Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Opening Statement of Brian Fischer
Acting Commissioner, Dept. of Correctional Services
Before the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committees
Hearing Room B
Legislative Office Building
March 5, 2007

2007-08 Executive Budget

Agency Overview

I think it is important to review where the Department was at our peak, and where we are today in terms of inmate population figures.

While the overall under custody inmate population has declined, the number of violent offenders has remained relatively stable. Only the number of drug offenders has declined. It is the non-violent drug offenders whose treatment and release has had the greatest impact on the Department's census.

You will also note that the average time served in prison has gone up. Taking all the factors into account, the conclusion is that the appropriate people are going to prison and for longer periods of time.

Last year the Department received over 26,000 inmates, of which 17,000 were new commitments. Of those, 36% of the new commitments were related to drug offenses while 29% were related to violent felonies.

During the past year, over 26,000 inmates were released, 49% by action of the Parole Board or action by the Commissioner through the Presumptive Release Law. In addition, 9,700 were released under Conditional Release Law and 2,700 were released because they reached their Maximum Expiration dates.

The new budget contains six (6) significant initiatives: the creation of a Closure Commission to determine if the drop in the overall inmate population supports the need to close one or more prisons; the creation of a Sentencing Commission to review current laws and penalties and their impact on prison populations; a plan to assist county jails in reducing costs incurred by their holding parole violators; a plan to improve the Department's transitional and re-entry services; enhancement of services for inmates with mental health needs; and the continuation of sex offender treatment and civil commitment.

Closure Commission

The creation of a Closure Commission needs to be seen as the next logical step following the Department's "right sizing" efforts over the past few years. It is also based on the current analysis that the demand for DOCS bed space will remain relatively constant for the next few years.

Since 2000, between the number of inmates released as a result of laws passed by legislation, and a decrease in the number of new commitments entering the system, the Department has over 8,100 less inmates under custody.

The purpose of the Closure Commission will be to better match prison and public safety requirements, and the treatment needs of inmates, with existing correctional facilities. Input and participation from the legislators, unions and the public will be included in the process. The goal is to continue to operate the safest prison system in the country while making appropriate decisions regarding the future configuration of the state's Department of Correctional Services.

Merely looking at gross capacity and vacancy levels, however, can be misleading. Because we have improved our ability at assessing and treating the needs of inmates, a vacant cell or bed does not mean we could put any new inmate in that cell or bed. You would not put an identified mentally ill inmate in a general confinement open dorm any more than you would want to place a non-OMH inmate in a gallery designed as an intermediate care gallery for inmates with mental health needs.

With respect to maximum security cells, the appropriate use of the many types of Special Housing Units has allowed the Department to hold 600 more inmates in maximum security settings while seeing 6,400 fewer inmates in medium security settings, as well as 2,350 fewer in minimum security.

Key to the Commission's role will be the careful assessment of the nature of the prison population, what cells and beds are appropriate to use, what space is best suited to prepare inmates for their return to the community, and what space is needed to provide improved mental health services by working with the Office of Mental Health.

As the process unfolds, the Commission will establish the criteria upon which every prison will be evaluated on, provide opportunities for comments from all interested parties and develop a final report offering the Governor and the Legislature recommendations regarding closing, modifying or combining existing prisons throughout the state.

Sentencing Commission

The purpose of the Sentencing Commission will be to carefully examine existing laws and policies for inconsistency in their application and whether or not they have had the effect on crime as originally hoped for. One key element will be an attempt to make the laws more easily understandable to the general public, prosecutors and judges. The more we understand the laws, the more effective they will become. Recommendations developed by the Sentencing Commission will also be reviewed in light of how they might impact on the need for prison capacity.

Parole Violators

Relieving the burden to county jails of holding parole violators is yet another example of more efficient government. For those counties willing to enter into an agreement, they will see a reduction in their operating costs. At the same time, this initiative will also begin the process where the Department of Correctional Services and the Division of Parole will work more closely together, again providing for the effective use of state resources.

Re-Entry and Transitional Services

The need to better prepare inmates for their return to the community will be accomplished by enhancing the Department's transitional services programs and carefully moving appropriate inmates into transition and/or work release facilities. The emphasis will be to transfer an inmate nearing release as close as possible to his or her community in order to link the inmate and outside organizations so meaningful transitional services can be more easily provided.

The mandate is to better prepare inmates for their re-entry back into the community. Department studies show that 38.7% of those we release return to our prison system within 3 years, down significantly from previous years; 11% on new arrests and 27% because they failed to adhere to their parole requirements. We believe we have taken tremendous strides in preparing inmates to return home, and we look forward to enhancing those services.

The way to improve is to strengthen the vast number of programs the Department provides. On any given day, 19,001 inmates participate in educational programs, 11,604 in vocational programs, 6,645 in various transitional services programs, 563 in sex offender groups, 1,756 in Aggression Replacement Training, and 9,914 in various substance abuse treatment programs.

Mental Health Treatment

The Department and the Office of Mental Health are moving forward together with significant changes on treating inmates with mental health needs. Additional staff will be hired next year to operate new or expanded intermediate care programs. Additional observation cells and new transitional treatment cells will be constructed, along with new secure therapy sites designed to provide for group therapy for inmates in need for such service. Plans are moving along to develop what will be called a Residential Mental Health Unit at Marcy that will combine an existing unit with a new program building. This development of a Residential Mental Health Unit will be a meaningful alternative to placement in Special Housing Units for inmates identified by the Office of Mental Health with serious and persistent mental illnesses.

Overall, the Department will be adding 41 positions to provide additional services exclusively for inmates with mental health needs.

Sex Offender Treatment

Lastly, the Department will continue to provide sex offender treatment at 14 facilities. Until a new law is enacted, the Department, working with the Office of Mental Health, will continue to evaluate and seek civil commitment of all appropriate sex offenders permitted under existing law. To date, 152 sex offenders were determined to meet the criteria for civil commitment.

Conclusion

The six important issues mentioned are considerable and as a new commissioner, I hope that you will continue to support the Department as both the Senate and Assembly have done in the past. I look forward to working with all of you.

Thank you again for this opportunity.

Legislative Budget Hearing
3/5/07