New York City has reduced its prison population dramatically over the past two decades, largely because of falling crime rates, drug sentencing reforms, and fewer felony arrests. However, as the New York Police Department shifted resources away from felony arrests, arrests for low-level crime have increased — particularly for minor marijuana possession. Up until February, people charged with marijuana possession were usually held in jail for at least one night.
Despite the city’s prison reforms, the budget office’s study also noted that 76 percent of the inmates were waiting for their cases to be disposed. The average time spent awaiting trial has stretched to 95 days from 76 days in 2002. Many inmates cannot afford bail and simply sit in jail for months, often putting their jobs and families in peril. Twice as many people as a decade ago await trial for six months or longer. One estimate claims city jails could eliminate 1,700 beds if case processing became more efficient.
Other cities and states are grappling with unsustainable prison costs that total roughly $39 billion a year. Some have embraced the mostly empty promises of private prison companies claiming to reduce costs even as they extract guarantees of 90 percent occupancy. In some extreme cases, state prisons are shutting off air conditioning and electricity.
Others, however, have turned to alternative sentencing systems, sending non-violent and juvenile criminals to more effective rehabilitative or community-based programs rather than prison. These initiatives are projected to save states millions of dollars each year.