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October 17, 2011

Taking stock of New York's historic prison population drop

This lengthy AP article discusses the what and the how of New York's remarkable reduction in its state prison population in recent years.  Here are highlights:

Nearly 40 years after tough new drug laws led to an explosion in prison rolls, New York state has dramatically reversed course, chalking up a 62 percent drop in people serving time for drug crimes today compared with 2000, according to a Poughkeepsie Journal analysis.

The steep decline — driven, experts said, by shifting attitudes toward drug offenders and lower crime — means that nearly 17,000 fewer minorities serve state time today than in 2000, groups that were hardest hit by the so-called war on drugs.  Overall, the prison population declined 22 percent.

Hispanics and blacks are still vastly overrepresented in prisons but incarceration experts said the overall figures were impressive.  "The drop itself is really quite extraordinary," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Manhattan-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit center for justice policy research....

Nationally, New York charted the biggest drop in its prison rolls from 2000 to 2010, a decade when 37 state prison systems had double-digit population hikes.  Ironically, it was the state's 1973 drug laws, championed by then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, that helped kick off a massive national prison buildup — and the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world.

Now — with state prison spending at $3.7 billion in fiscal 2010, or $55,000 per inmate — New York may be leading the way back.  Nearly 7,700 fewer blacks are incarcerated in state prison in 2011 compared with 2000, the Journal study found.  In addition, 35 percent fewer female inmates serve time — and 77 percent fewer women serve drug sentences as their top crime.  Inmates were also older — by three years on average, according to the analysis, which used databases of the inmate population on one day each in February 2000 and March 2011.

The trend is an outgrowth, experts said, of factors including the diversion of more drug offenders to treatment, changes in drug laws and lower crime rates — especially in New York City, which currently ranks among the safest big cities in America.  There, aggressive "stop-and-frisk," zero-tolerance and computer-driven anti-crime programs have been employed, some say, with remarkable results....

The decline in drug-convicted inmates means more of the type of inmate for which penitentiaries were constructed: violent offenders.  Today, the No. 1 top crime of sentenced inmates is second-degree murder, with just over 8,000 convicts — about the same as in 2000.  In 2000, the most common top crime for which inmates were incarcerated was third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance — with almost 10,000 people sentenced.  That's now down to about 3,000.  

"I would argue that the right people are being sentenced to prison," said Brian Fischer, New York state's prison commissioner.  "Was prison the best alternative for drug abusers? Clearly it was not."...

Before adoption of its drug laws in 1973, New York had built just 18 prisons in 140 years. Driven by mandatory drug sentences and other tough-on-crime statutes, the state opened 52 prisons from 1973 to 2000, raising the population from 13,400 to a historic peak, on Dec. 12, 1999, of 71,538 inmates.  It was 55,599 last week....

Janet DiFiore, a former judge and current Westchester County district attorney ... ties the prison downturn both to drug law reforms — in 2004, 2005 and 2009 — and a recognition in law enforcement that alternatives like drug treatment were needed.  Almost 200 drug courts have been opened statewide, most since 2000, that divert many otherwise prison-bound offenders to treatment.

The downsizing doesn't impress some reform advocates, who still see the system as hugely bloated, especially with blacks and Hispanics, now 77 percent of inmates and down from 84 percent in 2000. "The disparities have diminished somewhat and that's good news, but that does not put us as a state in a place that we can be proud of," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed city frisking policies as invasive and discriminatory. "We were starting at a pretty horrific place from which to decline."...

What's clear is that the downturn is continuing — equal to one or two large prisons in each of the last three years. And it may accelerate with most experts agreeing that the latest drug law reforms have yet to fully kick in.  In 2009, amendments to the Drug Law Reform Act gave judges far broader discretion to divert offenders to drug treatment or sentence them to lesser, non-mandatory, terms. In 2004 and 2005, the act reduced the harshest sentences — 15 years to life for selling as little as two ounces of cocaine or possessing four ounces — but those reforms only marginally reduced the population, experts said.

The reforms are an outgrowth of something much larger than a drug-war backlash, according to close prison observers, among these ballooning prison budgets, the economic downturn and a realization that punishment isn't always the answer.  "Prosecutors were recognizing that our job was not just about handcuffs and prison," said DiFiore. "It was a mindset change."

"In a time of economic recession it causes a rethinking," said Alan Rosenthal, director of justice strategies for the Center for Community Alternatives, a Manhattan-based sentencing reform group. "We had a shift from tough on crime to smart on crime," an acknowledgement, he added, that high prison rolls did not equate with lower crime.

Rates of major crime in New York state have dropped 63 percent since 1990 — a consistent decline even as the prison population rose an average 4 percent a year in the 1990s and declined an average 2 percent a year in the 2000s.

This important article not only highlights the links between the drug war and large prison populations, but also documents that state decisions to fight the drug war using smarter (and less costly) alternatives to imprisonment can facilitate a dramatic reductions in prison populations without obvious adverse public safety consequences.  

I find it especially notable that New York managed to reduce is prison population over 20% during the same period in which California was fighting in court over court orders to fix its overcrowded prisons.  I genuinely believe if the folks in California had embraced the creation of a sentencing commission that could have studied and implemented effective changes taking place in other states, the Plata litigation would have played out much differently and the massive prisoner release order that worries so many would never have come to pass.

October 17, 2011 at 08:40 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Part of the issue, I am sure, with respect to the drop is the certainly of punishment. If people know they are going to get caught and punished, they will tend to commit less crime.

With respect to California, there may not be a parallel. My guess is that you have to be a serious criminal to find your way to a California prison.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 17, 2011 8:51:54 AM

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