Pubdate: Tue, 13 Feb 2007
Source: Post-Standard, The (Syracuse, NY)
Copyright: 2007 The Herald Company
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Ideas Surface For A 'Just, Affordable' Correctional System

Gov. Eliot Spitzer has Big Ideas like redirecting school aid, tax 
relief and health-care spending. But his proposed budget also touches 
on other aspects of public policy including crime and punishment.

Spitzer plans two new commissions one to target excess prison 
facilities, the other to consider sentencing reforms. In both these 
areas, enlightened policies could save the state and its taxpayers money.

The state prison population has dropped by some 8,400 inmates since 
1999, so it's time to cut back on prison cells. After a decade of 
declining crime rates, as many as 106,000 more inmates are due to 
complete their sentences in the next four years. Spitzer promises 
"the evolution of our entire criminal justice system into one that is 
effective, just and affordable," and sensibly plans to focus on 
community re-entry for those inmates.

Yet even more offenders can be diverted from the costly, 
self-defeating cycle of incarceration and recidivism by treating 
underlying conditions that lead to crime. Start with repealing the 
harsh Rockefeller drug laws that were enacted in the 1970s as a 
reflexive "tough on crime" gesture.

Even after modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the state keeps locking 
up more people each year for non-violent drug offenses. Today some 
14,250 drug offenders cost taxpayers $460 million to hold in cells 
that took $1.5 billion to build. More than 90 percent of those 
inmates are African-American or Latino, although the majority of drug 
abusers are white.

Studies show outpatient treatment is many times more effective than 
prison sentences in curbing the drug abuse that causes crime, at 
about one-tenth the cost. Polls suggest 74 percent of New Yorkers 
favor treatment over prison for drug possession. Now is the time to 
build political consensus for returning discretion to judges and 
supporting alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.

The governor also wants more attention to the needs of prisoners with 
mental illness. The Correctional Association of New York suggests at 
the very least ending the practice of confining mentally ill inmates 
for up to 23 hours a day. What they need is psychiatric care, not 
isolation that aggravates their conditions.

Other reforms proposed by the Correctional Association include:

- -- Supporting the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, with 
community-based programs to keep minors arrested for prostitution out 
of jail and help them rebuild their lives.

- -- Emphasizing alternatives to incarceration for virtually all young 
people charged with non-violent offenses. Similar initiatives in Ohio 
have helped reduce youth detentions by 40 percent in the last 10 years.

- -- Granting "merit time eligibility" for domestic violence survivors 
incarcerated for crimes related to their abusive treatment, so they 
can earn time off their sentences.

These sensible proposals fit the framework of the "evolution" 
envisioned by Spitzer's budget plan. They deserve serious attention 
from the Legislature and the governor in coming weeks.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman