Gov. Andrew Cuomo has closed 13 prisons since taking office five years ago. Now he’s pushing harder on criminal justice reforms with a set of commonsense proposals that aim to keep young people out of the system to start with and keep young inmates from returning to it after their release. His reforms should be approved by the State Legislature.
Cuomo’s initiatives come as the nation reconsiders its standing as the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. The recalibration is long overdue. President Barack Obama has banned solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons, citing its severe psychological consequences. The Supreme Court just struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for teens convicted of murder. Congress is considering bipartisan reforms that would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, shifting the focus from punishment to rehabilitation, including mental health treatment. New York’s City Council is considering legislation that would shift those accused of minor quality-of-life crimes such as public urination into civil rather than criminal courts.
In a similar vein, Cuomo wants to help at-risk youths by investing $100 million to turn failing schools into community schools that would provide a range of services such as mentoring and summer learning opportunities. The idea has promise. So does his plan to spend an additional $55 million on a job-training program that has helped communities with high youth unemployment. He wants to bolster programs that provide alternatives to incarceration and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18; North Carolina is the only other state that treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. And his proposal to expand college education for inmates clearly makes sense; statistics show it reduces recidivism and increases post-release employment. By using forfeiture funds from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Cuomo cleverly bypassed State Senate opposition.
Policing has improved and crime rates have been dropping, but jails and prisons still are too crowded. It’s time to break the cycle.