Modeling the Impact of Parole Reform

In February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic caused large-scale disruption, New York held around 44,000 people in prison on any given day. Of those—despite research showing that older people released from prison almost never commit new crimes—nearly 5,800 were 55 and older. More than 9,500 had been in prison since their teens or early twenties, although research shows that people tend to "age out" of crime. More than 5,200 people held in prison were already eligible for parole, but because the parole board denies release to the majority of people who go before it, they were still in prison—sometimes for years or decades past their release eligibility date. And approximately 9,100—or one out of five—were being held on technical parole violations—non-criminal behavior that nevertheless violates the rules of parole, such as failing to check in with a parole officer.

The Vera Institute of Justice has developed a modeling tool to show how New York’s prison population could change over the next 10 years if the legislature enacts critical parole reforms. Click on the policies below to see how ending incarceration for technical parole violations, passing the Elder Parole Act, a second chance for emerging adults, and changing the standards for parole release could lower New York’s prison population over the next decade. Read about Vera’s methodology here.

New York has an opportunity to lead the nation in parole reform. What would happen if New York passed a comprehensive parole reform bill—or just several of the proposals on the table?

Select the reforms—and use the sliders—to see how the state’s prison population could change over the next decade if New York adopts more than one parole reform.

In New York prisons, the percent of people who are elderly has more than doubled in the last decade. Vera’s analysis shows that by 2030, unless the state takes action, more than one in six people in New York prisons will be 55 and older. That comes at a huge cost—both in terms of human suffering and taxpayer dollars. As a result of healthcare costs, New York taxpayers spend between $100,000 and $240,000 to incarcerate each elder for one year, or roughly twice as much as a younger person.

Keeping elderly people in prison does not make society any safer either. Studies show that less than 2 percent of people released from prison between age 50 and 65 are arrested for new crimes, and the number drops to virtually zero by age 65.

A proposal before the legislature, commonly referred to as Elder Parole, would give people who are at least 55 years old and have served at least 15 years in prison a chance at parole.

Vera’s model shows that, if the parole board released everyone who came before it onto parole supervision—meaning, essentially, that the state would release people when they serve the minimum sentence set by the court—there would be approximately 11,200 fewer people in New York’s prisons by 2030.

Vera’s analysis of parole board decisions found that, today, New York’s parole board releases roughly four out of 10 people the first time they go before it. Release rates are lower still for Black and Latinx people, exacerbating racial disparities in prisons. An analysis by the New York Times found that the parole board released fewer than one out of six Black or Latinx men the first time they went before the board.

By law, parole board commissioners must consider the original crime as merely one of several factors, including what the person has accomplished while in prison. However, in practice, commissioners often focus solely, or primarily, on the original crime. In doing so, they overlook how the person has changed and what they have achieved in the interim years or decades.

A bill introduced in 2019, commonly referred to as Fair and Timely Parole, would change commissioners’ standards for making parole determinations, requiring them to release a person unless they find that (1) there is a current and unreasonable risk the person will violate the law if released, and (2) such risk could not be mitigated by parole supervision. It would also require the parole board to consider all evidence of rehabilitation and reform.

Michigan has already done something similar. A law passed there in 2018 requires the parole board to release someone considered low risk the first time they go before the board unless they meet one of 11 specific criteria, including refusing programming mandated by the Department of Corrections. Importantly, under the Michigan law the parole board may not consider the original crime as a reason to deny a person’s parole release.

A conservative estimate is that, by changing the standards for parole release, the New York parole board would begin to release 70 percent of people who go before it. Other states’ parole boards release people at a much higher rate than in New York. The Nebraska parole board, for example, releases nine out of 10 people who go before it.

Recognizing that 16- and 17-year-olds are not adults and should not be treated as such, New York recently raised the age of criminal responsibility. Scientists have found that brain maturation—including in parts of the brain that determine impulse control—continues well into people’s 20s and even 30s. Studies show that emerging adults—people under 25—often behave more like adolescents than older adults.

Research also shows that that people tend to "age out" of criminal behavior; by their mid-twenties, people are less likely to commit crimes, and the numbers continue to fall. In short, incarcerating people for decades for crimes they committed in their late teens or early twenties does little—if anything—to improve public safety. The District of Columbia has proven this. It passed a law in 2017 permitting judges to re-sentence people who had been convicted before age 18 and had served at least 15 years in prison. Of the more than 50 people resentenced and released since then, none has been rearrested, and many have started to work as youth violence prevention counselors in the city. For this reason, Illinois has changed its laws for all but a few crimes committed by people under the age of 21, making them eligible for parole after 10 years in prison.

New York could go further and become the first state to give emerging adults a second chance, making people who were convicted before age 25 eligible for parole 10 years after their conviction.

Approximately 40 percent of people who enter New York prisons each year are admitted on technical parole violations, non-criminal behavior that nevertheless violates the rules of parole, such as missing a curfew or changing an address without permission. New York re-imprisons more people for technical parole violations than every state other than Illinois.

Incarcerating people for technical parole violations makes it much harder for people to transition home successfully, and it does not make society safer. Research shows that community-based responses to parole violations, such as connecting people to substance use treatment or enhancing case management, are at least as effective in changing people’s behavior and promoting success on parole.

Imprisoning people for technical parole violations is also expensive. One study shows that New York State spends approximately $359 million holding people in prison on technical parole violations each year.

Prison has become the option of last resort in 22 states, reducing the number of people imprisoned on technical parole violations, and another 16 have capped the amount of time spent in prison for technical parole violations. New York could lead the nation by becoming the first state to eliminate incarceration as a response to technical parole violations.

Key Takeaways

  • Vera’s policy modeling tool shows that New York State can make meaningful reductions to its prison population. Backed by research—and often proven effective in other jurisdictions—changing the way that parole is handled could save many people from the harms of incarceration and spare taxpayers the unnecessary expense.

  • If the legislature passes Elder Parole, almost 2,000 fewer people could be in prison in 2030.

  • If Fair and Timely Parole becomes law, and the parole board increases its initial release rate to 70 percent, more than 10,000 fewer people will be in prison a decade from now. If the parole board begins releasing nine out of 10 people who go before it, as Nebraska’s parole board does today, 10,800 fewer people could be in prison in 2030.

  • If New York gave people convicted before age 25 a chance at parole after 10 years, when studies show they have likely “aged out” of crime, 2,200 fewer people could be in prison in 10 years.

  • If New York stopped imprisoning people for technical parole violations, by 2030 approximately 2,600 fewer people could be incarcerated. Cumulatively, as many as 68,000 people could be spared unnecessary incarceration over the next 10 years.

*The projections in this model are based on the pre-COVID-19 prison population of February 2020. Therefore, the projections do not include the decrease in prison population witnessed between spring 2020 and the end of the year.

Read a summary of the methods Vera used to create the population models