Exclusive: Parole shakedown?

December 20, 2007 4:23:41 PM PST
Parole officers say they're being forced to shake down their clients and punish them if they don't pay so-called supervision fees imposed by New York state.The Investigators Sarah Wallace has more on the story.

The state Division of Parole, which refused to make anyone available on camera, says it's just enforcing the law.

But officers claim they're being ordered to essentially become blackmailing bill collectors. The priority, they say, not how well parolees are doing in the community, but how much cash they can cough up.

"That's extortion. I've served my time. And now I'm paying" a parolee said.

It's what we heard over and over from parolees about a recent push by the state Division of Parole to collect so-called supervision fees.

"Most of us come out with nothing and they're taking what little we have," another parolee said.

Supervision fees have technically been on the books for years. But parole officers we spoke with say there was no push by the state to collect the money until the past few years. Suddenly, officers say they're being told by supervisors to collect the cash or tell parolees they'll pay a price.

One parole officer, afraid of retaliation, echoes many.

"To hit somebody up for $30 bucks a month, you know that's gonna come out of somewhere where somebody's either not gonna get diapers or toothpaste," he told us.

We obtained memos sent to officers. One tells them to impose special conditions if fees aren't paid. Among them: Strict curfews, suspending parolee's drivers' licenses, taking away travel passes to see relatives out of state and making them report weekly if they're now on a monthly schedule.

"It's punitive, so every time they come down because of that, they're resentful about it, and frankly, rightly so, I would be too," the parole officer said.

The State Division of Parole argues there's a sliding scale for parolees -- $30 a month for those employed full time above the minimum wage, $15 for a month for those making minimum wage and $5 a month for part-time employees.

But it's the principal says Officer and Union Representative Manny Clemente.

"Parolees now are looking at our officers and are accusing our officers of blackmailing them, or taking money, extorting money like we're gangsters," Clemente said.

"At the same time I'm homeless, you still want me to pay $35 that I don't have?" a parolee said.

A veteran officer of nearly 40 years retired rather than force his clients to pay up.

"Their priority should be taking care of their family ... And not paying the state," he said.

Memos we obtained show that officers are even being asked to collect back money from parolees -- like this one who's just been laid off and is supporting a wife and children on $200 a week in unemployment.

Parolee: "Right now I owe $600 dollars."
Sarah: "They want you to pay $600 dollars ... and if you don't?"
Parolee: "Then all these extra stipulations come in. ... I'm being told that my license will be suspended, my curfew will be shortened till 3 in the afternoon."

And how much money are parolees coughing up? The Division of Parole says five years ago, it collected just over $545,000 for the year. This current fiscal year: more than $1.7 million dollars.

Parole officer: "It's a farce. The relationship to them becomes about that we want to get money from them."
Sarah: "Instead of helping them get on the right path."
Officer: "Exactly."

"My concern is that they can't pay the $30 they're either gonna go out there and commit a new crime or they're gonna run," Clemente said.

"I don't know where the money's going." Where's the money going?" another parolee said.

A parole spokesman says the money goes into the general state fund, not even to specific programs for parolees or to victim restitution.

The division argues the fee requirement is no different than collecting fees for hunting permits or vehicle registration -- and that this is no different.