While it might be significantly overstating the case to say that 2014 was a banner year for prison reform, it would not be overstating the case to say that there were tons of positive and wonderful stories about prison reform that emerged from the past year. Of course, there have been some setbacks as well. This round-up of top prison reform stories is a decidedly New York-centric list, and undoubtedly there are countless valuable prison reform stories left out — feel free to mention them in the comments!
Smarter Sentencing Act Passes Committee: In January, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act. The act seeks to reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences as a means for reducing the prison population, saving on the costs of incarceration, and decreasing the racial disparities associated with mandatory minimums. The Act hasn’t come before the full Senate, yet, so it’s still quite a ways from becoming law.
Cuomo Announces Plans for Prison Education: At an address in Albany during the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus in February, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new initiative to reduce recidivism rates in New York by offering college education programs for state prisoners at 10 different facilities. Unlike the privately funded college programs already in place, the the new programs would be state funded. Although the governor abandoned the plan just six weeks later because it was too politically controversial, the fact that he even brought the idea to the table is a step in the right direction.
DOCCS and NYCLU Announce Solitary Reform Settlement: On Feb. 19, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the NYCLU put out a joint press release announcing major changes to the use of solitary confinement in New York’s state prison facilities. The class action lawsuit that prompted these changes was stayed for a two-year period. If, after that time, sufficient reforms have not been codified and implemented, the lawsuit will resume. The legal papers regarding the stipulations for the stay of the lawsuit outline a number of changes DOCCS will implement. Under the new agreement, minors with disciplinary infractions will no longer be held in extreme isolation, but rather in segregated units. The agreement will also include a “presumption” against placing pregnant females in SHU.
Ponte Appointed as Corrections Commissioner: Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Joseph Ponte, a former commissioner of corrections in Maine, as the city’s new corrections commissioner. This seemed like a great step because Ponte had a great record in terms of justice reform; he reduced the use of solitary confinement by 2/3 in Maine. However, since beginning his tenure in New York City, Ponte has advocated for the creation of an additional type of solitary confinement unit on Rikers Island, predictably (and justifiably) drawing the ire of prison reform activists.
Richmond Proposes Federal Solitary Bill: In May, Rep. Cedric Richmond introduced the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act. The bill aims to create a commission to study the use of solitary confinement and then have the attorney general establish federal guidelines dictating when the use of solitary confinement is acceptable. Any states that disregard those guidelines would lose 15 percent of their federal prison funding. This model — creating a committee, establishing guidelines, and tying funding to following those guidelines — is what was used in the creation of PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Although the solitary confinement bill is still in committee did not come to a vote yet, it’s a promising development.
Federal Judge Rules Against Death Penalty in California: In July, a federal judge ruled that California’s death penalty system was unconstitutional due to its arbitrary nature and unreasonable delay. The case, brought by a death row inmate against the warden of San Quentin, was made by U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney. The decision was particularly surprising in light of the fact that Carney is a Bush appointee. Although the decision will be appealed, no executions can occur in the meantime.
First Inmate Population Increase Since 2009: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in September, for the first time since 2009, the state and federal inmate population increased in 2013. On the last day of 2013, there were 1,574,700 individuals incarcerated in state and federal facilities. That represents an increase of about 4,300 — .3 percent — over 2012. However, for the first time since 1980, the number of federal inmates decreased. That minor decrease (about .9 percent or 1,900 inmates) was more than offset by the increase in the number of state prisoners (up about 6,300). Despite the total population increase, the imprisonment rate still saw a slight decrease. In 2012 it was 480 per 100,000 and in 2013 it was 478 per 100,000. (Note that these numbers — as with all the numbers referenced in this report — do not include jail populations. The overall imprisonment rate in the U.S. is over 700 per 100,000 if you count county jail populations.)
New York Recidivism (Sort of) Decreases: Data released in 2014 indicated that, by one measure, recidivism reached a new low in New York. When measured in terms of new crimes committed resulting in a return to prison, New York’s incarceration has dipped to just 10%. That’s the lowest that particular recidivism rate has been since this data collection began back in 1985. However, overall, the rate at which felons return to state prison has remained steady at around 40%, mostly because of parole violations.
Ban the Box Enjoys Some Success in New York: On Dec. 8, the Syracuse Common Council voted 8-1 to pass an ordinance requiring the city and all contractors doing business in the city not to ask about criminal history until an applicant has been given a tentative job offer. The month before that, the town of Woodstock banned such questions from job applications for municipal jobs.
Ithaca Prisoner Justice Network Gets a Website! In December, we at the Ithaca Prisoner Justice Network finally launched both a Facebook page and a website. Yay! I’m still in the process of adding more information and more sections to the site, so it’s a work-in-progress. We’ve got some of the basics up right now, though. In any case, Like us on Facebook and follow us on WordPress!