Get-Tough Laws Have Been to Rough on State Budgets
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- by Susan Friedland |
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America is seeing a rollback on get-tough laws which strangle a weak economy. Inmates are being released, new offenders sent to rehab and even death row convicts are being set free.
For over thirty years, the only individuals that could see the views in beautiful Saratoga County near US General Ulysses Grant died were the inmates and guards at Mount McGregor. The prison, which opened its doors in 1981, has been a medium-security state prison. Its construction was on the vanguard of a corrections industry bonanza that was in place for over 20 years. Meanwhile, New York’s prison population went off the charts to over 71,000 people. New York wasn’t alone. Get tough on crime attitudes were sweeping the nation.
According to New York Corrections Commissioner, Anthony Armucci, the state could not build prisons fast enough. The get-tough on crime laws were passed and enacted before there was enough space to house the influx. Prisons were putting four, five and six people in cells made for just two.
Recently busses have been carrying McGregor prisons down away from the facility. An unprecedented exodus is occurring that may alter forever the looks of the state’s incarceration rates. Scheduled to close permanently in July 2014, New York will by then have closed 23 of 92 corrections units since 2011.
While New York is shutting down prisons, 16 more states have been busy as well. Closing, or proposing the closing, of prisons, other states are trying to trim the number of beds as well. Nationally, over 30,000 beds are scheduled to be removed from the country’s penal system.
The expensive facilities are only one aspect of the bloated penal system being dialed back. Harsh drug laws of the 1970s and 1980s filled prisons with non-violent offenders. New York’s Rockefeller Drug Law put in place stiff penalties for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Draconian three-strikes and you’re out laws swept up more people. Putting them away for life over, sometimes ridiculous charges, the number of inmates put a financial strain on state governments that were unprepared for the new residents.
Overall, public appetite for hard core justice is eroding. More than five states taken the death penalty off the books in the past seven years and since 2008, 20 people have been released from death row after new available evidence indicates they are innocent. The last one, Glenn Ford, was freed in March after spending 30 years on death row in Angola.
Financial resources which are dwindling have combined with a more realistic approach to crime and punishment. As costs mount and states lose the ability to keep up with the current rate of trying and locking up people, jurisdictions are finding it impossible to cover the $80 billion per year it costs to house and feed over 2 million inmates.
New York State
In an attempt to stop growing drug abuse, New York launched a crackdown in 1973 that rocked the nation. Then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signed into law, punishment for simple drug possession that would land a person in prison for 15 years to life. The result was quick and powerful. As the state’s prison population spiked beyond its capacity, a generation of inmates were provided with scant hope of ever getting set free.
New York has been busy undoing the costly experience ever since. The state’s inmate population has been dropping since 1999 when over 72,000 inmates were being held. The figure was 54,000 behind bars in 2013. The decline has been hastened by a corresponding decline in violent crime. Additionally, a reset on the handling of non-violent, low-risk offenders, including drug violators, has lowered the census. Now, individuals charged with drug possession are being increasingly diverted to treatment programs or other outside help.
In the summer of 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder, turned the national focus to discussions about the punitive criminal justice policies. Holder’s action brought the full weight of the federal government to bear on the issue and pushed it to the top of the Justice Department’s agenda.
Many of Mount McGregor’s inmates have been released or transferred. Most of the 320 employees have been transferred or retired. Investors are discussing options for the property with some wanting to turn it into a casino and others an assisted living home. Once the last inmate has left, the town around Mount McGregor will start looking seriously at options which are available.
“The place just outlived its usefulness,” said Steve Duel, 66 and a retired guard. “You don’t just keep people locked up forever. It is time for a change.”