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The Carceral Kings of New York

As COVID-19 spreads, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio are slashing budgets, but leaving funding for police and prisons largely untouched.

On April 16, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio arrives outside Coney Island Hospital to join in a thank you to hospital staff for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned of devastating cuts to New York’s budget if federal aid isn’t delivered to combat massive shortfalls in the state from COVID-19 deaths and shutdowns. Cuomo said that school budgets could be decimated, losing half of all funding. On Saturday, Cuomo delivered the first wave of dark news: Spending on the overall budget would shrink by at least $10 billion, with more than $8 billion of cuts to education, mass transit, children’s health insurance, and substance abuse programs. 

“I’m very, very concerned, there’s no words for how much alarm was sounded when we heard of the magnitude of the cuts the governor plans,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday. De Blasio, though, is already engaged in belt-tightening; he slashed a popular summer youth employment program that would have offered 75,000 jobs. His $1.3 billion in cuts also includes an expansion of free schooling for three-year-olds and organics collection. 

However, de Blasio is keeping the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion budget largely intact, making minor cuts with hiring delays as well as savings from the attrition of 100 traffic enforcement agents. Similarly, Cuomo has not indicated that any cuts are coming to the state’s sprawling prison system that incarcerates 43,000 people and costs more than $3 billion to maintain.  

For advocates and elected officials preparing for fiscal pain, the punishment of social services and exemption of law enforcement from budget cuts are difficult to accept. Several told The Appeal that while Democrats Cuomo and de Blasio are often at odds, they are surprisingly like-minded when it comes to slashing social services while maintaining the carceral state

“If everybody is going to have to feel the pain with this budget, then everybody needs to feel the pain,” said Jumaane Williams, the New York City Public Advocate. “Certainly, we can’t cut all the things we know will help keep our community safe, like summer jobs.”

New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic. More than 17,000 residents have died, while the city’s hospitality, restaurant, and tourism industries are all on life support. Ridership on the subway is down 92 percent, so revenue for public transit has plummeted to catastrophic levels. 

De Blasio’s proposed budget, still near $90 billion, may have to shrink further as revenue disappears. The city could lose more than $10 billion in revenue and more than half a million jobs. Without significant infusions of federal cash, city agencies across the board could see crippling reductions. 

But as with their wrongheaded, austerity-driven moves on budgets, both de Blasio and Cuomo have exacerbated the pandemic’s pain by moving far too slowly to embrace social distancing measures that could have reduced the death rate by 50 to 80 percent.

De Blasio’s first move to cut a summer youth employment program over funding to the police indicates where his priorities really lie. Though de Blasio ran for mayor on a platform to reform the NYPD—which came under national scrutiny because of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy—the self-identified progressive has been largely deferential to the police. De Blasio has repeatedly defended “broken windows” policing, and he chose William Bratton, one of the strongest proponents of both broken windows and zero-tolerance policing, as his first commissioner. De Blasio has also spent lavishly on the police: In 2015, De Blasio agreed to hire 1,297 officers when New York’s City Council had requested just 1,000 officers. 

In June 2019, Cuomo said he would fund 500 NYPD subway officers, a plan supported by de Blasio. After  protests met the swearing-in of the officers in late January, de Blasio said he was “repulsed” by them. Last week, when two council members said they would introduce a bill to open up nearly 75 miles of the city’s streets to give pedestrians and cyclists space to maintain social distancing, de Blasio said dismissively, “it doesn’t fit our reality in terms of safety.” On Monday, de Blasio reversed his opposition to the plan, saying 40 miles of streets would be opened over the next month, “with a goal of 100 miles for the duration of the crisis.” 

De Blasio’s push for more police—and framing even social distancing as a law enforcement issue, emphasizing that his plan on opening streets comes “with enforcement” while also threatening to sicc the NYPD on large gatherings—clashes with his racial equity efforts like the just-announced City Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity that focuses on “specific needs in communities of color and breaking down structural racism.”

“Now is the time to reduce our reliance on policing and start trying to invest in community-based strategies instead,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of “The End of Policing.” “We need to reduce the police headcount. That’s all there is to it. We cannot afford this massive police apparatus. It’s not that effective and there are better alternatives.”

Advocates are zeroing in on how potential cuts to policing can lead to new funding elsewhere. The organization Girls for Gender Equity is calling for increases to the Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds the summer youth employment program, after-school programs, and services for runaway and homeless youth. In addition, the organization is asking de Blasio to cut back on funding for the officers who patrol public school hallways. 

On April 22, 50 advocacy groups, including Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, JustLeadershipUSA, and the Innocence Project, sent a letter to de Blasio criticizing his proposed budget for “continuing the serious and sometimes deadly consequences that result from underfunding social services” and “relying on law enforcement agencies to respond to challenges they are not equipped to address.” 

The groups demanded an NYPD hiring freeze—de Blasio has imposed one across many city agencies—and a reduction of correction officers at city jails. The cost savings, the letter said, should be used to fund increases to mental health services, job-training programs, upgrades to public housing, and an expansion of affordable housing, among many other recommendations. De Blasio, so far, has been cool to the suggestion of cutting law enforcement funding to pay for a social services expansion. 

Like de Blasio, Cuomo resists shrinking the carceral state’s footprint. Cuomo’s recent budget rolled back bail reform, and though he has shuttered several prisons during his near-decade in office, he hasn’t significantly decreased spending on the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. In the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the DOCCS budget was about $3.2 billion. After declining for a few years, the budget increased again later in the 2010s, rising just above $3 billion in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. 

Much of that spending, advocates say, is driven by labor costs. The union representing corrections officers is among the state’s most powerful. Though Cuomo has clashed with the corrections union over prison closures, they remain a potent force in the state with the ability to protect the sizable jobs they do have. 

To protect those jobs, Cuomo has mostly targeted smaller, medium, and low-security prisons for closure, said Insha Rahman, the director of strategy and new initiatives at the Vera Institute. “The savings have not been that much,” said Rahman. “If you don’t downsize staff, you won’t see a huge savings in terms of releasing people.” 

Rahman argued, however, that Cuomo could seek marginal savings by releasing incarcerated people. If he released a sufficient number of people, entire units could be shuttered, saving on operation and maintenance costs. A smaller population of incarcerated people could also lead to a reduction in costs for food, medical care, and programming. 

But Cuomo has refused to release incarcerated people during the coronavirus pandemic. Though his administration announced in March that 1,100 low-level technical parole violators would be freed, many have not been released. In California, where COVID-19 is far less prevalent, 3,500 incarcerated people have already been freed.

Of the 43,000 behind bars in New York, at least 9,500 are over the age of 50, according to Katie Schaffer, the director of organizing and advocacy at the Center for Community Alternatives. “In all these cases, the governor has the absolute ability to grant clemencies, to grant compassionate release, to allow people to go home,” Schaffer said. “That is entirely within his power and his discretion. He has taken wholly insufficient action.”

On Sunday, when a reporter asked Cuomo about a video message from the actor Alec Baldwin imploring him to “use your authority to issue clemency to those most vulnerable in our state prisons,” he replied, “we’re already doing that.” But advocates and public defenders point out that Cuomo isn’t decarcerating: he’s failed to act on more than 6,000 clemency petitions submitted since 2015, and over 5,000 people are serving time in prison for technical parole violations. 

Advocates are asking Cuomo to free people who are close to their release date, regardless of the crime they committed. If a prisoner only has a few weeks or months left on a sentence that has spanned decades, they argue that there’s little sense in keeping them longer if their life is now at risk. 

“If somebody is two weeks from release, why does it matter what the crime is?” asked Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a criminal justice advocacy group. “We don’t have the death penalty in New York. It almost feels like what you’re saying is it’s OK for that person to die.”

Ross Barkan is a writer and journalist from New York City.