Public defenders say Gov. Hochul’s budget will increase jail population

May 4, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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A coalition of New York City public defenders has criticized Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget, warning that changes to the state’s bail laws will lead to a surge in the prison population.

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, New York County Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and Queens Defenders issued a joint statement expressing their concerns.

“Gov. Hochul and the Legislature’s decision to yet again rollback New York’s bail laws, eliminating the well-established ‘least restrictive conditions’, is unconscionable,” the statement said.

“This move erodes the presumption of innocence, and it will balloon jail populations in dangerous and deadly facilities throughout New York, jeopardizing peoples’ employment, housing, education, access to critical services and bonds with their families and communities.

“The fact that Gov. Hochul hijacked the budget process to force through this rollback — precluding the public from any meaningful review or comment — to stave off negative political coverage in local tabloids, is even more disturbing and the epitome of flawed policy making.”

The public defenders argued that the elimination of the “least restrictive conditions” in bail laws undermines the presumption of innocence and will inflate jail populations in hazardous facilities across the state. They claimed that this move would jeopardize individuals’ employment, housing, education, access to critical services and connections to their families and communities.

The group also condemned Gov. Hochul for using the budget process to push through the rollback without allowing for public input or review, accusing her of yielding to negative local media coverage.

The defenders called for a focus on investing resources and funding in communities instead of embracing a “tough on crime” mentality that they argue does not improve public safety. Although they applauded the budget’s allocation of resources for staff and technology required by New York’s discovery reform, they expressed disappointment at the lack of funding for the District Attorney and Indigent Legal Services Attorney Loan Forgiveness program.

The public defenders urged lawmakers to work on passing legislation that promotes justice, fairness, and stronger communities by offering essential services and resources in the remaining weeks of the legislative session.

New York spends tens of billions of dollars annually to incarcerate people, with significant costs associated with both jails and state prisons. In 2019, a typical New York county outside of New York City spent over $225 per night, or more than $82,000 per year, to keep a single person in jail. In state prisons, New York spends an average of over $315 a day, or nearly $115,000 per year, to incarcerate one person, according to a Vera Institute of Justice report.

A study conducted by the University of Michigan, Department of Economics, suggests that the increasing reliance on incarceration in the US since the 1970s may not be as effective as previously thought.

Incarceration rates have plateaued recently, and the study finds that incapacitation gains are low. In fact, criminal activity increases after accounting for post-release behavior. Incarceration negatively impacts post-release employment, earnings, and economic self-sufficiency, leading to greater reliance on government safety net programs.

The study concludes that unless general deterrence effects are high, incarcerating low-risk offenders likely generates significant social costs and may not be beneficial for society.

The connection between the prison population and modern-day slavery is often discussed in terms of the prison-industrial complex and the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, contains a clause that states, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This exception has led to the exploitation of prison labor and the growth of the prison-industrial complex.

The prison-industrial complex refers to the relationship between government, private prison corporations, and businesses that profit from the use of inmate labor or the expansion of prison facilities. The use of inmate labor has been criticized as a form of modern-day slavery, as incarcerated individuals are often required to work for extremely low wages or no wages at all. This practice has been compared to the exploitation of slaves in the past, as it disproportionately affects marginalized communities, particularly African Americans and Latinos.

New York uses inmate labor through the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s (DOCCS) work programs. The DOCCS operates the Correctional Industries program, which employs incarcerated individuals in various industries, such as manufacturing, printing, and textiles, among others. The use of inmate labor in New York has also been criticized for the extremely low wages paid to the incarcerated workers, sometimes as little as a few cents per hour, which has led to comparisons with modern-day slavery.

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