Liberate N.Y. from its prisons

From the Albany Times Union on 12/7/2010:

Liberate N.Y. from its prisons
By Robert Gangi

Despite a sharply declining prison population and the very real need to cut state agency budgets, New York has closed hardly any of its underutilized prisons. For example, the state budget approved earlier this year included eliminating funding for just 450 beds.

More ambitious plans to shut facilities have failed largely for political reasons. Concerned about the loss of jobs, the correction officers union and legislators from upstate areas where most of the prisons are located have successfully blocked most closure proposals made by the state’s past three governors: George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.

Now, however, trends that have been building for years in New York have reached a level of an almost perfect storm. The stage has been set for a major government initiative to close costly, empty prisons. Those trends include a continuing fiscal crisis with a projected $9 billion deficit for the next fiscal year alone, a prison population that has declined from more than 71,600 in 1999 to fewer than 57,000 today, a 28 percent drop in the crime rate in the last 10 years and a growing number of unused prison beds — more than 8,000, by the state’s own recent count.

Now Andrew Cuomo is coming into office with an unmistakable mandate to put state government in order. Cuomo stated during the campaign that he was prepared to stand up to the state’s public service employee unions and to oversee substantial cuts in state agency budgets.

Given the convergence of these political and economic factors, given all those empty spaces and the dropping crime rate, why shouldn’t the state’s leaders move to close facilities?

Albany policymakers can enact additional population reduction measures that will make such a cost savings step easier to take:

Fully repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Even after last year’s reforms, mandatory sentencing provisions remain on the books that will cause the imprisonment of thousands of minor drug offenders each year.

Restore work release. In 1994, more than 27,000 state inmates participated in work release, a proven, cost-beneficial program that aids in the safe transition back to the community. Now, about 2,500 are enrolled.

Expand graduated sanctions for technical parole violations. Last year, more than 8,000 people were returned to state prison for technical parole violations — such as showing up late for an appointment or breaking curfew — not for committing new crimes. Instead of returning people to prison, the state could enhance their level of supervision.

Increase parole release and expand merit time eligibility. The state Parole Board often denies individuals release because of the nature of their crime, despite their positive institutional records. Merit time, which allows inmates to earn time off their sentences, is not available to those convicted of violent offenses. Combined, these two policies delay the release of thousands of people every year.

When New York passed the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973, only about 12,500 people were confined in its prisons. About 300,000 people were locked up in the nation’s prisons and jails. Those harsh laws effectively triggered a mandatory sentencing movement that swept the country. Today our nation’s correctional facilities house nearly 2.4 million people, a growth of more than 600 percent.

This social experiment in “mass incarceration” has been a failure by any criteria. The evidence that it enhances public safety is, at best, mixed. Some consider it criminogenic. It has been enormously expensive, costing federal and local governments billions each year. And it has had a devastating impact on low-income communities of color where a starkly disproportionate number of the people who we imprison come from.

New York can perform a pivotal role in pointing criminal justice practice in a more productive direction by downsizing its prison system and re-investing some of the money saved in proven rehabilitation and community-based prevention programs.

The week after his election, Andrew Cuomo toured Sing Sing prison and spoke to the press afterward. He cited New York’s declining prison population, calling it “good news.” He also strongly suggested that New York could no longer justify paying to keep open institutions whose employees “literally have no function.”

That was good news, too, and a significant signal that, on the prison downsizing front, New York’s next governor is determined to fulfill a major campaign promise by succeeding where his predecessors so tellingly failed.

Robert Gangi is executive director of the Correctional Association of New York.

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