Letter from the Director: Tough Times Call For Smart Measures

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Even before September’s Wall Street collapse, New York Governor David Paterson was calling the State’s looming budget gap—more than $26 billion over three years—a crisis, likening it to the Great Depression. In response, the governor ordered across-the-board agency cuts, setting no priorities about which programs to preserve and which to eliminate. Regrettably, low-income people, who tend to depend most on government services, will bear the brunt of this decision.

Take, for example, the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), which operates the State’s 69 prisons. It must cut $240 million, roughly one-tenth of its operating budget. Like all state agencies, DOCS confronts difficult choices. However, if the governor and other state policymakers were to set aside short-sighted political considerations, they could effectively assist DOCS in this process by supporting two cost-cutting measures: closing underutilized prisons and repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

In January of this year—before Paterson became governor and three months before the state enacted this year’s budget—DOCS proposed a sensible plan to close four prisons, a step that would have saved $70 million over two years. The governor and legislative leaders acceded to pressure from local politicians and the correction officers union and voted down the proposal. But as the prison population continues to shrink—by 10,000 incarcerated individuals since 1999—and our economic woes worsen, the governor should revisit and perhaps expand upon this plan.

Eliminating the Rockefeller Drug Law—New York’s 35-year-old drug sentencing policies—would also help the State close the gap. There are over 13,000 nonviolent individuals convicted under the laws, which have proven ineffective, wasteful, and marked by racial bias. By contrast, alternative programs such as drug treatment and job training are far less costly and have proven more successful at curtailing drug use and drug-related crime. Drug law repeal would save the State over $220 million annually.

DOCS has no control over the State’s drug sentencing laws that produce over a fifth of its population, and pursuing prison closures remains untenable without the governor’s support. Working within these limitations, the agency’s revised spending plan does protect some new initiatives, such as the Family Reunion Program at Albion Correctional Facility. But DOCS is already making other tough cuts, among them the “Stay’n Out” program, which offers substance abuse treatment for incarcerated men and women, and has proven effective in helping individuals make a successful re-entry to their communities.

The time to adopt smart spending policy is now. Keeping underutilized prisons open in the face of steep drops in the incarcerated person population makes no sense. Sending people convicted of drug crimes to prison when they and the public are both better served by less costly, more effective alternative programs makes no sense. Virtually forcing DOCS to cut programs that reduce recidivism, likely resulting in more expense and a larger prison population down the road, makes no sense.

Sometimes the undeniable need to scale back public funding can provide cover for officials to adopt measures they would ordinarily consider too politically risky. Governor Paterson and other policymakers should use the budget crisis as an opportunity to adopt sensible budget policies that result in more fair and efficient government and protect the most vulnerable among us.