Niagara Gazette — ALBANY — New York officials expect the state's prisons to shed 1,000 more inmates over the next four years, noting the steady decline of commitments for drug offenses since 1999 and allowing it to save money by closing some of the institutions.
The inmate population has dropped below 55,000 after peaking in 1999 at 72,584 under Rockefeller-era drug laws. Several tough sentencing provisions, including 15 years to life for having 4 ounces of illegal narcotics, were softened or eliminated in 2009. Those laws were first enacted in 1973, pushed by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to combat a drug and crime epidemic.
Cuomo administration officials put two prison closings in the proposed $9.7 billion public safety budget for the upcoming fiscal year. It includes $2.96 billion for prisons and parole, down 6 percent.
State officials now project the prisoner total to decline 4 percent more to 53,662 in four years. The state has been shutting minimum- and medium-security prisons and camps, including seven in 2011-12, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposes closing of two women's prisons in the coming year, Beacon in the Hudson Valley and Bayview in Manhattan.
Bayview has remained vacant since it was evacuated in last year's flooding from Superstorm Sandy, and the administration intends to sell it.
Authorities have also reported a nearly 20 percent drop in both violent crimes and serious property crimes statewide since 1999, despite some upticks last year.
"It's difficult to predict crime. It's not very difficult to predict prison," said Professor Shawn Bushway, a criminologist at the State University at Albany.
Prison population follows policy on incarceration, while crime depends on non-stable factors, such as social and economic pressures. Some people credit more effective policing and changes in the drug culture as components in New York's decline, he said.
New York's two trends represent an unusual situation, and most states' incarceration rates aren't declining, Bushway said. Most drug offenders are imprisoned for dealing, but that has done little to reduce the drug trade because someone else usually takes over a drug market.