At the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, at least 91 people had been waiting for March 1 to roll around. On that date, most aspects of New York state’s new parole reform law went into full effect, and those who had been held on warrants issued by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state’s parole system, were expecting a shot at freedom.
Among other provisions, the new law, known as the Less Is More Act, makes it significantly more difficult for DOCCS to jail people after they commit certain parole violations, and it mandates a hearing within 24 hours to give people whom the parole agency has ordered jailed a chance to argue for their release.
But March 1 came and went, and the 91 people — as well as dozens or hundreds more across the state — remain in jail. According to DOCCS, because they were jailed on alleged parole violations before that date, they aren’t grandfathered into Less Is More’s protections, so the department didn’t go about releasing them.
The framework of their situation is just one of several points of ongoing disparity between the department’s interpretation of the Less Is More Act and the interpretation of the advocates and elected officials who worked for several years to pass it. Each of DOCCS’s unique interpretations — which vary in plausibility and seize on details as minor as the numbering of the legislation’s subparagraphs — minimize the number of people whom the law would release from incarceration.
It doesn’t help that the Less Is More Act is a perplexing piece of legislative writing — in December, a Bronx judge opined that one section is worded “in the most confusing way possible” — leaving DOCCS plenty of room to quibble. But the law’s crafters and supporters assert that its spirit and intentions are clear, and that DOCCS is undermining it because department officials don’t want to release people from jail.
Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest, who sponsored the Assembly version of Less Is More, called DOCCS’s interpretations “appalling and frankly, embarrassing,” and described it as an “attempt to fabricate a new precedent for the reading of bills.”
“DOCCS is willfully ignoring the clear legislative intent of Less Is More,” she told New York Focus and The American Prospect in a statement.
“It’s just DOCCS being DOCCS,” said Emily NaPier Singletary, co-executive director of Unchained, one of the advocacy groups that helped lead the effort to pass the Less Is More Act. “We really attribute it to just good old fashioned obstructionism.”
In an emailed statement, a DOCCS spokesperson said that the department has been committed to implementing Less Is More correctly. “We categorically reject any allegation that DOCCS is implementing the law in bad faith,” the spokesperson said.
“Even before the enactment of the law, DOCCS began high-level internal meetings to begin planning for the implementation of this major overhaul of the parole revocation process,” the spokesperson said. “Since that time, we have worked diligently internally and with the [courts], and have also remained engaged with public defenders, including holding multiple calls in the week leading up to the March 1st implementation.”
The situation highlights an aspect of criminal justice reform that often goes overlooked, especially in New York: After a highly publicized political battle results in a new law, it takes a whole other, quieter power struggle to get state agencies to implement it.
Some of these bureaucracies are large and entrenched enough to wield their own political power, further complicating this second-stage scuffle. Though DOCCS is technically under the direct purview of Governor Kathy Hochul, who signed Less Is More into law and has expressed enthusiastic support for it, the governor hasn’t directed the department to adjust its interpretation of the legislation.
Advocates have taken DOCCS to court over its alleged obstructionism: Most recently, on March 2, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit on behalf of the 91 people held on Rikers Island who expected a chance at release. DOCCS is fighting that lawsuit, with representation from the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has touted the benefits of the Less Is More Act herself. (James’s office did not respond to emailed questions.)
Similar suits have yielded mixed results, and the disagreements over the law’s implementation have left likely hundreds of people who would otherwise be let out sitting in jail.
“The distance between reform moving through the legislature and being signed into law, and being effectuated inside of these bureaucracies, is profound,” said gabriel sayegh, co-executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, another of the core advocacy groups behind Less Is More. “These bureaucracies are slow to change and absolutely resistant to it, from top to bottom.”