The Paterson administration has proposed further emptying New York’s prisons by releasing more inmates six months early for good behavior, putting middle-aged convicts into shock camps and punishing technical parole violations with something short of prison.
Corrections chief Brian Fischer said the measures, recommended earlier this year by a special commission that included lawmakers, are based on past successes and would help the criminal justice system operate more rationally. They require the Legislature’s approval.
The three measures would remove an estimated 1,600 more inmates from prisons in a year. The population — which stood at 59,918 on Thursday at 69 facilities — is down about 11,500 since its 1999 peak. Fischer cited a reduced crime rate and improved focus on helping convicts re-enter society.
“The point isn’t to empty the prisons,” corrections spokesman Erik Kriss said, calling savings a side benefit. “The point is to build on stuff we’ve found works.”
Currently, 39 percent of inmates return within a three-year period, most for parole violations, Kriss said. Technical violations can include failing a drug test or missing curfew.
Parole Division spokeswoman Heather Groll said the division could proceed administratively if the bill isn’t passed.
The proposed expansion of the six-month military-style shock camp, begun in 1987 for inmates under age 24, would allow nonviolent offenders up to age 49 with less than three years left on their sentences to be admitted. Graduates’ recidivism rate is 20 percent lower than other inmates, Fischer said.
The credit time proposal for good behavior is a variation on Merit Time, which allows nonviolent offenders to earn reduced sentences for good behavior and program participation. Fischer said since it started in 1996, prisons have seen a 35 percent decline in assaults on staff and 60 percent drop in assaults on other inmates.
Janice Grieshaber, executive director of the Jenna Foundation for Non-Violence, said she was initially worried about the proposals but believes her concerns about violent offenders are being addressed.
“We need to keep the most violent and threatening people off the street. There are people who cannot be helped and they don’t want to be,” said Grieshaber, who lobbied for passage of Jenna’s law, which eliminated parole for violent felons. “I also believe in the system being able to work in a positive way and enable certain offenders to change. I emphasize the word certain.”
The Department of Correctional Services has also proposed closing four minimum-security camps and up to a half-dozen prison annexes once built to handle overflows.
The prison system, with a $3 billion annual budget and 31,000 employees, estimates nearly $30 million in annual savings from the closings.
Past proposals to close prisons, often major employers in rural areas, have met stiff opposition in the Legislature.
The Paterson administration is trying to close a projected deficit of more than $14 billion in the upcoming fiscal year in a roughly $120 billion state budget, requiring savings from all executive agencies, including corrections.
“Certainly everything’s on the table,” Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said Thursday. The union that represents prison guards continues to lobby against closing the camps, calling them “an important tool” against recidivism.
The camps have programs and fewer restrictions that help with re-entry, and minimum-security inmates otherwise would go to medium-security prisons with more dangerous felons, according to the union.
The union maintains the prison system is actually at 104 percent of capacity measured by federal standards.
Fischer said the prison system has more than 7,000 vacant beds and a 50 percent drop in its minimum-security population over nine years.
Speaking this week to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, Fischer said the statewide crime rate dropped 35 percent over the past decade. Alternatives to prison for drug offenders and other nonviolent felons, coupled with a legislative rollback four years ago of some of the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws, also contributed to the 16 percent decline in the population in the state’s 69 correctional facilities, he said.
New York’s maximum-security population has stayed “relatively constant” or slightly up and was 24,207 on Thursday, Kriss said.