State of Stupidity: NY Can't Afford its Drug Prisons

Fixing New York’s Finances

For most of my life it’s felt as if all branches of government have been held hostage by the chronically unimaginative. Take the current New York State budget crisis, for example. We’re spiraling toward bankruptcy because 20 percent of state revenue derives from Wall Street—and that money just plain ain’t there anymore. It’s yet another d’uh moment.

Wall Street is a casino. It always has been. In the long run, it’s usually been a dependable conduit for transferring wealth from poor workers around the globe to wealthier investors—with New York State eventually getting a sliver of the booty. When the Wall Street slot machines are delivering, we spend like lottery winners, dolling out tax rebates, and so on, as if this were a sustainable source of revenue. There’s no thought of banking a surplus for a rainy day. Weirdly enough, politicians passed off this notion of spending every penny in our piggy bank as “conservative.”

Like deer

In reality, spending all we have and saving nothing is the antithesis of conservative financial management—even if the drunken sailors who run the state scream that “it’s the people’s money and big government has no right to hold on to it.” So when times are good we write fat checks to everyone; folks like their “STAR” tax rebates. And when times turn bad, as they inevitably do, we act like deer grazing in traffic, dumbfounded and without a plan.

At this point the deer are running directly at speeding cars. Here in New York, we, exercising similar intellectual prowess, slash and burn the education, health, and infrastructure programs that sustain us. We’re talking about cutting meat from the skeleton of a state university system that is still decimated from cuts it suffered in the 1970s, and we’re going to take money away from urban school districts that are already suffering from overcrowded classrooms, uncompetitive salaries and a lack of technology. And we’re going to cut Medicaid funding to nursing homes, as if we have no better plan for balancing our state budget than taking the sugar out of old folks’ porridge.

We can’t go back in time and tell the wise ones that the stock market won’t magically balance our budget forever. So let’s work with what we have. But let’s be creative. Where is there a pit of money in New York State that is poorly spent?

Rockefeller’s legacy expenses

We don’t have to look too far. In 1973 New York embarked on a failed social experiment under then Governor Nelson Rockefeller, instituting the nation’s most draconian anti-drug laws—laws that, for example, mandated the same sentence for a marijuana dealer as for a murderer. The state eased these laws in 2004 under pressure from both fiscal conservatives and social liberals, but the so-called reforms left most of the original laws intact, while lowering some mandatory drug sentences from being equivalent to murder to being equivalent to rape. Hence, as of 2008, approximately 14,000 people are locked away in New York prisons on drug offenses. They comprise 38 percent of the prison population and cost the state over a half billion dollars per year to jail. As a reference point, this is over five times the size of the proposed budget cuts that threaten to severely impact the quality of education in the SUNY system.

Cutting prison spending, even if all criminal activity suddenly ceased, is all but impossible in New York State. New York’s prison-industrial complex is sacred to the big government, tax-and-spend Republicans in the New York legislature. Since the enactment of the Rockefeller drug laws, the prison industry has emerged as rural New York’s largest growth industry and the economic anchor for impoverished upstate counties decimated by Reagan-era economic policies.

Dependent on crime

These rural—and faithfully Republican—counties are economically dependent on the persistence of crime in New York City. Former Big Apple residents make up most of the prisoners housed in state prisons while rural Republicans make up the bulk of their handlers; the Census now counts prisoners as residents of rural prison counties and henc, the state and federal governments allot anti-poverty funds to those counties based on this population, and legislative districts are swelled by this population even though they can’t vote. If crime goes down in New York, prison populations shrink, theoretically followed by job losses and a diminished tax base in Republican counties.

I use the work “theoretically,” because this is not the case. The first part of this scenario actually happened. Crime in New York dropped by 75 percent from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s. That, along with minor changes in the Rockefeller drug laws, has so far resulted in 9,000 or so few inmates in New York’s jails—that’s roughly a 12 percent drop.

But don’t expect to see a corresponding drop in prison funding. It’s just not easy to close jails, even if we don’t need them. The state legislature, for example, passed a law in 2006 requiring a one-year notice to employees before closing any state prisons. This was a response to former Governor Pataki’s plans to close four upstate prisons in order to save $70 million per year. Governor Paterson, under pressure from New York Senate Republicans, axed that plan, opting to continue wasting $70 million per year on prisons that are unneeded, even with today’s drug-law swelled prison population.

Cashing in on racism

Now the Rockefeller drug laws begin to make sense. The same legislators whose impoverished districts rely on prisons for jobs also rely on prisoners for prisons. Draconian drug laws mean more prisoners, and hence more justification to keep prisons open, even if New Yorkers continue their nasty aversion to crime. It also makes sense that cuts to education, which traditionally translate into more criminality (roughly 80 percent of America’s prisoners never finished high school), are good for the local economy—though I don’t really think many legislators are savvy enough to understand concepts of causality. But we often find that prison district legislators oppose social spending, labeling it as “big government,” while supporting big government prison projects.

Now let’s add race to the equation. Back in 2000, I wrote: “Consider these numbers: According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, African Americans make up 13 percent of illicit drug users in the United States. However, according to the Sentencing Project, a policy research institute funded in part by the Department of Justice, African Americans constitute 35 percent of all arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of all drug possession convictions, and a whopping 74 percent of people sentenced to jail for drug possession. White people, by comparison, make up 74 percent of illicit drug users but roughly account for only one fifth of those serving jail time for drug possession. Put simply, this means that if a white man in Amherst and a black man in Buffalo both personally consume illicit drugs, the black man is over 20 times more likely to wind up in jail.”

Looking at the situation though this lens, the prison-industrial complex becomes horribly uglier. In New York, our whitest counties anchor their economies on the business of caging black men. The politically untouchable remnants of the Rockefeller drug laws provide the judicial framework for this racist economy.

Eighteen to life

Then there are the “three strikes” laws that were enacted with the support of prison county legislators. These laws also remove judicial discretion and mandate minimum prison terms for repeat offenders. One of them is Mitchell Montgomery of Buffalo, who was sentenced to 18 years to life for jumping through an open window and stealing a camera from the empty apartment of a UB student. It was his third such felony—all burglaries involving open doors or windows. He was injured during the arrest, and, as is the case with many people injured while being arrested in Buffalo, a brutality complaint was headed off by a felony assault charge—hence the three-time violent felon. Mandatory sentencing laws supported by the prison-industrial complex stripped the preceding judge’s discretionary sentencing powers.

I first encountered Mitchell in 2000 when two students in my investigative reporting class wrote about his case. He’s still behind bars and won’t be eligible for release until 2015 at the earliest. The severity of his sentence mandates that he serve out his time in a maximum security facility (my students interviewed him when he was in Attica), even though he has no history of violence, save for the resisting arrest charge. It costs the state as much to incarcerate Mitchell in such a facility as it would to hire a teacher. Yes, Mitchell is a convicted burglar (though, for the record, he still proclaims his innocence). But 18 to life for stealing a camera?

This sentence might not sound fair, but it’s good for business—the prison business—as are draconian drug laws. People have argued against these laws on moral grounds, but have not made much headway. Perhaps, with the current governor asking us to make great sacrifices to balance our crisis budget while keeping this status quo intact, people will finally challenge these laws as being just too damn pricey.


ęCopyright 2008

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