In a possible reversal of decades of expansion, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is proposing a commission to study closing some of the state’s dozens of prisons, the New York Times reports. The effort would try to duplicate for the prison system a recent commission that studied closing hospitals around the state. That panel recommended shutting down at least 20 hospitals and shrinking or merging dozens of others. If legislators approve the prison commission, New York may join the growing number of states that have sought to rein in high prison costs through closings or consolidations.
New York's prison population, which peaked in 1999 at more than 71,000, has rapidly declined since. Thanks to falling crime rates in New York City, fewer felony arrests, and efforts by prison officials to move nonviolent offenders out of the system, the inmate population has fallen by roughly 8,000 since the peak, though it rose slightly last year. Spitzer also will create a second commission to study changes to sentencing laws. Such measures have helped shrink inmate ranks in other states and could in New York, too. Any effort to close prisons will face formidable political obstacles. New York's sprawling network of prisons has created thousands of jobs upstate, where manufacturing jobs have been slowly disappearing. The $2.7 billion-a-year prison system has become, in effect, an economic development program.