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Smart reforms for prisons and prisoners

An exterior view of Rikers Island.

An exterior view of Rikers Island. Photo Credit: AP

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has closed 13 prisons since taking office five years ago. Now he’s pushing harder on criminal justice reforms with commonsense proposals to keep young people out of the system to start with and keep young inmates from returning to it after their release. His reforms should be approved by the State Legislature.

Cuomo’s initiative comes as the nation reconsiders its standing as the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. The recalibration is long overdue. President Barack Obama has banned solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons, citing its severe psychological consequences. The Supreme Court just struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for teens convicted of murder. Congress is considering bipartisan reforms that would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, shifting the focus from punishment to rehabilitation, including mental health treatment.

Similarly, Cuomo wants to help at-risk youths by investing $100 million to turn failing schools into community schools that would provide services such as mentoring and summer learning opportunities. The idea has promise. So does his plan to spend an additional $55 million on a job-training program that’s helped communities with high youth unemployment. He wants to bolster programs that provide alternatives to incarceration and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18; North Carolina is the only other state that treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. His proposal to expand college education for inmates makes sense; statistics show it reduces recidivism and increases post-release employment. By using forfeiture funds from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., he cleverly bypassed State Senate opposition.

Policing has improved, crime rates have dropped, but prisons still are too crowded. It’s time to break the cycle. — The editorial board