Apr 2, 2010

Meet Michael Falk, Regional Director of Metro Area 1, New York State Division of Parole

As the Task Force prepares to intake its first program participant into its pilot case management program in the upcoming weeks, we have been working closely with staff at the NY State Division of Parole, our collaborator on this project. I recently sat down with Michael Falk, Regional Director of Metro Area 1 (Manhattan and the Bronx) in New York, who is a key partner on this project, to learn more about his 44 years of service and his thoughts on the NY State Division of Parole's past and future.

What is your position at the Division of Parole?

I am the Regional Director of the New York State Division of Parole for Manhattan and the Bronx – Metro Area 1. We have 10 Bureaus and each Bureau has a chief-in-charge. I have a Deputy that oversees the day to day operations of those Bureaus. The Bureau Chiefs supervise the Area Supervisors who in turn supervise the Parole Officers who do the field work with parolees.

What does your position entail?

My work is basically administrative. It’s far removed from the work that I really loved doing, but I have more of an impact on how we do things, so it’s much different. I am not too much involved in setting policy, more interpreting policy and ensuring it is implemented throughout the region and of course, addressing any problems that come up. I am a very strong believer in in-service training. You can motivate staff and even make subtle changes in how you want them to do things. It’s a time consuming process, but really necessary in this business, because things do change.

How did you get started in Parole?

Right after college I had thought about going to the Peace Corps, but I also applied for a state job as a probation/parole agent. A job came up right in the town where I went to school so I figured, “What the heck I’ll start here.” I began as a probation/parole agent in a farming area covering five counties. I was in a two man office with one secretary. Together we covered ten counties. Our supervisor was about one hundred some miles away. We would only see him once a month. We were on our own and learned real quick to be independent. It was very enjoyable because you developed close relationships with law enforcement, the legal community, and you actually worked closer with the probationers and parolees. It was really very interesting and I enjoyed it a lot.

You have worked in Parole for over forty years. Why have you stayed?

Because of the satisfaction it brings, working with people and seeing progress, something for your efforts. There is that self-satisfaction you receive when you are working in a one on one relationship with someone. Whether you get a person off of drugs and they make it to the end of their parole sentence, or if they become a threat to the community and you take them into custody, you are protecting the public. Even if a person goes back to prison they come out and you are able to deal with them again.

What is challenging about your job?

Now there is this reemphasis on reentry and maybe with a new governor there will be another change. Every time there is a change in administration things change and that has been one of the things that I’ve found in state service that is real problematic. I have been in the business for a long time and have a certain view of how things should be done. I’m something of en expert because I’ve been with Parole for so long. When we have a different administration come in they ask you to change things. Sometimes it is difficult because they might be asking you to do things that you don’t think are right or don’t benefit the public.

There is now a focus on prisoner reentry and evidence-based practices. How is Parole responding to that change?

Having been in parole for 44 years now, I have seen many changes. Reentry is really nothing new. It’s a renaming of something that we used to do, that we have always done. I used to call it “proactive supervision.” It was called “relapse prevention” before that. There isn’t a whole lot new that we have been doing. There is change in focus here in New York. Parole has bought into the reentry model. We must be doing something right, because of the dramatic drop in the crime rate and prison population. Parole does not get a lot of credit, but the fact of the matter is we deal with the bulk of the people that commit most of the crime. A drug addict will commit anywhere from 2-4 robberies a day. You get one off the street or get one into rehab and you’ve almost stopped a mini crime wave.

Why do you think that Parole is overlooked in that equation?

We have always taken a traditional backseat. I am of the opinion that if we do something significant, we should be out there patting ourselves on the back and letting the community know that they are getting a tremendous service for their dollar. The value the public gets from parole is significant compared to putting someone in prison at $60,000 annually. Parole amounts to a few dollars a day. We are the only ones that can really make an impact. The real change occurs here in the community. Corrections has gotten away from the kinds of programming that they used to be involved in. Their main concern is custody, not too much happens in prison. And even if it does, it is in a sterile atmosphere where inmates are not subjected to all the temptations of life on the outside. Here in the community is where the change occurs.

I know that the Vera Institute of Justice has partnered with the New York Division of Parole to begin implementing a formalized system of graduated responses to encourage compliance and success on parole. What are your thoughts about graduated responses for parolees?

It’s really codifying what we already do so somebody new coming in can see that this is what we do. Most good officers are already doing graduated responses. There are many different motivating tools we use. Some are effective and some are not. We deal with a very sophisticated population, which people fail to realize. For the most part, they have led lifestyles in the street, that for them have been either psychologically or financially successful. They are survivors. They have been through the system many times and know how to manipulate it. For them, sometimes what we think is a reward or punishment, doesn’t mean much. Depends on where they are at in their life and what they want to do. Take a drug dealer that is used to driving around in a Mercedes and being a big shot in a community-- he’s not going to be content working in McDonalds. We had a case out in Queens, a guy was involved in a large scale fraud, millions of dollars, and he loved the lifestyle. No matter how many times we sent him back to prison, he came right out and did the same thing. He loved the lifestyle and prison was just an interruption. So there are some people you can change and others you can’t. You just have to manage your caseload, and this is what we are trying to teach our staff- the caseload management -to focus on those you can change and those you can’t you just monitor.

What has been the high point of your career?

There've been many but the most rewarding was my role in developing and lobbying the passage of the Omnibus Parole Reform Act of 1977 which was a comprehensive redesign of parole that created the Division of Parole as an independent agency separate from the Dept. of Corrections, established due process for parole revocations and is still the law under which we continue to operate today.