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Public Safety

Can New York Break Its Incarceration Habit?


youth justice
Photo (cc) Yoshi
Rochester detention center

It’s an experiment that has arguably run its course.

In the last 20 years, states across the country have quadrupled their spending on jails and prisons from $11 billion in 1987 to $44 billion last year, while imprisoning 2.3 million individuals – or one in 100 American adults, according to a report released by the Pew Center on the States. While some criminologists give incarceration partial credit for cutting crime in the 1990s, many argue that these public safety benefits are evaporating and that money for jails would be better spent in other areas such as health care and education.

Among policymakers and experienced corrections officials, there is a palpable sense of optimism that the political will exists to tackle the issue of mass imprisonment. To them, the Pew Center report’s eye-catching title, "One in 100," has helped focus a long-running debate about the fiscal and human costs of incarcerating so many Americans for so many years. "The report is engaging people who are normally not part of the conversation," said New York City’s Probation and Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn. "I think it’s created a real opportunity."

Even conservative states like Kansas and Texas are beginning to embrace prison reform, with legislators from both sides of the aisle coming together to make change. "There is a growing realization around the country that we can’t build our way out of the crime problem with more prisons," said Adam Gelb, one of the authors of the Pew report.

For New Yorkers this shift in attitude poses a number of questions. How will the state respond? Will it close the prisons that now play such a major role in the upstate economy? And, if the state does realize savings on prisons, how could that money best be used to further reduce crime?

The New York Exception

New York is exhibit number one for reformers who seek to reassure citizens that it is possible to cut crime and incarceration rates at the same time. Virtually alone among states, New York has seen the number of inmates in its prisons decline over the past decade. It has 9,000 fewer state prison inmates than it did 10 years ago, a 12 percent decrease, as crime rates have continued to drop. By the end of 2007, there were a total of 62,260 individuals in state prison. At the same time, the number of people held in New York City jails awaiting trial or imprisoned for a short period shrank from a high of 23,000 in 1993 to just over 13,000 in 2007.

These sharp drops have been driven largely by the city’s plunging felony arrest rate. Violent crime in New York City declined by 75 percent between 1991 and 2004. The city now sends about 8,000 inmates each year to the state’s prison system, down from 20,000, according to Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice and a nationally known expert on incarceration.

Other parts of the correctional system have seen similar declines. In New York City, the number of individuals under probation supervision dropped from 50,870 in 1998 to 45,844 in 2007. The population on parole dropped by 18 percent over the same period for the state as a whole, fueled entirely by a dramatic, 30 percent decline in the number of parolees under supervision in New York City. That translates to 24,756 parolees in New York City in 2007, down from 35,286 in 1998. Probation is a city program that supervises offenders as an alternative to prison or jail. Parole, which in New York is run by the state, supervises offenders after they are released from state prison.

This drop has helped relieve pressure on New York’s budget at a time when other states are grappling with exploding incarceration rates. For example, California spends $8.8 billion a year on corrections, a staggering 216 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 20 years and 8.8 percent of the state’s budget, according to the Pew Center. By contrast, New York spends $2.6 billion on corrections, or 5.1 percent of the budget.

The Politics of Prison Closings

Despite the decline in prisoners, though, New York has had mixed success in meeting another challenge posed by prison reformers: shutting prisons and re-allocating the money spent on them to other uses, such as providing drug treatment, job training and other services to recently released prisoners.

If anything, the process of closing prisons has gotten harder, not easier, in recent years. For example, in 2006 the state legislature passed a bill requiring that employees must receive a year's notice before any prison can be closed.

Then in April Gov. David Patterson quietly withdrew his predecessor's plan to close four upstate prisons. The move would have saved taxpayers $70 million over the next two years, but was shelved in the face of objections from state Senate Republicans, many of whom represent upstate communities where the prisons are located.

The prison system is a $2.7 billion a year industry in New York State, concentrated in many upstate communities. As the economies of these areas have declined, the prisons have remained a source of jobs, income and people. While about two thirds of the prisoners in the state are from New York City, the U.S. Census counts themas residents of the place where they are incarcerated. This boosts the populations of many rural communities, giving them more votes in the legislature than they might otherwise have, along with other benefits.


Gov. Eliot Spitzer had attempted to neutralize political objections to prison closures by proposing that a state commission look into the issue in 2007. Modeled after the federal government's successful effort to shut excess military bases, the idea was the panel would present the legislature with a comprehensive plan that would be difficult to oppose.

The legislature, though, blocked that effort. Spitzer then turned to his state Department of Correctional Services. After what department spokesperson Erik Kriss has described as a "thorough internal review," officials proposed closing a medium security prison, the Hudson Correctional Facility in Columbia County, as well as three minimum security facilities. The department had even begun to transfer "a few dozen" employees out of the facilities slated for closure.

That was clearly premature. When the state budget was announced in April, it restored full funding for all four.

Advocates responded with outrage. "It’s really a jobs program for economically depressed communities," Robert Gangi, the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, told the New York Times. Gangi holds out hope that Patterson will fight for prison closures in the future. He notes that Patterson has a record of opposing mass incarceration and was even arrested at a demonstration protesting the state's harsh drug laws in 2002. "Maybe [Patterson] will return to it when he gets his sea legs under him," said Gangi.

Reforming Parole

The failure to close state prisons is a blow to state officials who hoped to use the savings to comply with tighter supervision standards for sex offenders, introduced by the legislature in 2006. It also gives the state less flexibility to help re-invigorate parts of the correctional system, like parole and probation, which have long suffered from neglect and under funding.

Advocates are particularly interested in transferring money from prisons to parole, which they see as key to reducing incarceration rates and increasing public safety. Improving parole would have a kind of domino effect: Better supervision of released offenders would reduce the number of offenders who go back to prison, thereby further diminishing the need for prisons, which in turn would free up more money for parole.

In recent years, however, parole officials have had to fend off challenges to the institution’s basic legitimacy. In 2005, the Urban Institute released a report, entitled "Does Parole Work?" It found that parole had little to no effect on re-arrest rates among offenders. After controlling for demographics and differences in criminal histories, the researchers found little difference between offenders released from prison with no conditions and those released under parole supervision. Roughly 60 percent of offenders in each group were re-arrested within two years. Some groups, such as white males with histories of violence and a long arrest records, actually fared worse under parole supervision than when they were released unconditionally.

In addition, observers credit -- or blame -- parole for helping to fuel the country’s prison boom. Put simply, in many states, parole provides the reason to put many released convicts back in jail. Studies show that about a quarter of all released offenders are re-incarcerated within three years of their release on so-called "technical violations" of their parole, such as failing a drug test or missing a curfew, as opposed to a new arrest.


In some states like California, the problem is particularly acute: According to Michael Jacobson, the state sends three quarters of its parole population back to jail every year for technical violations. In 2001, close to 15 percent of parolees were returned to jail in New York for technical violations, although that accounted for a large share (about one third) of all new prison admissions.

As Jacobson and others describe it, over-taxed parole officers return parolees to jail for minor infractions in an effort to manage caseloads that average 65 or more. The irony is that the parole system, one of the government’s most poorly funded functions, has essentially unchecked authority to authorize millions of dollars of government expenditures by citing offender for violations, guaranteeing their return to jail and the need for more prisons.

Some of parole’s toughest critics are system insiders such as Horn, the former executive director of New York’s Division of Parole. In a 2001 article in Corrections Management Quarterly, Horn called for "ending parole as we know it." He proposed replacing it with vouchers that would allow parolees to purchase needed services like drug treatment, job training or housing on their own. Before being released to the community, inmates would be placed in halfway houses to ease their reentry into society. The role of parole would shift from surveillance to supporting inmates and helping to link them to services. "I’m more convinced than ever that this is the right way to go," said Horn.

Other prominent correctional reformers, such as Jacobson and Jeremy Travis, the president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argue that it would be politically difficult to win support for any plan, like Horn's, that does away with post prison supervision of offenders. Instead, Travis favors transferring parole from the executive branch to the judicial branch. He would create "re-entry courts" in which judges would supervise the reentry process.

Jacobson focuses more directly on reforms to parole itself, which include allocating resources so that recently released parolees get the most attention, limiting the length of time that a person stays on parole and curtailing the use of technical violations.

What all these proposals share, however, is the urgent sense that parole in its current form simply does not work. "If almost any of the state parole systems were a Fortune 500 company, the CEO would take one look at it and shut it down," Jacobson writes.

The View from New York

Here again, New York looks pretty good – at least in comparison to other states.

Although New York City’s plummeting crime rate gets most of the credit for the state’s declining incarceration population, some modest changes in correctional policy have had an impact as well. Some state prisoners are eligible for early release if they complete a so-called "shock incarceration" program that includes six months of hard labor. According to the state Department of Correctional Services, the program, in operation since 1987, has saved $1.18 billion in prison costs by granting over 36,000 participants a release an average of 345 days early.

Small changes to the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted by the state legislature in 2004, have resulted in the early release of about 3,000 individuals, according to the New York State Criminal Justice 2007 Crimestat Report. Finally, in April, four state agencies, including the Division of Parole, launched a new drug treatment center in Harlem aimed at reducing the rate at which parolees, including those who fail a drug test or commit other technical violations, return to prison.

Perhaps most importantly, New York City offers a number of resources for the 15,000 parolees who returned home in 2007. Well-respected non-profit organizations like the Center for Employment Opportunities], the Fortune Society, the Women’s Prison Association and Family Justice all work with this population.

For example, the Center for Employment Opportunities provides short-term paid jobs and other services to about 2,000 parolees every year. Participants spend about eight weeks painting classrooms on college campuses, mopping courthouse floors or filling other temporary positions. After finishing these paid internships, job experts work to match participants to permanent jobs. The goal is to help released inmates manage the transition from incarceration to paid work.

"We feel strongly that a person coming home needs more than help than just creating a resume," said Marta Nelson, the director of policy and planning. "They need someone who can connect them to an employer." The program has cut re-incarceration rates among parolees by almost half, but only for individuals who begin the program within three months of their release. This finding mirrors national research that shows the importance of linking parolees to services immediately.

Despite these signs of success, New York is subject to the same difficult policy and practical challenges faced all over the country. "Parole is hard," said Horn. "It really gets deep into social and psychological factors [of parolees], and operates in a world where there are so many factors outside of its control."

For now, one of those factors seems to be New York State's commitment to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons -- even without the prisoners to fill them.

Aubrey Fox is project director of Bronx Community Solutions, aimed at changing the Bronx court system’s approach to low-level crime.





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