Lawmakers to vote to keep prisons open, troopers in schools

State lawmakers are expected to vote today to keep troopers in schools and leave open some medium an
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State lawmakers are expected to vote today to keep troopers in schools and leave open some medium and minimum security prisons and two juvenile detention facilities targeted for closing by the Spitzer administration to save money.

As the Assembly and Senate kept working on a $124 billion budget for fiscal 2008-2009, business interests made a last pitch for lawmakers to drop plans to close corporate tax loopholes as a way to help reduce a deficit estimated at nearly $5 billion.

“We strongly oppose any new taxes on the business community of New York state at this time of extreme economic pressure, particularly on financial services firms,” stated representatives of the state Business Council, the New York Bankers Association, and The Partnership for New York City. “We urge the governor and the state Legislature to consider other alternatives to resolve the state’s budget gap.”

One option lawmakers rejected was shutting four of New York’s 69 prisons, where the inmate population has dropped by 9,000 in a decade to about 62,000 with a staff of 31,000. Targeted for closing in 2009 by the Spitzer administration were Camp Pharsalia in Chenango County, Camp McGregor in Saratoga County, Camp Gabriels in Franklin County and Hudson Correctional Facility in Columbia County. The shutdowns were projected to save $33.5 million in the 2009-10 fiscal year, plus nearly $30 million in capital costs.

The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which represents guards, opposed the closings, which they said would have affected hundreds of its members, their families, communities and the safety of New Yorkers. On Monday, hundreds of guards rallied at the Capitol steps, attracting several supportive Republican senators and assemblymen who blamed the closing proposal on Spitzer, who resigned last month when he was implicated in a prostitution scandal.

Afterward, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said the prison closings were not in the budget being worked out among lawmakers and Gov. David Paterson. That position was holding up today. Staff at minimum-security Camp Gabriels in the Adirondacks said inmate crews also do a large amount of work in the region, from cutting trees to removing asbestos, with some gaining marketable skills.

But Bob Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog group, said more should be done to help prisoner re-entry instead of keeping prisons open.

“We’re carrying a bloated corrections budget of $3 billion and also not doing an adequate job of preparing prisoners for release,” he said. “The state has so many other significant needs that go unfunded, it is bad public policy to keep these jails open as part of a jobs program.”

Gangi said lawmakers also erred in keeping two juvenile detention facilities among the six that the Spitzer administration proposed closing — Great Valley Residential Center in western New York, which has 25 beds and houses 11 children, and Pyramid Intake Center in the Bronx, which has 57 beds, houses 39 children, and needs $8 million in capital improvements. It was to be sold for $3.5 million.

“The recidivist rate for kids coming out of the OCFS facilities is 80 percent. By any criterion you apply they’re not working,” he said. Money is wasted on empty beds, while community programs need it.

According to the OFCS, which proposed closing the six, there are currently 766 beds at limited secure facilities housing 575 juveniles, and 530 beds at nonsecure facilities housing 282. Among the documented complaints at Pyramid, the intake facility where all the juveniles are sent for their first 14 days, are asbestos, rats and dysfunctional air conditioning.

OFCS proposed doing intakes instead at a Brooklyn facility.

In January, Spitzer also proposed redeploying almost 200 state troopers from schools and “racinos” around New York to high-crime areas, including upstate cities and the border, saying that would put them where they are most needed in tough fiscal times. The Senate Republican majority in its budget plan rejected the move, citing children’s safety.

The Senate’s position held through negotiations.

Still left out of the budget as of today were raises for 1,250 state judges. Chief Judge Judith Kaye said a lawsuit would follow if judges were denied raises for the 10th straight year.

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