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Parolee assault of elderly woman highlights critical role of services in parole system

By KATE MOSTACCIO

A homeless man on parole for killing his mother nearly two decades ago brutally assaulted a 65-year-old Asian woman in New York City and the attack, caught on surveillance video, is compelling evidence that the parole system needs more support and now is not the time for broad reform.

“Law enforcement is still struggling to get ahold of the consequences of bail reform,” said PEF President Wayne Spence, a New York State parole officer. “Now they want to add to that with ‘Less is More’ parole reform? There are now more parolees on the street than ever before and there are less staff to supervise them. In 1992, we had 1,200 state parole officers – we now have fewer than 700.”

The Less is More parole reform bill would make it virtually impossible to incarcerate anyone for violating one of the few violations deemed significant enough to merit re-incarceration (i.e., testing positive for alcohol or non-prescribed drugs or controlled substances, failing to report, and failing to notify of a change in address).

“Now is not the time to propose major parole reform and let more people out without the resources and the manpower,” Spence said. “The Office of Mental Health (OMH) needs to step up and provide mental health services to parolees. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) needs to make sure parolees have services like housing assistance and other benefits. The Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) needs to provide drug treatment to parolees. If you don’t have these services in place, you are going to have more instances like this man who killed his mother in 2002, was released on parole and now brutally attacks a woman. Parole officers cannot do their work without these services.”

Parole officers need appropriate resources in place to serve parolees and protect communities. Slashing mental health and substance abuse programs and other vital services, while proposing reform that would limit when parole officers can incarcerate individuals is ill advised at this time, said PEF Parole Officer and Council Leader Gina Lopez.

“If you let more people out and you don’t have the services for us to utilize, it’s a disservice to the community and to the parolee,” Lopez said. “You can do all the reform you want, but if you have nothing to help reengage parolees back into the community with employment, and good mental health and substance abuse services, it won’t work. Unfortunately, those areas are being cut by the state.

“The goal of parole officers is to do what’s best for parolees and the community,” she said. “Sometimes it does take us having to put them back in to get them services or into an inpatient program. You have to have avenues to engage that parolee to become a productive citizen. Our mental health caseloads across the state are doubled and we don’t have the staffing to be able to do the quality supervision that the community should want.”

The role of housing, mental health or substance abuse counselors does not fall on parole officers, Spence and Lopez said. Those tasks belong with the state and local agencies responsible for administering programs.

PEF reached out for comment from those agencies about their plans to help parolees now that the state budget is finalized.

OTDA’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program provides funding to projects that create affordable and supportive housing for populations at risk of housing insecurity, according to an OTDA spokesperson. On-the-ground housing assistance to address homelessness among parolees falls to local social services districts and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), he explained.

Substance abuse and alcoholism services are vital to curtailing recidivism and, according to a DOCCS spokesperson, as of April 1, 2020, there were 9,406 parolees enrolled in drug/alcohol treatment programs out of 35,905 parolees. These services are community-based, the spokesperson said.

OASAS does not have specific programs for parolees, however the agency “is well-equipped to meet the needs of these individuals,” a spokesperson said.

“OASAS works closely with DOCCS to serve incarcerated individuals while they are in prison, and OASAS-certified providers work closely with the parole system to help engage formerly incarcerated individuals with necessary OASAS services, such as treatment (including medication-assisted treatment), recovery supports, counseling, and more when they are released,” he said.

The recently passed state budget provides funding to support all existing OASAS services throughout New York State, the spokesperson said.

The state Office of Mental Health (OMH) says it is ready and able to serve parolees.

“OMH will continue to provide all needed mental health services, including re-entry planning, for persons leaving the prison system, regardless of their parole status,” a spokesperson said.