January 07, 2011

A Good Place to Start Cutting

Governor Andrew Cuomo on prison reform:

A Good Place to Start Cutting (New York Times, January 6 2011)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck just the right tone on both adult prison reform and juvenile justice reform in his first State of the State address on Wednesday. He said that New York could no longer afford to keep hugely expensive but unneeded facilities open to serve as "an employment program" for upstate residents.

To get the Legislature to agree to shut these facilities, Mr. Cuomo will have to push back hard against the corrections workers' unions that have thwarted sound closure proposals from all three of his predecessors.

The case for closures is laid out in a new analysis by the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit group. New York's prison population has dropped from about 71,500 at its peak in 1999 to around 56,000 today. This has left more than 8,000 empty beds, meaning that the state could close or significantly downsize eight to 10 of the 67 units in the system and still have ample room to handle any unexpected spike in the population. The savings would be $220 million in the first year.

The state could also save money by reversing misguided criminal-justice policies. In 1995, Gov. George Pataki prohibited people convicted of violent crimes from participating in work-release programs. That order cut the number of participants from nearly 28,000 in 1994 to about 2,500 in 2007, the most recent year for which the association has data.

The point of Mr. Pataki's order was to protect the public from violent offenders, but it may well have had the opposite effect. Once they had done their time, inmates were dumped onto the streets without any chance to reacclimate and find their place in the community. Work-release programs cost about $7,500 per participant annually, as opposed to about $55,000 to keep one person behind bars. Increasing the number of participants to just 5,000 would save more than $80 million a year.

The state also needs to reform a parole system that returns as many as 8,000 inmates a year to prison for technical violations like breaking curfew. Other states have shown that they can keep the prison count down, at no risk to the public, by increasing supervision of violators instead of reflexively bouncing them back to jail.

These will be tough political fights. But for the sake of both fiscal sanity and sound public policy, they are ones that Governor Cuomo needs to fight and win.