"After decades of failed mass incarceration policies that devastated families across the state, New Yorkers are beginning to understand that the punitive policies of the past are harmful and do not make us safer.”
After decades of failed mass incarceration policies that devastated families across the state, New Yorkers are beginning to understand that the punitive policies of the past are harmful and do not make us safer. Starting in the 1970s with sentencing laws that set harsh mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes, and continuing with the overcriminalization of Black and Brown communities throughout the 80s and 90s, policies leaning on punishment rather than safety have hurt all New Yorkers. The harm of mass incarceration was only made worse by the decimation of prison education programs in the 1990s. It is time for New York lawmakers to course correct and learn from the mistakes of the past. Three current bills – the Earned Time Act (Sen. Cooney/Asm. Kelles), the Second Look Act (Sen. Salazar/Asm.Walker), and the End Mandatory Minimums Act (Sen. Myrie/Asm. Meeks) – would provide opportunities for people to earn release and address New York’s outdated sentencing laws without compromising public safety.
The Earned Time Act would increase good and merit time credits for following prison rules and participating in vocational and educational programs, allow more people to earn credits, and provide due process to incarcerated people before credits are taken away. New York’s current earned and merit time structures are overdue for reform, and they fall far behind other states. Oklahoma, for example, allows many incarcerated people to earn more than 50% in good time, while New York only allows certain people to earn up to one-third off their sentence and limits many others to far less. This commonsense policy will help increase program participation, make prisons safer, and reduce recidivism. That’s why former Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) Reentry Director Dr. Vanda Seward has called the bill “a win-win,” with “potential to improve safety both in and out of prisons.” The Earned Time Act would bring New York’s credit system in line with evidence-based policies in other states, incentivize incarcerated people to participate in programs, and push prisons to offer more programs.
Similarly, the Second Look Act would give judges the ability to review sentences after a person has served a significant amount of time. As part of their review, judges can consider a number of factors, including whether or not someone has participated in programs while in prison. The Second Look Act not only incentivizes program participation, but also allows judges the opportunity to re-sentence people according to current research around public safety and rehabilitation. The Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act ensures judges have discretion in sentencing, instead of being forced to give a mandatory sentence for many offenses. Many states have moved away from mandatory minimum sentences because they do not improve public safety and cause long-term harm to communities.
Currently, taxpayers spend almost $100,000 per year to incarcerate people. Many of those people are earning advanced degrees, teaching and mentoring youth, facilitating anti-violence programs, and doing what they can to stay connected to their families despite being imprisoned. New York’s harsh sentencing laws and mandatory minimum sentences are the reason thousands of people languish for decades behind bars. As of January 2023, nearly 1,400 people were enrolled in post-secondary education programs behind bars. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with some post-secondary education or an associate’s degree have earnings of at least $995 per week. If all of those individuals were released, that’s a potential of over $71 million per year of earnings that could be brought into communities. By giving incarcerated people the opportunity to be released early, these policies would not only recognize their accomplishments and rehabilitation but would also save taxpayers billions of dollars and help advance public safety.