Pubdate: Sun, 25 Feb 2007
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The Buffalo News
Author: Murray Light
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


It didn't take long for New York's new governor, Eliot L. Spitzer, to
emulate his predecessor's action in proposing the establishment of a
commission to accomplish something he knows will be controversial. The
governor wants a commission to study the possibility of closing some
of the state's correctional facilities.

Former governor George E. Pataki did succeed in getting approval for a
commission to study the possible closing of some hospitals in the
state, and it recommended closing at least 20 of these facilities. The
report also suggested the shrinking or merging of many other
hospitals. The final report of the Pataki hospital commission has
evoked cries of anguish around the state and has resulted in some
legal actions designed to thwart the recommendations of the commission.

Now a new governor is in place and he's proposing a commission to look
at what he considers to be an excess of correctional facilities in the

Spitzer cites the fact that the state's prison population, which
peaked at more than 71,000 in 1999 has dropped dramatically and now
stands at about 63,000.

The new commission would have to be approved by the Legislature and
that's not going to be an easy matter. The prison system has created
thousands of jobs in communities large and small throughout the state.

Some of the opponents of any prison closings are using the specious
reasoning that the prison system has become in effect an economic
development program and should not be cut back.

I cannot concur in that premise although I do agree that with the drop
in prison population it is time to review the need for as many
facilities as are now operating in the state.

Economic development should not in any way be dependent upon an
element of a state's criminal incarceration system.

The state's prison system has been running on a budget of some $2.7
billion a year. Spitzer wants to put some of those dollars in place
for his programs, such as a vast increase in education funding, a very
much worthy and needed venture.

Past efforts to cut back the prison system have not been successful.
The Legislature repeatedly rejected Pataki's attempts to do this. Of
course the $1.8 million donated by the New York State Correction
Officers and Police Benevolent Association to various state
politicians in recent years has been a major factor in the decisions
by the Legislature on facility cutbacks.

Money always talks in politics.

Not too long ago the president of the New York State Correctional
Officers and Police Benevolent Association was quoted as saying that
"we're not open to any closures at this point." A typical reaction is
that of a Republican state senator who represents an Adirondacks district.

She notes that her district includes 12 prisons and prison camps.
"They have tremendous economic impact," says Elizabeth Little. She
most certainly would not be voting for approval of any prison facility

The governor has to be pleased that the Republican majority leader of
the Senate has said that he is open to the concept of a prison
commission being set up. He carries a lot of weight with his members
and is also quite likely to go along with those who want to protect
jobs in their districts.

On a related matter, members of the governor's staff have said that he
will create through executive order a second commission to study
potential changes in sentencing. That's been done in some other states
and has resulted in cutting back on prison inmate population. This
commission would not need approval of the Legislature to be
established. It's an excellent idea. I'd suggest one change should be
in the sentencing for marijuana possession in small amounts. That
change would certainly keep the prison population down and should not
endanger anyone.
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