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February 13, 2007 - Post-Standard (NY)

Editorial: Fit Punishment

Ideas Surface For A 'Just, Affordable' Correctional System

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Gov. Eliot Spitzer has Big Ideas like redirecting school aid, tax relief and health-care spending. But his proposed budget also touches on other aspects of public policy including crime and punishment.

Spitzer plans two new commissions one to target excess prison facilities, the other to consider sentencing reforms. In both these areas, enlightened policies could save the state and its taxpayers money.

The state prison population has dropped by some 8,400 inmates since 1999, so it's time to cut back on prison cells. After a decade of declining crime rates, as many as 106,000 more inmates are due to complete their sentences in the next four years.

Spitzer promises "the evolution of our entire criminal justice system into one that is effective, just and affordable," and sensibly plans to focus on community re-entry for those inmates.

Yet even more offenders can be diverted from the costly, self-defeating cycle of incarceration and recidivism by treating underlying conditions that lead to crime.

Start with repealing the harsh Rockefeller drug laws that were enacted in the 1970s as a reflexive "tough on crime" gesture.

Even after modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the state keeps locking up more people each year for non-violent drug offenses. Today some 14,250 drug offenders cost taxpayers $460 million to hold in cells that took $1.5 billion to build.

More than 90 percent of those inmates are African-American or Latino, although the majority of drug abusers are white.

Studies show outpatient treatment is many times more effective than prison sentences in curbing the drug abuse that causes crime, at about one-tenth the cost. Polls suggest 74 percent of New Yorkers favor treatment over prison for drug possession.

Now is the time to build political consensus for returning discretion to judges and supporting alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.

The governor also wants more attention to the needs of prisoners with mental illness. The Correctional Association of New York suggests at the very least ending the practice of confining mentally ill inmates for up to 23 hours a day. What they need is psychiatric care, not isolation that aggravates their conditions.

Other reforms proposed by the Correctional Association include:

* Supporting the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, with community-based programs to keep minors arrested for prostitution out of jail and help them rebuild their lives.

* Emphasizing alternatives to incarceration for virtually all young people charged with non-violent offenses. Similar initiatives in Ohio have helped reduce youth detentions by 40 percent in the last 10 years.

* Granting "merit time eligibility" for domestic violence survivors incarcerated for crimes related to their abusive treatment, so they can earn time off their sentences.

These sensible proposals fit the framework of the "evolution" envisioned by Spitzer's budget plan. They deserve serious attention from the Legislature and the governor in coming weeks.

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