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EDITORIAL: Fewer folks behind bars isn't so bad

The Daily Star - 12/26/2020

Dec. 25—The announcement this week that the state will be closing the Watertown and Gowanda prisons along with an annex to the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora is a bit of a political Rorschach test that means different things to different observers.

Those who work at the facilities are probably upset, and understandably so. Losing a job or having to move is always difficult, and especially so during the holiday season — and even more in 2020. But spokesman Thomas Mailey of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said the staffers will receive "priority placement" for job transfers elsewhere in the state. And Michael Powers, president of the Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, told CNHI that he's hopeful his union members won't face any layoffs.

But if you're concerned about public safety, the prison closures should be taken in context. The state's prison population now stands at 34,842 according to Mailey, down from 57,229 a year ago. The decline is only partly due to the early release of prisoners at risk of contracting COVID-19; only about 1,400 inmates, all non-violent offenders, have been freed so far.

A more significant factor is the age of the inmate population; in 2018, about one-fifth of the inmates were age 50 or older, according to North Country Public Radio. Many are holdovers from an era when New York had much stricter criminal laws — but wasn't necessarily any safer.

According to statistics from the Prison Policy Initiative, the state's prison incarceration rate in 1978 was slightly more than 100 per 400,000 citizens. By the year 2000, that rate had nearly quadrupled to almost 400. Jail incarceration rates nearly tripled over the same time frame.

To be fair, these rises coincided with rising crime rates. But at a point in the early 1990s, crime rates in New York peaked, and have been falling more or less steadily ever since. The stiff Rockefeller drug laws passed in 1973 led to what many voters later determined was a harsher-than-necessary crackdown on minor drug offenses, pulling folks who might have been otherwise harmless into the cycle of recidivism.

This decline in the prison population should be monitored closely for any hiccups, but on the whole should be welcomed, not feared. The goal of the prison system, after all, is to rehabilitate offenders who can be salvaged and protect society from those who can't. The goal should not simply be to provide jobs, and regional economies that will suffer from the closures would be better served anyway by having the state spend that money on something more useful than keeping the lights on in empty cells.

State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, sees things differently — through the most partisan prism possible, as is his wont. Ortt said the move "demonstrates an ill-will toward hard-working upstate New Yorkers," adding: "It is no secret that Albany has buckled under the pressures of pro-criminal special interest groups."

If what Ortt says is true, than that buckling began under a fellow Republican, Gov. George Pataki, who signed the Drug Law Reform Act into law in 2004, significantly scaling back the Rockefeller-era laws. In signing the bill, Pataki said it "reflects a greater knowledge than we had 30 years ago."

The dwindling of inmates behind the walls of New York prisons could mean many things. But if it means that efforts to prevent crime, prevent recidivism and rehabilitate offenders back into the general population are making progress, then we should be proud, not afraid.


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