Last Wednesday (07/10/09), changes to New York´s notorious Rockefeller drug laws went into effect, allowing judges to shorten the prison terms of some non-violent offenders; particularly those incarcerated for non-violent crimes such as cannabis posession. This measure will further reduce New York´s prison population, which has already declined in the past 10 years from about 71,600 in 1999 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani to about 59,300 today – The state´s crime rate also dropped substantially during that time.
Nevertheless, the state has been slow to close prisons; this is a multi-billion-dollar industry – opposition from the correction officers´ union and politicians from the upstate areas where most of our correctional facilities are has been fierce.
It was not until earlier this year that policymakers in Albany, confronted with fiscal crisis, mustered the will to shut three prison camps and seven prison annexes which amounted to a total of about 2,250 prison beds. This move is expected to save $52 million over the next two years.
But the state could go further… The prison system still has more than 5,000 empty beds in 69 prisons. What´s more, there are other ways to lower the prison population. For starters state lawmakers could repeal the Rockefeller mandatory sentencing provisions that remain on the books. This could automatically release hundreds (maybe thousands) of prisoners currently incarcerated where the presiding judge was obliged to impose a mandatory-minimum sentence.