that, unless you are the most perfect citizen, more perfect than everyone else, that you'll be reincarcerated. It's almost like you have to be like Jesus to not get reincarcerated.

Brian Benjamin: I want to talk about that due process piece he mentioned. When you got violated, what happened? Did you go to a judge first, and the judge says, "I want to hear your case and decide yes, no"?

Tara Cobbins: Absolutely, yeah.

Brian Benjamin: Or is it just the parole officer says, "Rikers"? Explain that to us, just the process.

Tara Cobbins: What happened with me, well, I would say what happens is they take you to the jail. They cuff you, tell you you have a parole violation. Within 72 hours, they give you the paperwork stating what the violations or violation is for and that-

Brian Benjamin: Wait. Does a parole officer just... they come to your house and just cuff you? What happens?

Tara Cobbins: Okay. It's according to what's going on. For instance, I had a situation where I called 911. My daughter was being attacked.

Brian Benjamin: Oh, my.

Tara Cobbins: It didn't work out well for me. I broke up the fight, but I ended up with a violation because I'm a category one violent felon, and that fight was considered to be violent. What happens is parole comes with a police officer. They didn't do it that day, but they did a few days later, and they sent me to jail. Within 72 hours, they came with my violations.

Tara Cobbins: I sat for some months because they try to do a little plea, "Well, if you take this..." because category one, you face up to 18 or 24 months, so their thing was, "You know you can get 15 months for this, but if you take 12, we'll give you 12." As a mom, I had been away for so long prior to that, I just wanted to be back with my kids, so though I know I did nothing wrong, I took the 12 months.

Brian Benjamin: Take a step back. When did you see a judge? Okay. They came. They put you in jail. When did you see a judge to sort of arbitrate on this?

Tara Cobbins: I was on what they call the K calendar. A K calendar is when you have a new charge plus you have parole. They charged me with a new charge for breaking up the fight. Then I was put on the K calendar to wait to see, well, what happened with the new charge. The judge didn't want to do anything to me. He said, "Let's just send her to a program or something." You know?

Brian Benjamin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tara Cobbins: Parole said, "No," and the end result was me going back to Bedford Hills.

Brian Benjamin: This is just so confusing. What I'm trying to understand is, if I get arrested, right, I should go to a judge, right, and the judge should decide, "This is the situation." If there's a new case, a parole officer is deciding your incarceration and not a judge? Is that what you're telling me?

Tara Cobbins: Okay. Let me be specific. When you get a new case, you have the judge, and then you have parole judge. The parole judge comes to-

Brian Benjamin: There's a parole judge. I see.

Tara Cobbins: Yes. The parole comes to the jail, and then if you... I had the case, so I was going outside to the city judge, but then I still had to still see parole judge because they was trying to see what the judge was going to do with me. When he said, "A program," they said, "No, no, no. You know what? You're going back to Bedford for 12 months-"

Tyler Nims: So [crosstalk 00:17:48]-

Tara Cobbins: I have two judges to answer to at the end. If I just have a technical violation, I just see the parole judge.

Brian Benjamin: The parole judge. How long does it take to see a parole judge on a technical violation?

Tara Cobbins: They usually try to see you within 30 days. It doesn't always map out that way because, in between, they want to see if they can come up with a little plea deal for you to see if you will take it.

Brian Benjamin: I see. I see. Cedric, one of the things when you do your public campaigns, Tara's story is so powerful, and I'm glad we're having this conversation because people need to understand what is going on here. You were incarcerated not because you were a threat to public safety. It was almost like you were trying to stop a fight, and then you have to wait 30 days to see a judge. I mean, well, in your campaigns, how are you sort of making sure people understand these stories and so that when we decide what to do here, we have the right information?

Cedric Fulton: Bringing those people. Bringing those people and let them share their voices. I think that's the best way. What we can do is, again, provide the platform, provide the resources and the table. I think it's very, very critical for Tara and many folks that's going through the same thing right now to be able to come and be able to talk to somebody like yourself, be able to talk to your peers, your colleagues about this situation.

Cedric Fulton: Again, we talked to, during the last legislative session, going inside the capitol, going inside these offices and talking to some legislators that did not even know. Once they were educated, they shared some of their personal things like this is... Again, this is not a issue that's just like a Tara issue. This is the issue that that affects everyone. I think the best way to do that is to allow Tara and folks like her to come and sit at the table and share their stories.

Brian Benjamin: Right. Is there a geographical restriction, in terms of when you're on parole, like you can only travel within... There's a curfew time, but then you can't travel outside of... or do you have to tell people, "Oh, today I'm going to be going to First Corinthian Baptist Church," and then if you go to Abyssinian you could get violated because you didn't follow the... How does that work in terms of...

Tara Cobbins: I've been on this ankle monitor since 2017. When I want to travel any place besides like Albany, Schenectady, I-

Brian Benjamin: Coming here, for example.

Tara Cobbins: What I have to do is text her and say, "Well, I want to go here, and this is the reason why." Then I have to wait for her to answer me back. If she doesn't, sometimes she takes two days to answer me back, I could miss where I want to go or I could still crunch time and try to make it. Any place I go out of Albany, if it's past Amsterdam, I have to ask. My jurisdiction, I can't go past Kingston.

Brian Benjamin: Got it. Got it.

Tara Cobbins: I have to ask. Though I'm free, I'm not really free. I've had this ankle monitor on. I can't do what I want to do with my children and my grandchildren because of this monitor, because if I'm not with Katal or doing something with Katal, 8:00 is my curfew.

Brian Benjamin: Understand.

Cedric Fulton: That monitor is not broke. I say that for a reason. It's not broke. They know everywhere where Tara is. Again, I just remember, and I think it's very critical, I remember we leaving an outreach in there there at 7:30, and her curfew was in a half an hour. We're getting in the car, and she's... The anxiety was very palpable, the anxiety, "I got to get home." It's like, "I'm going to get you there. We're going to get home." It's like, "I got to text her. I got to let her know that I may be..." Those things like this, the stress level, and again, she has a 12 year old. She has a grandchild that's in that house also that's seeing this. I'm a single parent of two children raising my children, and I know how they play off my stress and my anxieties, so just imagine going through that.

Cedric Fulton: I just want to really stress that the things that people go through, that's all on community supervision, and we're talking about their situation and not talking about the satellite. Everything that's happening that's around us that's being affected, 66-year-old mother, grandchildren, children. Then, not only that, she's a leader in her community. She's restricted on helping her community because she can't go into courts and things like that because she has this ankle bracelet on. Her access is limited.

Cedric Fulton: The traumatic effect. We talk about these numbers where nobody... When are we going to start calculating and really putting out there the cost effect for the trauma and the healthcare and the health costs that comes with that?

Tyler Nims: For every one of those numbers, there's a story like this one, like Tara's.

Brian Benjamin: Wow. Tyler, talk a little bit about what your group is doing big picture because, obviously, as we are talking about, this is comprehensive, right? I mean, obviously, parole reform, technical parole reform, Less Is More we're doing here, but just talk a little bit about how you're seeing some of the priorities that we need to be focusing on in addition to Less Is More.

Tyler Nims: Yeah. One of the main priority for my group is closing down the jails on Rikers Island. One of the main piece of that is changing our criminal justice system so there are many fewer people in jail.

Brian Benjamin: [crosstalk 00:23:12]-

Tyler Nims: In New York City over the past three years, there are 25% fewer people in jail. We have bail reform and discovery reforms that were passed last year in the Senate and Assembly, which is going to make a big difference. The only group of people that is continuing to rise are people who are locked up for parole violations, whether it's low-level charges like the one Tara mentioned, people who a judge wouldn't set bail on them, DAs wouldn't ask for them to be locked up but, because they're on parole, they're stuck on Rikers Island, or people who are accused just of those technical, non-criminal violations who are stuck there. If we don't get that kind of change, we're not going to be able to shut down Rikers.

Brian Benjamin: Yeah. I know, with Less is More, we are trying to make it so that you don't get violated for missing curfew. I can imagine the emotional stress and trauma that that creates when you're out here doing good work. I mean I almost feel like there should be a... It should be on a case-by-case basis how your parole is being determined. When you're doing work like this and educating the public, maybe curfew should be thought about differently, right? It's sad that we just don't have the same level of compassion for all of us. It's almost like there's a feeling that if you were... if you made a mistake and you were incarcerated for that, that mistake should travel through your whole life. I mean, do you feel that, Tara?

Tara Cobbins: I definitely feel that. I mean my past is my past, but my past isn't for everyone else. You know what I mean? I'm looking forward, and a lot of people look at my past, or you might not know my past, but when you see the ankle monitor, you just assume I'm a monster. I get that a lot.

Brian Benjamin: How does that impact just your day-to-day interactions with your children?

Tara Cobbins: I feel for my children because I'm a mom and a grandmother first and foremost. My son, I take him to places, the kids see my ankle monitor so, of course, my son has been asked, "What is that on your mother's ankle?" He loves me, but it's embarrassing. You know what I mean?

Tara Cobbins: Even when I go to apply for a job that I know I'm able to do and I should be able to get, I can't get it because when you look at me here, but then you catch my ankle, and it's like, "Oh, no, no. Well, what are you really..." because a lot of people think ankle monitors, you're a monster, you got to be a gang-affiliated and a whole lot of things, and that's not the case.

Brian Benjamin: Tell us, Cedric, okay, what... You leave here. What's the focus? We've got to do something on this. What are your targets? How are you trying to help make this happen over the next couple of months before we head back to session in January?

Cedric Fulton: Get out and talk to people. Get out and talk to as many people as possible.

Brian Benjamin: Are you targeting any people in particular or any kind of locations or...

Cedric Fulton: Yeah, yeah. We are targeting, specifically, the Hudson Valley area. We are also targeting Long Island. We are also targeting the greater capital district also. I think people do get it inside the five boroughs. People are starting to get it. I think we need to really do a big push outside of there, go outside to western New York and educate folks there.

Cedric Fulton: Really, we talk about health and harm reduction and being people-centered. I think we need to go in that approach also and educate because I know that those are allies also once they are educated in this. I think that's just the basis of it and then, again, with Tara and the leaders out there going out there with them knocking on doors, educating people as much as possible getting the word out. You know?

Brian Benjamin: Yeah. Tara, anything you want to say before we close this thing out that you think the everyday citizen who has not been impacted by the criminal justice system or parole needs to know?

Tara Cobbins: I think they need to really try to understand, not shun people like me. I think they need to really understand what we've been through and what needs to happen for those that are currently getting ready to come home. I think society needs to be... because as for myself, I'm trying to be productive in society, and I can't do that. I fight on a daily basis trying to do that. I just want people to really understand that, because I made a mistake, that doesn't mean I can't change. That doesn't mean I can't be a different person.

Brian Benjamin: Thank you so much. This has been a great discussion, and I want to thank Cedric, Tara, and Tyler for being here and sharing their insight. For Represent NYC, I am Brian Benjamin. Please contact my office at 212-222-7315 with any suggestions you have about how to tackle this issue or for general questions and comments. Thanks for watching Represent NYC on Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

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Represent NYC

"Represent NYC" is a weekly program produced by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) that gives local elected officials the chance to update voters about the issues shaping the future of the city. The show features a rotating cast of politicians, leaders and guests discussing pressing topics like...

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