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New York City: Thousands Unnecessarily Imprisoned at Enormous cost

New York City: Thousands Unnecessarily Imprisoned At Enormous Cost

New York City is spending a fortune to unnecessarily imprison thousands of its citizens for relatively minor offenses. According to the city's Independent Budget Office, in fiscal year 2003 the total yearly cost of imprisonment per prisoner was approximately $92,000. Multiply this by the 13,500 men and women imprisoned at the city's infamous Riker's Island jails and the cost is, roughly, an outrageous $1.24 billion.

This huge outflow of cash is fueled by the city's reliance on imprisonment as policy. For instance, even though the city has seen a reduction in crime in recent years, the proportion of those imprisoned for misdemeanor offenses has jumped from 29% in 1994 to 42% in 2002.

"It really doesn't make sense to spend almost $100,000 a year to keep drug users, petty criminals, [and] people with mental illness jailed," said Nicholas Freudenberg, director of the Program in Urban Public Health at Hunter College. "It's not a good use of public money."

Freudenberg and other experts advocate emptying the city's jails of those imprisoned for relatively minor offensesturnstile jumpers and open container violators, for instancemany of whom are homeless, jobless, and addicted to drugs.

"For $90,000 or $100,000," added Freudenberg, "we could put people in housing, in treatment, in college, a whole range of things that would lead to better outcomes."

The city should also come up with alternatives to imprisonment for those who cannot post a modest bail, said Freudenberg. "For want of an individual or family having $500, the city spends $250 a day to keep them in a cell," he noted.

In their defense, New York City officials point to recently created "drug courts," which allow for the sentencing of non-violent drug offenders to judge-supervised treatment programs rather than jail. Moreover, the city announced in September 2003 a plan to provide prisoners with access to drug treatment, jobs or job training, and possibly shelter upon release.

Although these measures are admittedly a step in the right direction, Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn said that significant savings can only be realized through large reductions in the prisoner population. Much of the nearly $100,000 per year the city spends on one prisoner is tied up in fixed costs such as transportation, building maintenance and food serviceexpenses that are unaffected by a small drop in the prisoner population, he said.

"If there were one fewer inmate, I wouldn't save much," said Horn. "If it were reduced by a thousand, I'd save millions."

Source: New York Times

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