A New Era Ahead?

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We in New York have just emerged from a wasteland in criminal justice policy making. If you measure it in terms of time, rather than geography, the wasteland lasted 2 ½ decades and covered the combined 6 terms of the Cuomo and Pataki administrations. The measures that lent an especially harsh and punitive character to the prison-related policies of this period include:

  • An enormous expansion in the use of prisons themselves. From 1817 to 1981, a stretch of 164 years, New York opened 33 prisons. From 1982 to 2000, a span of 18 years, the state opened 38 prisons.
  • An increase of over 70% in the number of incarcerated individuals with mental illness since 1991. In 1980, the state opened a 206-bed facility for incarcerated individuals with severe mental illness and has not expanded it since then, despite a tripling of New York’s prison population.
  • The reinstatement of the death penalty.
  • The elimination of government funding for college programs in prison.
  • A sharp increase in disciplinary housing. During the late 1990’s the state added 3300 double-celled punitive segregation beds at a construction cost alone of $238 million.
  • A stiffening in parole release practices. From 1992 to 2004, the release rate dropped from 62% to 38%.
  • The refusal to enact any meaningful changes to the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws, even though—according to all polls taken and the common wisdom in Albany—the political climate has shifted in favor of real reform.
  • Cutting back on the use of work release, which went from having nearly 28,000 participants in 1994 to having a little more than 5,000 in 2003.
  • Establishing exorbitant phone rates for the mostly poor families who receive collect calls from incarcerated individuals, charging them 630% more than the average user.

The new governor has thankfully addressed this last issue by decreeing a substantial reduction in the old phone rates. Also, his proposed 2008 budget includes additional funds for treatment programs for incarcerated individuals with mental illness and for alternatives to detention for youth. These measures are positive developments in themselves and, possibly, portents of more constructive changes to come. Also encouraging are Mr. Spitzer’s appointments to key criminal justice positions. Brian Fischer, the state’s new prison commissioner, and Denise O’Donnell, the new head of the Division of Criminal Justice Services, for example, are enlightened public officials who seem interested in having collaborative, rather than antagonistic, relationships with outside advocates and service providers.

Even with these good omens in place, however, we should not and cannot slip into a complacent posture about the future. The Spitzer administration has not yet submitted proposals, or even tipped its hand on where it stands, regarding such critical issues as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, higher education in the prisons, confining people with mental illness in punitive segregation, or fair and sensible parole release practices. As we say elsewhere in these pages, we criminal justice reformers cannot rely solely on the state’s leaders, new or old, to create the change needed. We must press forward with our time-honored endeavors—organizing, outreach, public education—that maintain the spotlight on our concerns and keep the heat on policymakers to address them. Stay tuned for our future reports which will update you on the response of Mr. Spitzer and his circle of advisors to our activities, and whether we continue to wander in the wasteland or our hopes for a new era are justified. Given the signs so far and our confidence in our own work, we are betting on the more optimistic outcome.