Following a trail blazed by New York, Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday endorsed a plan to reduce federal prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Dialing back harsh mandatory minimum prison time — as the U.S. Sentencing Commission has proposed — would salvage lives, save money and make the federal criminal justice system fairer and more effective.
The state — to its credit — has been in the vanguard of such smart-on-crime reforms for a decade.
True, back in 1973, it led the charge to long mandatory sentences when the Rockefeller drug laws were enacted.
But it reversed course under Republican Gov. George Pataki a decade ago and under Democratic Gov. David Paterson in 2009, embracing drug treatment as a more cost-effective alternative to incarceration.
Result: The state’s prison population has plunged from 72,600 in 1999 to 54,200 now. Officials have been able to close nine prisons — with four more scheduled to close this year — for a total savings of $162 million annually.
Meanwhile, the state led with another key reform last month when its prison system became the nation’s largest to prohibit disciplinary solitary confinement for inmates younger than 18. As part of a deal to settle a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, the state also agreed to remove pregnant women and developmentally disabled prisoners from solitary confinement — a form of emotional torture that can leave inmates out of touch with reality.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has seized the opportunity offered by a steep drop in crime rates to rethink other practices, too. His proposal to expand the chance to earn a college degree behind bars would cut recidivism and save public dollars. His plan to stop incarcerating 16- and 17-year-olds in adult prisons, where they are at increased risk of sexual assault and psychiatric problems, is just common sense.
Both ought to be implemented. They would keep the state on a course that has cut ruinous incarceration levels, saved money, and given former inmates a better chance to lead productive lives — all while boosting public safety.
We’re hoping Joseph Ponte, the city’s new corrections chief, will follow through with similar reforms.