Justice Lab's Vincent Schiraldi Proposes Reforms to Probation, Parole

Bridget O'Brian
February 23, 2018

Perhaps it was the 12 years of Catholic school, with its expectations that students reach out to underserved communities, but Vincent Schiraldi always knew that he wanted to help people, or as he puts it today, to be “in the human services field.”

In high school he volunteered to work with elderly residents of the Lower East Side, and as an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton University he worked at the New York State Division for Youth as a house parent, supervising teenagers under incarceration.

But what became his life’s work didn’t come into focus until 1981, when he attended a talk by Jerome Miller, a social scientist and an early opponent of mass incarceration best known for shutting down juvenile reformatories in Massachusetts in the 1970s. It was one of the first overhauls of penal, probation and parole systems and would be emulated in cities and states years later. In that long-ago talk, Miller described the staff at those institutions as lazy, violent and prone to sabotage. Schiraldi—then a staffer at a similar facility—spoke up and didn’t stop when the class ended. “I followed him down the hall, I kept arguing with him, and then by the time he got to the elevator, he had hired me to work for his nonprofit,” the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, Schiraldi said.

“It was the beginning of my career of working to reduce society’s reliance on incarceration as a solution to America’s social problems,” he said.

Schiraldi would go on to found two nonprofits—the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco and the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. Later, he ran Washington D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and then was hired by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation. He became a senior advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, a job that included improving school safety while simultaneously reducing unnecessary school arrests. After a two-year stint at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, he’s back in New York and working with the mayor’s office to help the city close Rikers Island and implement recently enacted legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years and sending cases involving younger people to Family Court.

He joined Columbia last year as an adjunct professor at the School of Social Work and a senior research scientist at the newly created Columbia Justice Lab, which is part of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. The lab’s mandate is to develop policy recommendations and community engagement to further justice reform. Recently, it released two reports critical of probation and parole—one national in scope and one focused on New York—that earned widespread attention and support, including an editorial in The New York Times.

Q. Can you describe the difference between probation and parole?

A. Both were established in the 1800s, and originally probation was meant to be a diversion from prison or jail at sentencing. Basically, it’s what a judge gives you instead of locking you up. Parole was meant to be an alternative to incarceration once you served your sentence, and a parole board would determine whether you were rehabilitated. Originally meant to be alternatives to prison, they now have become tripwires and triggers to mass incarceration.

Q. What do you mean by tripwires and triggers to mass incarceration?

A. If you watch anybody closely enough you’ll find something you can find objectionable. With probation and parole, it doesn’t even have to be a crime—it could be missing an appointment with your parole officer, or associating with someone with a criminal record. It has grown beyond what anybody could have anticipated, and nationwide there are almost five million people on probation and parole. That’s more people than live in half of U.S. states, one in 53 adults. [There are 2.3 million in federal and state prisons, county and local jails, as well as detention centers as of 2017, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.] It was never meant to be that big and it’s now a processing-back-to-prison environment.

Q. How did we end up with the current system?

A. Crime rates reached their peaks in the 1990s. President Bill Clinton proposed, and in 1994 Congress passed, three-strikes legislation [requiring life sentences for offenders guilty of a violent felony and two other convictions.] Many states did the same. It was a terrible, terrible time. I was then at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, where we were working on alternatives to incarceration. We began writing papers and op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, as well as speaking publicly about the growing overuse of incarceration. Now that crime is down, more states are looking at alternatives to prisons and they’re also looking to do the same for mass supervision.

Q. You’ve just issued two reports on probation and parole. What’s the takeaway?

A. The first, “Too Big to Succeed,” is about probation and parole nationally. One of its most important recommendations is to reduce the number of people under community supervision, so officials can focus on the people who need more help and use the savings for housing, mental health and substance abuse assistance. Programs in states like Missouri and Arizona are taking innovative approaches such as giving people one day off for every day of good behavior—if they’re out for a month and they don’t get into trouble or get arrested, they get a month off their probation and parole. These programs substantially reduce revocations back to incarceration, and there are lower re-arrest rates because people are incentivized to do the right thing. Ultimately, this could help us close prisons and jails, capture some of those savings and put them towards employment, education and housing and that can help people instead of just re-incarcerating them.

Q. The second report is focused on New York. What does that say?

A. It’s called “Less is More in New York,” and found that people incarcerated for technical [non-criminal] violations while on parole are the only growing population in Rikers while all other populations are decreasing by double digits. It’s just nuts to lock people up who are often addicted to drugs, marginally housed and unemployed because they’ve missed too many appointments, and then return them months or years later no better off. Twenty leading probation and parole administrators signed on to our report, which calls for ultimately cutting the systems they run in half and to reduce technical violations that lead back to prison. It’s already helped create policy movement.

Q. How did you get hired in New York City?

A. I got recruited by Mayor Bloomberg in 2010, completely unexpectedly. He and I hit it off, which surprised me because I was way to the left of his administration. They were deeply into stop-and-frisk during my time there. But crime plummeted, and Bloomberg was open to new ideas, some of which were pretty radical.

Q. What types of programs did you implement under Mayor Bloomberg?

A. When I arrived, the U.S. Justice Department had just settled a lawsuit with New York State over juvenile justice facilities. About 500 New York City kids were in facilities upstate who didn’t belong there, but there were no city residential programs for them. I brought up this idea, Close to Home, which was similar to one in Detroit, where city officials asked state facilities to return their kids and for the state of Michigan to provide Detroit with some of the money that would have been used to incarcerate them. Bloomberg said, “we want our kids back, we will deal with them in New York City.” Today there are about 200 kids in small facilities run by nonprofit organizations throughout the city instead of large, locked institutions upstate. We started special schools with enhanced social services for these kids and cut caseloads and added community programs so the kids could be watched closely and helped to thrive.

Q. What do you think about the notion of the prison-industrial complex?

A. I think that in the height of the lock-’em-up era, when politicians were falling all over themselves to pass mandatory and longer sentences—three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws—and trying more kids as adults, politicians just wanted to get criminals off the streets and punish them harshly. I don’t think it was about private prisons and profits, those were unintended consequences. But now we have to undo that, but it’s always hard to wrench money away from a constituency that has it.

Q. Are there signs of hope for systemic reform?

A. There’s more energy behind this than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in this business since 1980. The number of people in incarceration has dropped by 15% over the last several years. Books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the National Academy of Sciences’ Growth of Incarceration in the United States (co-authored by Columbia Justice Lab’s co-director, Bruce Western] and the voices of formerly incarcerated people are now robust. Here at Columbia we are in the lead with not only our newly established Columbia Justice Lab, but also with the Center for Justice at Columbia, which advances alternative approaches and whose director is Psychology Prof. Geraldine Downey. Excellent work is also being done in the law and business schools, among other places.

Q. What do you foresee as the role of the Columbia Justice Lab?

A. Our intention is to take it beyond a movement to empty prisons and work at forging new ways for communities to become involved in the solution. There’s a lot of research showing that community cohesion and resilience makes communities safer, not just more police and more prisons. And yet we don’t really have good ways of fomenting community resilience. If you take a third of the young black men—or white men for that matter, although we don’t incarcerate white men close to the rate of black men—from any community and funnel them into and out of prisons, you’ve created a vicious cycle. It can destroy neighborhoods. Now that we’re undoing it we can’t just take these young men and women who have been damaged by prisons and dump them into a neighborhood without supporting those neighborhoods as well as those individuals.

Q. You’re a big proponent of involving neighborhoods and neighbors in the quest to reduce crime. How do you do that?

A. There are tons of things you could do. There are 5,000 CUNY students living in public housing in New York. They know how to grow up in public housing and go to college. So how about we hire people from the neighborhood to take care of their neighbors and say, “you’ve got to go to court Tuesday, or do you want me to help you figure out how to apply for college or get your resume together?” That’s one small way of changing neighbors from people who simply interact with criminal justice by dialing 911 to people who are part of the solution.

Q. Do you worry that some of the reforms you are promoting may be rolled back by the Trump administration?

A. The good news is that many of the reforms we’re talking about are at the state and local level. Much of what is currently emanating from the White House and Justice Department is not going to profoundly change the trajectory of mass incarceration.

Q. There’s talk of closing Rikers Island. How is that going?

A. At its height in 1991 there were 22,000 people on Rikers Island. We finished 2017 with fewer than 9,000 people for the first time in 35 years. The intention of the city is to close it in 10 years, at which point there should be only 5,000 people. New York’s already the least incarcerated and safest big city in the country. We’re going to do something that no U.S. city has done.

The Justice Lab has an agreement with the city so that half my time is going to help them close Rikers Island. My hope is that I can get students to do independent studies relevant to the issues around closing Rikers Island. That way, when the books about the demise of mass incarceration in America get written, New York City will be Exhibit A and Columbia students will write the opening chapters.