N.Y. parole reform leads to releases, anger from law enforcement
"We're doing everything we can to keep the streets safe and then a new law comes out and makes them less safe," said Sheriff Michael Filicetti
By Rick Pfeiffer
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — It was Friday afternoon, Sept. 24, when Niagara County Sheriff Michael Filicetti heard a commotion outside his office.
As the sheriff looked out his window to check on what seemed to be a disturbance, he saw seven men who had been inmates at the county jail marching down the sidewalk.
"The were cheering and chanting, 'Less is more. Less is more. Less is more.', as they walked away from the jail," Fillicetti said. "It was one of the most discouraging days in my 28 years in law enforcement."
The seven had just had parole detainers on them lifted under the terms of New York's Less is More Act. The new law, signed on Sept, 17 by Gov. Kathy Hochul, is intended to prevent recently paroled prisoners from being incarcerated for what have been described as technical violations of their terms of release, like missing a curfew.
Supporters of the act have argued that the new law will decrease the number of people in jail for minor parole violations and prevent overcrowding in prisons.
But Filicetti, and Niagara County District Attorney Brian Seaman, said that while the law will reduce overcrowding at facilities like Rickers Island in New York City, it is having perhaps unintended consequences in other communities across the state. They said virtually all of the seven Niagara County jail inmates that were released from custody were not being detained for "minor violations."
In the case of Damien Powell, the Falls parolee was detained after his arrest in a domestic violence case. He faces a charge of criminal obstruction of breathing.
"Where are the rights of the domestic violence victims?" Filicetti asked. "I don't think (a) domestic violence (arrest) is a minor violation."
After his parole detainer was lifted under the Less is More Act, Powell posted $10 bail to process his release.
Prior to the new law taking effect, it was a common practice for parolees, who were arrested on new criminal charges while out on release, to be detained for violating the terms of their parole. A standard condition of parole release is that the parolee not commit any new crimes.
"A person who is on parole is still serving a prison sentence," Seaman said. "But they're serving it in public. So if they're (detained) they're not being incarcerated for a minor violation, they're being incarcerated for violating their prison sentence."
And Seaman said the combination of Less is More with New York's bail reform legislation has created a difficult new playing field for both prosecutors and judges.
"When bail is initially set, the existence of a parole detainer is a consideration for judges," the district attorney said. "And a judge may set a low bail, because with the parole detainer he knows the person won't be released."
On the day Less is More became law, that practice allowed parolees with troubling criminal records to return to the streets for bail amounts that ranged from just $1 to $250.
Shawn Pittler of Lockport, with 22 prior criminal convictions, four of them felonies, one a violent felony, and facing a charge of second-degree menacing, was released on $1 bail.
Michael Paonessa of the Falls, with 11 prior convictions, four of them felonies, and facing a felony drug possession charge, was released on $250 bail. Some of Paonessa's previous felony charges reportedly involved several instances of animal abuse.
Raymond Burley of the Falls, with nine prior convictions, three of them felonies, with a "history of manufacturing methamphetamine" according to published reports and facing a charge of driving while impaired by drugs, was released on $1 bail.
Alfred Maye, with three prior convictions, one of them a violent felony and facing charges of of second-degree criminal possession of weapon and driving while intoxicated, was released on bails of $10 and $1 respectively.
Jakeen Clay of the Falls, with 11 prior convictions, one a violent felony and facing a felony drug possession count, was released on $100 bail.
And Michael Burgess, with 10 prior convictions, two of them felonies, and facing a burglary charge, was released on $1 bail.
"The law took effect on a Friday afternoon, and gave us no chance to file a motion to have a judge consider a proper bail for these defendants," Seaman said.
The DA said he has asked all his assistants to review their cases where parolees would be eligible to have detainers lifted, "so we can determine if a new bail motion should be filed."
Veteran prosecutors said they were stunned when they learned that a parole detainer would be lifted for Billy M. Benton, 31, of the Falls. Benton, with two prior felony convictions, one of them a violent felony, was hit with a parolee detainer after his arrest for the double murder of a mother and son in the Cornerstone Village Apartments complex.
"I don't think a double murder is a minor violation," Seaman said. "Luckily we had him remanded (without bail)."
Other parolees who remain jailed because they are being held without bail, even though their parole detainers have been lifted, include Barry Frain, charged with second-degree assault and third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and Donald Rodgers, facing assault, weapons and drugs charges as well as a federal arrest warrant.
"These individuals have proven, time and time again, that when they'e out on the streets, they commit crimes," Filicetti said. "We're doing everything we can to keep the streets safe and then a new law comes out and makes them less safe."
(c)2021 the Niagara Gazette (Niagara Falls, N.Y.)