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October 12, 2009

"The High Cost of Empty Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this op-ed in today's New York Times. Here are excerpts:

Last Wednesday, changes to New York’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws went into effect, allowing judges to shorten the prison terms of some nonviolent offenders. This measure will further reduce New York’s prison population, which has already declined, in the past 10 years, from about 71,600 in 1999 to about 59,300 today. (The state’s crime rate also dropped substantially during that time.)

Nevertheless, mainly because of opposition from the correction officers’ union and politicians from the upstate areas where most of our correctional facilities are, the state has been slow to close prisons.  It was not until earlier this year that policymakers in Albany, confronted with fiscal crisis, mustered the will to shut three prison camps and seven prison annexes — a total of about 2,250 prison beds — in a move that is expected to save $52 million over the next two years.

But the state could go further.  The prison system still has more than 5,000 empty beds in 69 prisons.  What’s more, there are other ways to lower the prison population.  For starters, state lawmakers could repeal the Rockefeller mandatory sentencing provisions that remain on the books. They could also increase the number of participants on work release.  In 1994, more than 27,000 people were in this time-tested program that helps them manage the transition back to their communities.  Today, about 2,500 are enrolled.

In addition, the state could reduce the number of people — last year, more than 9,000 — who are returned to prison for technical parole violations like missing a meeting with an officer or breaking curfew.  Most experts agree that for about half of these people it would be safer and smarter to enroll them in re-entry programs or provide more supervision.  Also, more prisoners with good institutional records could be given parole.  And eligibility for so-called merit time, which reduces prison terms for inmates who complete educational and other programs, could be expanded to people convicted of violent offenses many years ago....

New York can now help point criminal justice in a more sensible and constructive direction — and show other states how to save money — by downsizing its prison system.

October 12, 2009 at 06:31 PM | Permalink


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Other professions seek the rent. You pay taxes for prison cells. They provide no benefit because they are empty. That is rent seeking by the prison guard union and by local politicians keeping make work jobs in their district. Most everyone objects to such theft of tax funds. When the lawyer does it, most people object too.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 13, 2009 8:53:49 AM

SC: I am glad other professions can evoke your wrath. As a contingent future lawyer, I am against the overcriminalization of modern activities (as shown by the sexting discussions below), even if it might help me gain employment at a prosecutor's office or defense firm. However, I do not think it is strictly a lawyer problem. I think our legislators share blame for the creation of these new crimes. I acknowledge that many, if not the majority, of our lawmakers have legal training. But who is responsible for keeping these "tough-on-crime" lawmakers in office? The voters. All of us.

Posted by: Shawn | Oct 13, 2009 11:52:08 AM


According to the National Conference of State Legislatures the percentage of legislators that were attorneys decreased for 23% in 1976 to 16% in 2007. Unless they are a former county attorney or assistant county attorney it is very unlikely that an attorney in the legislature would have a criminal law background. In Iowa the county attorneys have more resources and are able to do a much better job of lobbying than the defense bar and I would not be surprised if that is typical. We also see "Tough on Crime" legislation passed with near unanimous votes and it is promptly signed by the Governor so TOC is essentially bipartisan and I suspect that is also typical. "Smart on Crime" does not appear to have much (or any) traction.

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 13, 2009 3:28:03 PM


Thanks for the stats. I would have assumed it was higher, based on my knowledge of Ohio legislators. The Ohio House and Senate actually have several members with criminal law backgrounds on their Criminal Justice committees, which is the group I am most familiar. I do not know if Ohio tries to assign its legislators by background, or whether that is just a coincidence. I agree SOC legislation is rare if not extinct. And the soft on crime label is definitely a bipartisan fear. I was mainly addressing Supremacy Clause, who seeks to eliminate the 15,000 or so American lawyers. Perhaps he would be better of focusing on the smaller number of legislators who write the laws that he abhors. Or perhaps he should go after the 100 million or so voters in the country who vote for the people who make the laws.

Posted by: Shawn | Oct 13, 2009 4:13:24 PM

John: Come on. You are not addressing your kid's third grade class here. Save the propaganda for them.

There is almost no turnover, since the rules make it almost impossible to vote out an incumbent. This lack of the possibility of change goes along with a lawyer dominated policy making and law drafting staff. The elected figurehead votes as told by the lawyer lobbyist who has contributed $thousands to the campaign fund of each legislator. The figurehead does not even understand the lawyer language, let alone its legal implications, let alone its unintended consequences. Most of these laws are for the appearance of virtue and are meaningless gestures.

Instead of defending the status quo that is utterly in failure, here is a little job for your next hundred years. Remove the supernatural from the law. Unify the meaning of evidence in the law with that in science. Develop laws that are effective, and that do not devastate the nation so that lawyers can generate jobs. The rule of law has great value and is a form of profit seeking (adding value).

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 13, 2009 10:47:29 PM

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