NYS Prison Budget Climbs, Despite Fewer Inmates

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From City Limits:

New York State has slashed its inmate population by more than a quarter since its peak in 1999, from 71,538 to roughly 53,000 today, but the state’s corrections department budget has swollen by nearly a one-third in that time to close to $3 billion. This seems unlikely to change much either–in fact the budget went up last year, as did the number of unionized guards –and these trends could very well continue.

So much for the virtuous “justice reinvestment” cycle of taking money saved from expensive incarceration ($60,000 per inmate per year in New York State) and redirecting those public funds into communities to help former inmates reintegrate and keep youthful offenders out of ‘doing time.’ That’s not happening now. What small savings there have been occurred mostly on paper, costs avoided but spent elsewhere in the bureaucracy.

That’s discouraging because the state’s recent inmate reduction was the “easy” part of moving away from the heyday of excessive incarceration. It was largely accomplished by rolling back the draconian 1973 Rockefeller drug law, a move that the federal government is now largely replicating by releasing non-violent drug offenders, eventually tens of thousands of them. In New York, the reforms ultimately led to the closure of 13 prisons, where should have translated into real savings. Future reductions will be harder to come by, take more time and yield fewer if any savings.

“It is disheartening to hear that after the closure of these facilities there has been no commitment to re-apportion those desperately needed funds to justice reinvestment programs such as the anti-gun violence initiative SNUG,” says Assemblyman Walter Mosley of Brooklyn, who serves on the corrections committee. When set up in 2009 SNUG (guns spelled backwards) had $4 million of funding to allocate to community based organizations like Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes who, often staffed by former gang members, serve as mentors and “violence interruptors” for at-risk youth. In this year’s budget SNUG was given $2.9 million.

The rise and fall of the prison population

New York’s prison boom got underway in the 1980s when the state built 30 new correctional facilities. Prevailing high crime – mostly drug-fueled – and harsh statutory sentencing ranges quickly filled them; the inmate population swelled from 30,000 in 1983 to 64,000 by 1993. This occurred mostly under Gov. Mario Cuomo, who some say, felt compelled to be tough on crime and big on prisons to fend off fierce criticism of his opposition to the death penalty. The Department of Correction and Community Supervision (DOCCS) budget swelled to become one of the largest of any state agency and now consumes 60 percent of all Albany’s spending on security, with the balance divided up by 12 other agencies, including the state police.

When the state realized how fiscally unsustainable its over-built prison system had become it amended the Rockefeller drug laws three times and allowed the release of non-violent drug offenders. “Although it was not specified in the legislation—this was not a bill on closing prisons, but about reforming the Rockefeller drug laws—reallocating funds was very much part of the thinking behind it,” recalls Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol who has had a role overseeing criminal justice matters for much of his Albany time since first elected in 1972.” We were well aware that reducing the number of incarcerated would allow funds to be freed up in the short-run and longer term there was the expectation of additional savings because the reforms would help close minimum and medium security prisons.”

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