Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the Right Priorities initiative on Jan. 10 as a way to reform the New York State criminal justice system. The initiative seeks to decrease the number of incarcerations by transforming schools, creating jobs and programs for youth and decreasing the chances of re-entry into the criminal justice system upon release.
To decrease the number of youth entering into the criminal justice system, Cuomo proposed an investment of $100 million to transform failing schools. This will expand on the governor’s 2013 investment of $30 million to 62 schools in high-need districts, which supported mentoring programs, summer learning activities and referrals and connections with medical, dental and social services, according to a news release.
Additionally, the governor will invest $50 million to expand the Urban Youth Jobs Program. With this investment, 10,000 more youth will be placed in the program to help to steer them away from crime and to develop employable skills, Cuomo said at his announcement at the Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem.
The governor described the prison system as cyclical in pattern and disproportionately affecting minorities.
“How do you stop the cycle? You actually have the right priorities,” Cuomo said at the announcement. “And you actually really invest in the prevention, rather than paying for the problem once it manifests itself, because it’s too late.”
By targeting failing schools and by creating jobs for youth, Cuomo said he hopes to break the prison cycle.
Furthermore, the governor said he hopes to expand and modernize the programs that provide alternatives to incarceration in order to decrease the prison population and to diverge from the idea that prison is the only solution to law breaking.
The governor will invest $1 million towards programs that will provide counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy and substance abuse treatment and will focus on high-risk and high-need individuals, according to the news release.
“It was supposed to be about rehabilitation,” Cuomo said about the administering of prison sentences. “It was supposed to be an opportunity to help people. We lost that somewhere along the way.”
The governor also proposed to expand educational programs in prisons. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has offered to fund this expansion with $7.5 million of criminal forfeiture funds obtained by Vance.
Cuomo pointed out the difficulty prisoners face in re-entering the community once they are released from prison. To prevent them from relapsing and going back into the prison system, he proposed the coordination of transitional housing, connections to employment and the provision of medical and mental health services.
To prevent employers from turning away young individuals who were released from prison, Cuomo said that he would offer a conditional parole to those who committed nonviolent crimes at ages 16 and 17. Those with the conditional parole will not need to say that they were convicted of a crime on their job applications.
Additionally, Cuomo will introduce legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from age 16 to 18. Youth ages 16 and 17 will no longer be tried as adults. Additionally, the courts will now fast-track cases that involve 16- and 17-year-olds so that young people do not spend much time in adult jails.
“According priority to the adjudication of cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds will ensure that their cases are handled promptly and efficiently,” Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said in the news release.
Cuomo noted the millions of dollars that are invested into this initiative. However, he also said, “success is cheaper than failure.”
The investments are relatively small compared to the cost of keeping someone in prison. The cost to keep someone in a prison cell in New York is $50,000 per year, Cuomo said.
“You could have sent them to Harvard University and paid their tuition for what you’re paying for a prison cell,” Cuomo said.
With these improvements to the criminal justice system, Cuomo said that he will go down in history as the governor who closed the most prisons in New York.