New York's criminal justice system has some 900 professionals who are unsung heroes — the parole officers who monitor offenders released into the community.
There is nothing glamorous about their job. It is duty that comes with plenty of headaches and frustrations, not to mention danger.
One of their missions is to facilitate the rehabilitation of offenders under their supervision. When they succeed, the offender is not the only winner. Society is as well because parole is far more cost effective than keeping someone behind bars.
The parole officers are also there to protect society from those parolees who fail to abide by the laws and the conditions of their release.
The parole officer does not designate the inmates who get released early from a prison sentence.
The state parole board calls those shots. And there is debate today over whether the current board has become too eager to grant parole to violent offenders sent to prison for monstrous and unspeakable crimes against innocent people.
The debate is being fueled by the release of a convicted killer who in a few short weeks has become an inconvenient hot potato for state bureaucrats. That killer's name is Richard LaBarbera, convicted in the brutal killing of 16-year-old Paula Bohovesky in Rockland County in 1980. The victim's 87-year-old mother, Lois Bohovesky, argued strenuously against his release, as well as an initial plan that would have allowed him to go back to his local area.
A state judge, responding to litigation filed by the mother, directed that LaBarbera live at least three counties away from where he killed the teenager, setting the stage for the parolee to be assigned to the Buffalo parole office.
In recent days, however, LaBarbera lost his freedom, at least temporarily, when parole officers locked him up for a parole violation. State officials won't say exactly what LaBarbera did, but point out he did not commit a new crime.
Among those who have been critical of LaBarbera's release are state Sens. Rob Ortt, North Tonawanda, and Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma. Both contend the parole board has become too tilted in favor of releasing criminals even when courthouse records suggest the convicts could jeopardize public safety.
Gallivan upped the ante July 26 by calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate the circumstances behind the decision to release LaBarbera.
All of this comes two months after I reported on a bill, sponsored by two downstate Senate Democrats, that would end the ability of parole officers to have parolees sent to jail for technical violations of their release conditions.
As the LaBarbera controversy heated up, I contacted former parole officer Wayne Spence, now the president of the state Public Employees Federation, the union for professional workers in state government, and the chief opponent of the bill that would have handcuffed parole officers from doing the job they do now.
"Imagine if that bill had passed and become law," Spence said. "That guy (LaBarbera) would not have been locked up. He'd be out right now."
Spence said he is concerned the bill sponsors will try to ram the legislation through again when lawmakers return to Albany.
While New York's public employee unions are often aligned with Democrats, Spence told me he would be willing to work with GOP senators in drawing attention to problems within the parole system.
He also said that new research has debunked assertions made by some that many of the parolees being held at Rikers Island in New York City are being held for parole violations. He said only 2% of the Rikers' prisoners are parole violators, and most of the parolees there re-offended or absconded from supervision.
Spence said his union plans to make its case for keeping the current system for technical violations of parole intact by going directly to residents of low-income communities with high numbers of parolees, because having safe streets is in their interest.
He said he would also welcome close scrutiny of New York's parole system.
'The officers feel that they don't have the staffing needed to do the job, and the parolees feel they aren't getting what they need and are being set up for failure," he said.
While they are not in prison, parolees are still serving judicially-imposed sentences until their parole ends.
"I think a lot of politicians forget that," Spence said. He acknowledged what some liberals call "reform" is needed in New York, but said it should not come at the expense of public safety.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.