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Cuomo pushing for prison closures

Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his fiscal year 2021 Executive Budget in Albany Tuesday. (Provided photo — Darren McGee, governor's office)

ALBANY — A steady and dramatic slide in the number of New York prison inmates over the past two decades is being cited by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his plan to close an unspecified number of prisons.

After a peak of 72,649 inmates in 1999, the statewide prison population dropped to just 44,284 prisoners in custody as of January 1, a drop of about 39 percent, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Services.

In that same span, security staffing at the prisons has been shaved by 13.7 percent, according to state data.

‘Lowest crime rate’

“Through this decline, excess capacity has begun to build and as a result the governor has recommended the closure of several facilities to effectively right-size the prison system,” states a Cuomo administration booklet that accompanied the release of the proposed state budget this week.

The Cuomo administration said New York has the lowest crime rate in the nation and now has the lowest imprisonment rate of any large state.

Many of the state prisons are located in upstate communities, while most inmates come from the urban downstate region. Cuomo has said several times that prisons should not be used as a jobs program, a suggestion that has led to clashes with Republican lawmakers representing regions where the state corrections agency is a significant employer.

But after the state GOP lost its grip on the state Senate last year, criminal justice reformers opposed to what they call “mass incarceration” have gained influence at the statehouse while the union for corrections officers and the police lobby now face tall challenges in driving their legislative agendas.

Funding reduction

Last year, Cuomo proposed closing a total of three prisons and ended up mothballing two.

His new state budget calls for a 5 percent reduction in funding for the corrections agency, translating into a cut of $179 million. But a Division of the Budget spokesman, Freeman Klopott, said the reduction is largely due to retroactive collective bargaining payments made in the state fiscal year ending March 31.

Cuomo’s criminal justice agenda also includes the legalization and taxation of marijuana.

Under his plan, counties could opt to take steps to ban marijuana sales within their borders. Licensing of shops and cultivators would be administered by an Office of Cannabis Management. The counties would get 2 percent taxon sales. The state would collect a 20 percent sales tax.

The plan does not call for a specific flow of revenue to town and city governments, though many of them would end up with a share, based on sales tax distribution arrangements in the various counties.

The push to legalize marijuana last year ended up being bottled up in the closing weeks of the legislative session, in part because of disagreements over how the revenue would be divided. There was also considerable opposition from police chiefs, county sheriffs and the state Parent Teacher Association.

‘Arrest crusade’

Cuomo estimates the state will reap about $300 million annually from marijuana taxes.

A pro-legalization group, the Drug Policy Alliance, voiced concerns with the governor’s proposal, arguing a portion of the funds the state derives from sales should be re-invested in communities impacted by “New York’s marijuana arrest crusade.”

“Legislation must include specific language to resolve the devastating collateral consequences of marijuana prohibition in the fields of housing, employment, child welfare, and immigration,” said Kassandra Frederique, the alliance’s director.

The Senate and the Assembly are also expected proposals to further restrict the use of solitary confinement in the prisons to discipline unruly inmates. More than 1000 demonstrators demanding an end to what the state calls Special Housing Units rallied at the statehouse during Cuomo’s budget presentation this week.

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