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Why Violating a Curfew Could be a Death Sentence for NYers

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On any given day last year, 740 people, on average, were locked up in New York City jails, even though they had not even been accused of committing a crime.

Instead, people suspected of committing a technical parole violation, like violating a curfew or not checking in with their parole officer, are automatically put in jail without a chance to argue their case for months. Currently, 90 percent of people detained on technical parole violations are Black or Latinx.

This egregious practice of automatically incarcerating people for non-crimes has gone on for decades, causing immense harm to people who are pulled away from their families and can even lose their jobs and homes. But now, with coronavirus exploding in jails and prisons across the state, this type of detention is even more unjustifiable.

Hundreds of people in New York City jails, including people who are incarcerated and staff, have tested positive for the virus. The infection rate in these jails is six times higher than in New York City as a whole. Social distancing is impossible and sanitation supplies and masks are in short supply.

At least three people have already died of the disease after catching it while detained at Rikers. Two of them were detained on alleged technical violations. One of them was Michael Tyson, who was in jail because he allegedly failed to report to his parole officer.

While the coronavirus has added new urgency to the need to release people held on suspected parole violations, the problem predates the disease. New York has the second-highest re-incarceration rate of people on parole in the country. In 2018, a total of 8,768 people were re-incarcerated on parole violations, 85 percent of which were technical parole violations.

Sending people to jail can turn into a death sentence during this pandemic – yet we are still doing it.

While on parole, people must follow a strict set of conditions, like paying supervision fees, abiding by curfews, attending particular drug programs and registering all changes of address and employment. If a person’s parole officer suspects them of violating any of these rules, the parole officer has them arrested and charged with a technical parole violation. People who are on parole who are accused of committing a new crime are also charged with violating parole and automatically jailed.

When someone is jailed for an alleged parole violation, the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is required to hold a revocation hearing within 90 days to determine whether the violation actually happened and whether the person’s parole should be revoked. But in practice, in nearly one in five parole re-arrests, the parole revocation hearing takes place after the required 90-day period. And during the coronavirus pandemic, these hearings have been suspended almost completely.

Once these hearings happen, a lot of people are sent home. A 2018 New York City report found that 38 percent of people accused of technical violations and 40 percent of people accused of violations based on new arrests were released after their parole revocation hearing. They were set free either because they were found not guilty or because a judge decided incarceration was not necessary.

Earlier this month, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society filed a class-action lawsuit against Governor Cuomo and DOCCS challenging the unconstitutional automatic jailing of people held in New York City jails while waiting for a hearing for alleged parole violations.

One of our plaintiffs, Michael Bergamaschi, was put in jail for seeing his wife and son without his parole officer’s permission. Another, Frederick Roberson, was accused of not completing his drug program. He couldn’t finish it because he was in the hospital for a chronic condition.

This week, a judge denied our request for a preliminary injunction, which would have forced the state to give hundreds more people held on parole violations in New York City an opportunity for release. While this decision is disappointing, the case is ongoing and we will continue to fight for the rights of our clients in jail.

We will also keep pushing Gov. Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, DOCCS, and jails across the state to release as many people as possible.

Sending people to jail can turn into a death sentence during this pandemic – yet we are still doing it. We have the opportunity to keep New Yorkers safe by releasing people whose lives are in danger.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union