ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday released 191 nonviolent inmates accused of violating parole on technical issues from New York City’s Rikers Island Jail Complex, which she called a tinderbox caused by overcrowding.
She also said hundreds more inmates will be transferred from Rikers to state facilities to help avoid the violence of the Attica state prison uprising 50 years ago this month.
The state Parole Board "under my direction will have 191 people released today," Hochul said. "They have served their sentence … they shouldn’t have to wait."
Hochul made the announcement before she signed a bill that will also help ease crowding at Rikers as well as at local jails and state prisons statewide. The "Less-Is-More" law will prohibit the return of parolees to prison for "technical violations" of parole such as being late for a meeting with a parole officer or failing a drug test.
She said the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has also worked with City Hall to allow hundreds of Rikers inmates to be transferred to state facilities. Forty inmates daily will be transferred over five days as part of what the state called "a rolling basis for those eligible."
The overcrowding and violence that has long troubled the Rikers facility has worsened during the pandemic, and as many as a third of the correction officers were sidelined with COVID-19 this summer. The pandemic that forced reduced court hours for months also reduced the flow of court cases, leaving some inmates to languish in the jail awaiting sentencing, release or transfer.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called Hochul’s action "tremendously helpful."
"Rikers doesn't work, can't work, but right now the solution is reduce the population the right way, the safe way, and take a series of additional steps to get the personnel at Rikers back on the job," de Blasio told "The Brian Lehrer Show" on WNYC. "We're getting a lot of support from the State of New York, which was the thing we were missing previously. This governor has done a lot more to help us just in a matter of days than any help we got previously. This is going to make a huge difference in really profoundly improving the situation."
Hochul said her action is prompted in part because of the Attica uprising 50 years ago this month near where she grew up in Western New York. She said "horrific" conditions at Attica led to the deadly rebellion that resulted in 43 deaths in 1971.
"To witness history, I watched the Attica trials," said Hochul, who was then a high school intern with the American Civil Liberties Union. "I saw people's faces and I saw what happened … it shouldn’t have happened and it sure as hell shouldn’t happen in 2021."
The measures are intended to allow parolees who served their prison sentences to rebuild their lives, careers and family relationships without being returned to prison for what the law deems a "technical violation." The law defines a technical violation as "any conduct that violates a condition of community supervision in an important respect, other than the commission of a new felony or misdemeanor."
Supporters of the bill passed by the Democratic majorities of the Senate and Assembly have said examples of technical violations include being late for a meeting with a parole officer, changing jobs without notifying a parole officer, and failing a drug test.
The bill also provides more hearings in which a parolee can contest a violation of parole.
"What the governor has done today is allow me, as district attorney, to keep people safe," said Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzales, a Democrat.
Hochul, however, said she anticipates criticism.
Senate Republican leader Rob Ortt called Hochul’s action another case of "pro-criminal, anti-victim, and anti-law enforcement policies" of Democrats.
Hochul said she knows she is risking a situation in which a parolee freed under the law could commit more crimes.
"There is always a risk to everything," Hochul said. "But the question is, do we step back and let a possible Attica erupt? Or do I step forward … you sometimes have to do what you believe is right and believe people will understand the rationale behind this," Hochul said. It is her third week on the job after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment accusations.
"I know what a pressure cooker looks like and I’m trying to make sure it doesn’t blow up," Hochul said.