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Right on Crime | October 31, 2013
While New York isn’t exactly a beacon of liberty, it has been pursuing sensible criminal justice reform over the past few years. Reforms in 2009, for instance, softened mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders and promoted drug courts.
In a time of state-level penny pinching, the Empire State is moving ahead with the closure of several prison facilities. Governor Andrew Cuomo, the architect in a spree of prison closings, is now moving to shut the lights off at Chateaugay Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The governor’s promise to work, “very hard with communities that are going to face closings to come up with economic development” is being met with harsh criticism by the state correction union. The group accuses Cuomo of “balancing the budget on their backs,” and warns of drastic public safety ramifications.
What, though, does the evidence say on prison expansion and consolidation?
Research conducted by scholars Western, Wildeman, Manza, Braman, and others suggest that programs of mass incarceration carry large unintended consequences. Dr. Todd Clear, Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers, finds that large-scale imprisonment results in, “broken families, weakened the social-control capacity of parents, eroded economic strength.”
Professor Joshua Page of the University of Minnesota takes the analysis a step further and links prison expansion to the power of state corrections unions. What we see in states such as New York and California is the growth of “financial resources, political acumen, and connections” amongst organizations such as CCPOA, and accompanying opposition to prison reform.
Though these embedded interest groups are fighting closures that will undo some of the damage associated with over-incarceration, the officers do have a point. Hundreds, if not thousands of state employees will have to find work elsewhere as a result of Cuomo’s closing crusade.
In the short term, assistance programs will be needed to transition areas affected by closings. In the long-term, however, funds will be saved by utilizing smart alternatives to incarceration like the HOPE system. It’s up to New York, already on the road to a better system, to examine cost-effective alternatives to mass imprisonment.