New York Prison Photo: Getty Images
New York Prison Photo: Getty Images

By JoAnne Page, President and CEO of the Fortune Society

In my 26 years as president and CEO of the Fortune Society, I have witnessed incarceration rates swell as crime rates plummeted. Even still, our nation plowed full steam ahead adopting harsh policies that have made us the largest jailer in the world. Our criminal justice system has not made our communities safer; rather, it has fractured families, alienated communities, and further marginalized low-income minorities.

The damage done to communities of color is sobering.  But, it is encouraging to know that policymakers, researchers and advocates across the political spectrum are now coalescing around true criminal justice reform, with a specific goal of reducing reliance on incarceration, while increasing public safety, promoting community enrichment and reducing the damaging effects of a criminal conviction.

JoAnne Page, President and CEO of the Fortune Society

Progress has been made over the past few years. For example, New York State has closed prisons, reduced the prison population and Governor Cuomo adopted the recommendations of the Reentry Council that he established in 2014, helping to level the playing field for the formerly incarcerated in the areas of housing, employment and healthcare.

For its part, the City has reduced its jail population and agreed to significantly scale back its use of solitary confinement.  Also, in a major step forward to help people with criminal records find employment, the Mayor and City Council passed the Fair Chance Act which gives formerly incarcerated people a decent chance – at the very least – of landing a job interview.

Despite this progress, there is much work to be done. In 2016, our leaders in City Hall and the State Capital can take affirmative steps to reduce the number of incarcerated New Yorkers, while increasing services to those who are behind bars.     

Real sentencing reform must balance public safety while reducing reliance on incarceration.  To that end, The Fortune Society recommends:

  • Increasing alternative to incarceration programs that have a proven track record of success;
  • Eliminating mandatory minimums;
  • Decreasing the maximum sentence on conviction of an A misdemeanor by one day, from 365 to 364 days, thus allowing judicial discretion on mandatory detention and deportation in immigration cases; and
  • Expanding viable alternatives to include those with violent convictions.

Steps must also be taken pre-release to ensure that certain safety nets are in place once individuals win their freedom.  We must: 

  • Increase in-prison therapeutic programming as well as vocational and educational programming, including post-secondary education;
  • Ensure that people released from prison have access to healthcare by activating Medicaid before release; and
  • Provide people leaving jail/prison with non-stigmatizing government-issued identification like non-driver ID cards.

Our system of parole must work to ensure that parolees get the assistance and guidance they need to reenter their communities and lead positive, productive lives as they face tough transitions. To that end, we must:

  • Reduce technical parole violations;
  • Implement presumptive parole for individuals who have reached parole eligibility and are assessed as “low risk;” and
  • When an individual deemed low-risk by the ‘COMPAS-Probation risk and needs assessment system’ is denied parole, there must be written justification and higher-level review.

Successful reentry means that we must do better to eliminate discrimination against formerly incarcerated individuals. We must: 

  • Apply Ban the Box to state jobs and human services agencies that contract with Parole;
  • Address discrimination that prevents people with criminal justice histories from attending SUNY;
  • Create viable capital and operating funding streams for transitional and supportive housing;
  • Increase the public assistance shelter allowance from $215 a month;
  • Significantly scale back use of “Permanent Exclusions” in NYCHA public housing; and
  • Increase funding for mental health, substance abuse, and other behavioral health services.

We must also expand routine clemency consideration to currently incarcerated individuals convicted of violent crimes when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation, or low risk COMPAS score, or incapacitation due to illness or advanced age.  The Superintendents of the State’s 54 correctional facilities should make at least one recommendation for clemency each month.

If our achievements over the past few years serve as a benchmark, there is room for optimism that working together we can further our progress on meaningful criminal justice reform in 2016 – and beyond.

There is one big caveat. We must not allow “headline panic” to dictate bad public policy.  If just one bad apple slips through the system, critics unfairly blame our elected officials. And sadly, the reaction is often to shut the doors on programs that really work, while doing more of what we know does not work. 

Scaling back decades of harmful criminal justice policies is a complex process. By reevaluating our sentencing structure, reforming parole policies, utilizing programs more effectively, increasing opportunities for release, reducing discrimination, and providing necessary resources post-release, we can make a meaningful dent in the number of incarcerated New Yorkers, ease their transition home and improve public safety all at the same time.

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This piece originally appeared in the January 12th edition of New York Nonprofit Review.

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