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Good Steps in Prison Reform

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We’ve all heard the mantra “Elections Have Consequences” a lot this year. Maybe too much. But it’s relied upon because it’s true. Elections do have consequences. That’s few places clearer — or as positive a statement — as in New York.

When Eliot Spitzer won the governorship last fall, ending eight years of Pataki reign, a lot of us felt like a good wind was blowing. Pataki had gone out with a flourish, vetoing the Emergency Contraception Access Bill, which would have made EC available in New York without a prescription (this was back in the day before FDA approval). And then in came Spitzer, who has already pushed for legislation that would shore up abortion rights, and indicated his support for same sex marriage. How much weight he will throw behind these measures is another question.

Yesterday had news of a couple additional good Spitzer developments, as well as a call on him to do more in the arena of criminal justice. Spitzer will soon have the opportunity to sign up to three new — and needed — reforms. The first, the Safe Harbor Act, would treat children victims of sexual exploitation as victims instead of as criminals. The second would guarantee that people who are released from prison do not have a several months long lag in their medicaid coverage — often time that they cannot spare when battling HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Diabetes, and other serious illnesses. The final bill would prohibit state prisons from placing mentally ill prisoners into disciplinary isolation except under special circumstances.

These bills are all important and Sptizer should (and hopefully will) sign them all. The last is particularly worth highlighting. New York – like many other states – has an abysmal track record when it comes to the level of care it provides for seriously mentally ill men and women who are incarcerated. About 11% of New York’s prison population falls into this category, but prison guards and other officials – not to mention prosecutors and judges – are poorly trained on how to handle the issues and problems posed by a mentally ill prison population.

Of course, the question of mental illness in incarcerated men and women opens up a whole other can of worms about how the criminal justice system treats mental illness from the get-go — from the time of arrest, arraignment, plea, and trial. But that is one big and politically unpopular can. And this, at least, is a good start.

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