Pubdate: Wed, 10 May 2000
Source: Times Union (NY)
Copyright: 2000, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Contact:  Box 15000, Albany, NY 12212
Fax: (518) 454-5628
Author: Therese A. Derikart


The recent report by the City Project on upstate prison development (April
3) is alarming. One-third of all New York state prisoners (23,000 people)
are there for drug-related crimes; most were sentenced under mandatory
minimums, including the Rockefeller drug laws. Most are nonviolent, first
offenders with chemical dependencies. From 1973, when the Rockefeller Drug
Laws were passed, to 1995, the inmate population increased fivefold. Between
1982 and 1994, New York added more prison beds than it had in the state's
entire history.

Why do we continue to incarcerate when there are most cost-effective and
productive alternatives such as community sentencing and treatment programs?
It costs $180 million to build a new prison and $100 million each year to
operate one prison, not including debt service. Continuing to build
expensive prison beds for nonviolent people is saying yes to a system that
needs a 100 percent occupancy rate to survive. These costs will be with us
for generations to come. Arizona is using alternative programs and saving
itself millions of dollars each year. Why can't New York follow suit?

As long as mandatory minimum sentences exist, a judge does not have
discretion to fit the punishment to the crime and the individual. As long as
our state lawmakers decide sentences for people they have never met, our
judges' hands are tied and justice is not found in our courts.

Are we not reforming mandatory minimum sentences because we have become
addicted to them as a way to prop up our economy? As a resident of upstate
New York for the past 21 years, I have watched businesses leave the state
because the economic climate is so poor (Times Union, April 26). Once
thriving communities such as Troy, Schenectady, Amsterdam, Plattsburgh,
Kingston, the Leatherstocking region, Rochester and Buffalo have all lost
major employers. Now it seems that prisons are the only way to buoy upstate
economy. What a sad legacy and debt burden for our children!

I urge Gov. George Pataki and our state lawmakers to rethink the issues of
justice and economics. Creative and humane solutions are available. What is
needed is the political courage to do the right thing for New Yorkers.

Therese A. Derikart

Director, Families Against Mandatory Minimums

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