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Should N.Y. Be Jailing Parolees for Minor Lapses During a Pandemic?

Given that incidents of domestic violence were sure to rise during the pandemic, anyone who made contact with a partner he or she had abused in the past was eligible for re-arrest, an official in the Cuomo administration explained. So too, was a sex offender who made contact with a minor.

The modern parole system began in New York State in the 19th century as a means of helping ex-convicts adjust to society. Parole officers were volunteers; the whole idea was rooted in a benevolent paternalism.

But in the 1970s, as crime escalated, the system became more punitive. The faith that people who did bad things could transform began to wane, and the goal shifted to preventing recidivism. While the state has succeeded in detaining far fewer people on technicalities in recent years, the policy, exercised at the discretion of corrections officials, nevertheless remains.

In a speech two years ago, Governor Cuomo acknowledged the problems inherent in it. “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,” he said. New York State spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year enforcing these violations. “Cops troll hospitals looking for violators,’’ Mr. Schiraldi said. “While the guy is dying, they slap a technical on him. At a certain point you routinize the deprivation of people’s liberties so much, you’re just checking a box.”

That routinization comes with all the predictable disparities. In New York City, Black people re-enter the jail system on these technicalities at a rate more than 12 times that of whites.

Before Christmas, Mr. Russell, who had already violated his parole on other occasions by leaving the shelter and going home to his family, sent a text to his parole officer explaining that he could not tolerate his circumstance any longer and might as well be in jail. “With this being said,” he wrote her, “send me back if that’s what you want to do because I’m not returning to the shelter.’’ He helpfully provided his home address.

The logic behind sending him to a shelter to serve out his parole, in the first place, involved a single domestic-violence charge that had been filed against him years earlier. One evening in 2013, Mr. Russell and his current girlfriend were drinking on their stoop and began to argue. According to his recollection, the fight did not get physical, but a neighbor called the police and once officers arrived, he became “unruly’’ with them, he said.

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