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Parole officers always stuck between rocks and hard places

By SHERRY HALBROOK

Just a year ago it would have difficult to come up with a more dangerous, complicated and unappreciated job than being a NYS parole officer.  And it would have been unimaginable to think how the work could become massively harder almost overnight.  But that is exactly what has happened.

Parole officers have two almost contradictory roles – protecting the public from dangerous criminals, and helping those dangerous criminals re-enter society and become productive, law-abiding citizens.

Very violent crime has skyrocketed in 2020, and parolees have been among both the victims and the perpetrators.  The New York Daily News ran a story November 23 with the following harrowing report:

“Police counted 1,667 shooting victims in the city this year as of Nov. 15 — an increase of 101%, or slightly more than double the number reported in 2019 in the same period. The increase in shootings has even outpaced the growth in the homicide rate: NYPD data show 405 murders in the city this year as of Nov. 15, 37% more than were reported in the same period of 2019.

“Fire Department gun-victim statistics — separate from the police department data — show that EMTs and paramedics took 1,304 shooting victims to emergency rooms in 2020 as of Sept. 30, compared with 690 in the same period last year — an 89% increase. The data doesn’t include private hospitals and ambulance companies that also respond to shootings.”

Shootings aren’t the only kinds of violent crimes that are alarming New Yorkers  On November 19, for instance, the Daily News carried a news brief that began this way:  “

“An ex-con is suspected in the sexual assault and robbery of a woman in a Manhattan park, police said Wednesday. .… (The suspect) was paroled in April after serving more than three years in state prison for a Bronx burglary. He previously served time for an attempted robbery in Brooklyn and was paroled in June 2011.”

What’s even more troubling is that this extreme rise in violent crime is not restricted New York City.  It’s up dramatically all over the country and that includes upstate New York.  And this unexplained surge in violence has accompanied a new and invisible danger – COVID-19.

The pandemic has pulled the rug out from under the economy.  With millions of hard-working, law-abiding citizens laid off from their jobs and competing for the remaining jobs, the chances of getting work that pays enough to support you are much worse for parolees.

Not being able to find a paying job just heightens anxiety for parolees who may have originally landed in prison because they saw crime as the only way to support themselves.  That frustration and anxiety leads to panic that can make people more likely to make poor choices that could possibly land them back them back in prison.

So, the work gets harder and more dangerous for their parole officer, and the newspapers carry these reports nearly every day.

In recent weeks, a parole officer working upstate was struck by a vehicle driven by a parolee trying to flee from arrest for a parole violation.  The officer landed on the hood of the vehicle and fired at the parolee, striking the individual three times.

In New York City a warrant officer was struck by a parole violator’s vehicle when he drove up a sidewalk and crashed in an attempt to escape arrest.

Most arrests of violators are not so dramatic, but there is always danger.  When people are arrested for crimes, the news reports perfunctorily mention that parole officers participated in the process of finding the suspected perpetrator and arresting him or her.  Injuries and COVID-19 exposures to parole officers are rarely mentioned.  Danger is simply seen as inherent to the job and not worthy of public appreciation or mention.

That has not stopped or even slowed growing political demand for fewer parole-violation arrests.  People who dismiss the need to arrest parolees for violating the terms of their paroles, describe these infractions as “technical” and insignificant.  And the state Department of Corrections and Community Services that runs the parole program often blames the parole officer for the misdeeds of the parolee.

It doesn’t stop there.  Advocates for fewer arrests of parole violators, have also spent this year demanding those who are arrested be released to spare them the heightened risk of becoming infected if they are incarcerated.  Combine that with bail reform enacted in 2019 and parole and other law-enforcement officers now experience the frustration of seeing the people they just tracked down and charged let out as fast as they are run in.

Parole, itself, is under attack.  The district attorneys of Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn co-authored an op-ed in the November 19 edition of The New York Daily News titled ‘The Cruelty of Parole’:

“Nationally, one out of every four people entering America’s prisons in 2017 was incarcerated not for a new crime, but for a technical violation. …. Those violations quickly add up when you have 4.4 million people currently under supervision in the U.S. — twice as many people as are incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons. ….. Gov. Cuomo stated, ‘New York jails and prisons should not be filled with people who may have violated the conditions of their parole, but present no danger to our communities.’ The New York State Bar Association wrote that violating so many people ‘is counterproductive and costly, both in human and financial terms, and should be promptly addressed through remedial legislation.’”

PEF President Wayne Spence, who worked for 28 years in the parole division, has led the union’s vigorous efforts to bring some realism to the debate over these legislative efforts.

“These elected officials are pushing their opinions, but they have never tried to supervise parolees,” Spence said.  “They have no real experience in what that involves.  And their call to greatly reduce penalties for parole violations are dangerous for both the public and the officers because it sends a loud and clear message to the parolee that it’s OK to break the rules and ignore the law.”

Parole officers are just trying to do their jobs of helping parolees succeed while still putting public safety first.  The officers see and may share public outrage over issues of racial injustice or abuse of power by law-enforcement personnel.  It is only fair to recognize that NYS parole officers are not the ones you see abusing their power on YouTube or the evening news.  That is because they are caring, responsible and highly skilled professionals.

The biggest problem is that parole officers are constantly caught in the middle of these huge social changes and policy battles.  Their only true advocate, defender and supporter is their union, PEF.

“I am a parole officer, Spence said.  “I understand all too well just how dangerous and difficult this job is under the best of circumstances and how much harder it has become under the powerful strains of the pandemic, sinking economy and the just demands for racial equality.  We at PEF are constantly responding to the alerts we receive from our members and the issues they face on their jobs.

“Parole officers have special challenges related to social distancing, masks and the need to frequently share vehicles and meet with other people on the job.  We have made finding and advocating for their special health-and-safety concerns a priority during this pandemic.  Our nurses aren’t the only ones who must take special care and who need PPE to do their jobs safely.

“Parole is never easy or simple,” Spence said. “It is always challenging and often dangerous.  Our members deserve tremendous public appreciation for all of the hard, brave, professional work they do that never makes it into police reports and news stories.  We want every New Yorker to know that parole officers are heroes every day they show up and just quietly do their jobs.”