Kerry Lathan was just a bystander when he was wounded in the hail of gunfire that took the life of rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle. Nevertheless, Lathan was arrested after the attack and held for weeks.
His offense? Violating his parole by being in Hussle’s presence.
Lathan, who was shot in the back, was finally released last week when Gov. Gavin Newsom intervened. But his arrest shines a light on a serious issue facing felons trying to get back on their feet after being released from prison.
Lathan’s parole, like that of many parolees, bars him from associating with known gang members, and Hussle was quite open about his past membership in the Rollin’ 60s Crips. Hussle had gone on to become a positive force in the community, drawing praise from President Obama and Mayor Eric Garcetti, but that was irrelevant, according to Lathan’s parole terms.
The conditions imposed on parolees often impede their progress after their release. They are generally ordered, for example, to stay away from anyone with a felony conviction, which can be virtually impossible. One in 12 Americans has a felony conviction, as does one in three black men. People on parole or probation, particularly in communities of color, are often forced to choose between obeying the rules and spending time with friends and family who might actually provide them with stability, job leads and support.
As the nation’s prison and jail population mushroomed over the past four decades, so too have probation and parole, increasing fivefold since 1977.
At a recent conference in New York, one speaker told of having to live in a homeless shelter after his release from prison because he was prohibited from returning to his mother’s home due to her past felony conviction.
In some cases, the prohibitions prevent parolees from taking advantage of programs that could help them. Mentoring programs for young people on probation, for example, often employ “credible messengers” who were formerly incarcerated or involved in gangs to help address the problem. In Oakland and New York City, where the two of us ran probation departments, we encouraged participation in such programs to help people turn their lives around. No one should have to risk a parole violation to get help.
The whole intent of parole and probation, which date back to the 1800s, was to provide a way to show leniency in sentencing (probation) or provide for early release to reward cooperation with prison rules (parole).
But as the nation’s prison and jail population mushroomed over the past four decades, so too have probation and parole, increasing fivefold since 1977. There are now 4.5 million people on probation or parole in the United States, more than 300,000 of them in California.
There is growing agreement about the need to transform community supervision. In 2017, 35 probation and parole officials, 45 prosecutors, and every national organization representing community corrections, signed on to a “Statement on the Future of Community Corrections” that called for changes to the probation and parole systems, including reducing both the time spent under supervision and the number of conditions imposed.
Last year, we joined 20 probation and parole administrators in authoring a report that found community corrections had grown “too big to succeed.” We recommended reducing the number of people on probation or parole by half over the next decade and committing the savings to better supervision of those remaining in the system.
This report came out not long after Philadelphia hip-hop artist Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for technical violations of probation, sparking widespread criticism of the system. He had been on probation for more than 10 years at the time of his revocation.
Gov. Newsom took an important step in ordering Lathan’s release. He should now order an audit of all people incarcerated for technical violations of their parole or probation and release most of them the way he released Lathan. He should also direct parole agencies to eliminate all conditions for parolees that do not directly relate to public safety.
The California Legislature can do its part by passing a common-sense bill, SB 277, which would allow a parolee to reduce time under supervision by achieving positive milestones, like completing education or counseling. And California’s laws governing probation and parole should be reformed to ensure that people are no longer imprisoned for technical, noncriminal violations, but instead are helped to make the difficult transition from incarceration to freedom.
David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, is the former chief probation officer of Alameda County and former deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. Vincent Schiraldi is former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation and co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab.