Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Remarks by Commissioner Brian Fischer
Citizens Crime Commission of New York City
Mutual of America Building
February 18, 2009

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to address this distinguished group. It is an honor.

Nearly a generation ago, the State’s prison population was exploding. The crack epidemic hit New York. The tough drug laws signed by the late Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent more and more drug offenders away. And the State embarked on a prison building boom.

The conversation has changed dramatically since then. Now, our prison population is in the midst of a dramatic and prolonged decline. We’re talking about reforming the Rockefeller drug laws. We’re looking to close unneeded prisons.

The change began in the late 1980s, when the State Legislature began enacting a series of laws to provide alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders and other non-violent felons and to give them the ability to earn time off their sentence through good behavior and program participation. A little over four years ago, lawmakers rolled back parts of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. And in the last decade, the statewide crime rate dropped by 35 percent.

These changes have resulted in a 16 percent decline in the State prison population, despite – or perhaps in part because of - the toughening of penalties for violent felons in the mid- and late 1990s. We now have around 60,000 offenders – about 11,500 fewer than when our system hit its peak at the end of 1999. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, New York had the largest decrease in the rate of incarceration of any state in the nation from 2000 to 2007, even as the incarceration rate increased in 37 other states.

All of this is a testament to New York State’s success in fighting crime – by keeping the right people in prison longer, and by preparing our offenders for their return to society. The proof is in the numbers: every year since 1999, fewer than 11 percent of ex-offenders have returned to prison for a new crime within three years of release. That's less than half the rate for offenders released from 1989 through 1991.

We have achieved this success in large part by focusing on what we call reentry. 99 percent of our offenders eventually go back home. Reentry is the concept of preparing them as best we can to become responsible and productive citizens once they’re back in society. The effort starts before they walk in our door. It continues through, and after, incarceration in conjunction with our partners at the Division of Parole. It involves big-picture efforts such as education, including a variety of mostly privately- and federally-funded college courses, and vocational training in a wide range of skills. It involves seemingly small but significant details, such as providing offenders who are being released with proper documentation and clothing suitable for job interviews. It involves working to maintain the critical bonds between offenders and their families, including providing free buses that enable personal visits from offenders’ family members. It involves key intangibles, such as instilling in offenders a sense of responsibility for themselves, a respect for others and a work ethic. It involves common-sense procedures, such as our recent agreement to push parole board hearings back to four months before an offender’s earliest release date, rather than two months. That allows offenders to complete transitional programs, which for some involve three to four months at specialized reentry units that put the offenders face to face with people on the outside who will help them after release. We have two such units in Western New York and are planning to open one near Albany next month and another for female offenders here in Manhattan at Bayview in the spring.

Our success means the time has come for major changes in the prison system – a system that employs more than 31,000 people from the shores of Lake Erie near the Pennsylvania line, to the North Country near the Canadian border, to Queens and Staten Island. These employees are responsible for the lives and care of 60,000 offenders 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This does not come cheap. At around $2.5 billion per year, my Department is the costliest executive agency in State government in terms of state operations.

At a time when New York is facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Governor Paterson has rightly recognized this as an opportunity to save taxpayers significant money by allowing me to manage the prison system more intelligently.

The Governor has proposed closing our four correctional camps and some of our prison annexes, which are small security components situated alongside existing prisons. We fully support him. We have more than 7,000 vacant beds in our system, spread over 70 correctional institutions. Our minimum security population has dropped by more than 50 percent over the last nine years. As many offenders entering our system are diagnosed with mental illness, the camps lack the capability to deliver the medical and mental health services they need. The camps are also not equipped to deliver the educational, vocational and reentry skills our offenders will need after they’re released. The annexes were built when we were becoming overcrowded. Now, we have different priorities – namely court and legislative mandates to provide enhanced and more extensive treatment and services to sex offenders and inmates with mental illness. By closing these facilities and saving taxpayers nearly $30 million a year, we can address those new priorities. And we can achieve closure with virtually no layoffs. We employ nearly 20,000 correction officers. With more than 40 leaving the payroll every two weeks, mainly to retire, we can capitalize on this attrition by cutting security positions without layoffs. I hope that in your conversations with community leaders and State legislators, you will reinforce the common sense and logic of this plan. Now more than ever, we need to bring State government’s expenses in line with its shrinking revenues.

As part of the effort to operate the criminal justice system more rationally, and based on proven experience, the Governor has also endorsed three key recommendations of the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform, of which I was one of 11 voting members:

The Governor has also endorsed expanding medical parole from terminally ill offenders to certain incapacitated offenders who pose no reasonable threat to society.

These proposals will not only free up more prison space, but will also provide incentives for offenders to improve themselves and, in the process, keep our prisons safer.

The credit time proposal, for instance, is an outgrowth of Merit Time, which currently allows non-violent offenders to earn up to 1/6 off their sentence for good behavior and program participation. Since 1996, when the Legislature created Merit Time, we have seen a 35 percent reduction in offender assaults on staff and a 60 percent drop in offender assaults on other offenders. What is now proposed is a six-month credit for offenders who are not eligible for Merit Time but who have fulfilled all Merit Time requirements and have proven themselves even further by becoming hospice aides working with terminally ill offenders or teacher aides who tutor other offenders, or by seeking out and completing higher education programs shown to reduce recidivism.

The proposed expansion of Shock is particularly promising. Shock is a six-month, military-style boot camp regimen for certain non-violent offenders, mainly drug users, under the age of 40. It was created by The Legislature in 1987 as a treatment program designed to address offenders’ addiction issues and as an alternative to spending up to three years in prison. If participants stick with the program and graduate, they’re out. And they’re nearly 20 percent less likely than general confinement offenders to come back. So far, we’ve seen nearly 39,000 offenders graduate from our four Upstate Shock camps. We calculate that Shock has saved taxpayers $1.29 billion directly in reduced need for prison space alone. And that doesn’t count the cost avoidance from Shock graduates’ lower recidivism rate. The Sentencing Commission has proposed increasing the age limit for Shock to 49 and allowing eligible offenders in general confinement to apply for transfer to Shock when they reach three years to their earliest release. These efforts capitalize on and expand our successful programs while helping reduce the need for expensive prison beds.

The proposed expansion of what is often referred to as Medical Parole is again another example of building upon what has already proven to be effective. We can match public safety with the early release of an offender whose medical condition is so debilitating that the offender poses no serious risk of re-offending, thus saving taxpayers money while managing our system in a more effective manner.

There has been a lot in the news lately about an expected push for more reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws. Difficult cuts in State contracts with private, not-for-profit substance abuse treatment programs have also made the news. But you may not know that more than 8,500 inmates are, at this moment, receiving treatment through my Department, mostly within prison walls. Last year, more than 30,000 inmates participated in Department substance abuse programs. We offer basic but intensive six-month, structured residential treatment programs, followed by community reintegration services and post-release aftercare. We have special programs for offenders with histories of both substance abuse and domestic violence, for sex offenders with substance addiction problems, and for offenders who find a way to continue using alcohol or drugs within prison. We have a program for DWI offenders in Western New York at Gowanda and Albion Correctional Facilities, Special Needs Units for developmentally disabled offenders at three prisons, relapse treatment and prevention programs for work release participants who test positive for illegal substances, a special program for parole violators at Chateauguay, and a treatment program for mothers with newborn infants. We operate a drug treatment campus, Willard, in the Finger Lakes region, for parolees with substance abuse issues, and we partnered with other agencies to open a residential treatment program at the former Edgecombe Correctional Facility in Upper Manhattan last year for a similar clientele. There are more programs. But you get the picture. Although the number of drug offenders in our system is decreasing, we know that about 85 percent of our entire offender population has substance abuse histories, and we do what we can to help them control and manage their addictions.

I would like to point out that the goal of the Sentencing Commission, which has been criticized recently on many fronts, was to give voice to the many ways in which drug reform can be achieved. So rather than providing the Governor and the Legislature with a single, all-encompassing drug reform plan, the Commission developed five separate proposals that took into account the various positions of the judiciary, the district attorneys association, community activists and others on both sides of the issue. As a result, I believe the Commission met its original mandate, and I think the proof is in the public debate, the first step in everyone coming together to openly put forth recommendations that must eventually lead to an agreed-upon solution.

I should also point out that the Sentencing Commission also recommended that determinate sentences be attached to all but the most serious crimes, including murder and most sex offenses. As someone responsible for managing a prison system, and having spent my share of time inside prisons, I ask that you support this recommendation. While fixed sentencing was originally called “Truth in Sentencing,” it might be better defined as “Fairness in Sentencing.” Determinate sentencing addresses the serious problem of disparity of sentences. It also provides offenders with a clear understanding that to earn time off their court-imposed sentence, they must complete mandated treatment programs as well as avoid serious disciplinary problems. With the many mandatory and elective programs available within the system, offenders are forced to accept the fact that their length of stay, and other benefits, are somewhat under their control. This fosters the concept of accepting personal responsibility, a concept often ignored by too many young offenders.

The words corrections and compassion aren’t always associated with each other. But we care a great deal not only about turning offenders into responsible citizens, but also helping our fellow citizens in need. I will close by bringing to your attention what I believe is a creative proposal to help less-fortunate New Yorkers in these difficult economic times. We operate a massive food production center to feed our population. It is centrally located near Utica and has more capacity than we currently require. Not only have we begun selling inexpensive but nutritious food products to local county jails to save property taxpayers money, but Governor Paterson is asking the Legislature to authorize us to offer for sale, at cost, these same food products to soup kitchens, rescue missions and other charitable organizations. It won’t cost State taxpayers anything – in fact, the more food we produce, the cheaper each meal becomes through economies of scale. But even in the midst of a fiscal crisis, the Governor is finding ways to help the neediest. I ask your careful consideration of his sensible proposals – and your support.

Thank you for your attention, and I will be happy to take questions.