Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Remarks by Commissioner Brian Fischer
New York Minorities In Criminal Justice Inc., Annual Training Symposium
Mallozzi’s Banquet House, Schenectady
Oct. 31, 2008

Thank you and good morning.

My predecessor as Commissioner, Glenn Goord, offered this advice: you need to keep a balance within the agency, you can’t do everything, and you have to balance the needs and ideas of everyone.

The advice I would give is this: do what you believe is right, do what you can even though you can’t do everything, and be proactive.

To do what you can, you need three reference points: philosophical – a set of beliefs; political – an understanding of what’s possible given the political climate; and personal - the will to make the decisions.

What does all of this have to do with this conference? My agency and many others in the criminal justice area have been criticized for a lack of diversity and a lack of sensitivity. Some of the criticism was deserved, but much of it was not. The biggest problem we as a group have is people’s perceptions.

I became Commissioner at an interesting time. We had a new governor – and now we’ve had two new governors; many positions were vacant, many programs were in a state of flux or were stagnating, and many people were retiring. That gave me an opportunity to make several appointments and changes. Some you’ll agree with, some you won’t. But I’d like to think that my decisions were made in accordance with the principals I already mentioned: doing what I think is right and being aware of the political environment we work in.

That said, some of my appointments and program decisions have been viewed by some as looking out for special, identifiable groups. To some degree, that is true, but not necessarily for the reasons many might think. Consider the decision to build the first new Family Reunion Program site in many years. We selected Albion, a medium security female facility, over Five Points, a large, maximum security prison for men. In part, the thinking was to offer women the ability to see their children and families given that in many instances, female offenders have more complicated issues than male offenders. In part, it was also a political decision, given that how we treat women in prison is a topic that gets a lot of attention.

Consider some of the promotions I’ve made in the past 18 months: all have been qualified, and each brings to the new job valuable experiences.

The issue of experiences is what I’d really like to talk about for a moment. I believe that who we are today, and how we respond to issues and to one another, is a response to our personal life experiences and our own backgrounds. If you’re African-American, Hispanic, Muslim, Jewish, short, whatever, you approach situations based on very different and sometimes very sensitive points of view. Our ethnic, religious and physical backgrounds make us who we are today and affect whether we’re ready to take on new roles, especially leadership roles. And it’s our experiences, framed by our ethnic or religious backgrounds, that make us diverse. It’s not merely because we look different or pray differently.

I’d like to think that our diversity of experiences makes us, as an organization, both strong and weak, depending upon the issue. If our experiences have been negative, then our attitude toward the organization may be negative. If we view things solely on what we think was wrong, then we tend to be blind to that which was done for the right reasons.

Let me end with some comments about where my agency, and to a larger degree, where the whole field of criminal justice in New York, is going. There are difficult decisions that will be made in the next several months that will impact on all of us, due primarily to the fiscal problems of the State. Each agency has been asked to cut funding, reduce staff, do things differently. Each agency decision must, however, be made in the context of two factors: what is the right thing to do for the system, and what is the right thing to do for society.

For the Department of Correctional Services, doing right by the system means looking at the impact any decision will have on staff, inmates and the philosophical goals of the agency. We cannot do everything; there’s no way to please everyone. We have to do what is right and what’s in the best interest of the system. And we have to be willing to live with the consequences.

Doing right by society means looking at decisions in terms of public safety. It means moving forward on re-entry and new programs meant to better prepare offenders for their release. It may mean cutting back on some security, support or program element that individuals hold dear. It may even mean putting new money into new ideas while leaving old ideas or approaches unfunded.

Thank you for listening, and I hope all of us make the most of this opportunity.