Pubdate: Thu, 23 Aug 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Section: Editorial/Op-Ed


A recent Times article about the economic woes of upstate New York towns 
dependent on prisons raises a nagging little fear about the future of 
criminal justice reform. As crime has been falling and jailhouse 
populations stabilizing, towns that believed a prison was a recession-proof 
industry are beginning to worry about layoffs. Advocates who found it 
difficult enough to convince state legislators that drug treatment is 
better than incarceration for low-level offenders are wondering if they 
will also have to fight the perception that a vote for reform is a vote for 

New York State's Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate long prison terms for 
nonviolent drug offenders, have persisted since 1973 despite an 
overwhelming consensus that they are inhumane and expensive, clogging the 
prison system with people who should be in drug treatment. They have been 
hard to overturn mainly because state legislators fear making changes that 
could tag them as soft on crime. In addition, prosecutors, who in effect 
determine a defendant's sentence when they file charges, do not want to 
turn this influence over to judges, who would have more sentencing 
discretion if the Rockefeller laws were rescinded.

But economic issues may start looming large, too, particularly for 
influential upstate Republicans. Nearly one-third of the people in New 
York's prisons are serving time for Rockefeller drug offenses. A new prison 
brings a depressed community hundreds of jobs in the facility and around 
it. Prisons, in fact, are the chief employer in many parts of upstate New 
York, and a position as a guard pays better than many other jobs.

New York's prisons are built almost exclusively upstate in part because 
land and labor are significantly cheaper than in the New York City area. 
But they are also welcomed by upstate areas desperate for jobs. State 
Senator Dale Volker, who calls himself "the keeper of the keys" for his 
control of the process that allocates new prisons, said in an interview 
that legislators competed to get prisons. "No one thought it was a panacea, 
but they know prisons are helpful," he said.

Mr. Volker heads the Senate's Codes Committee, and Michael Nozzolio, 
another senator with a prison-heavy upstate district, leads the Crime 
Committee. Both men have been influential in quashing challenges to the 
Rockefeller drug laws. While senators and their aides deny that fear of 
losing prison population affects their support for the mandatory sentences, 
it is appropriate to wonder whether economics plays an indirect role.

The connection between prisons and local economies crops up in other ways. 
The government counts inmates as residents of their prison's town, adding 
clout to upstate communities and taking it away from cities competing for 
government services. This is especially important during a redistricting year.

New York's drug-driven prison expansion, while providing jobs to largely 
white upstate communities, has devastated black and Hispanic neighborhoods 
in the cities. Though most drug users are white, 94 percent of the people 
jailed for drug offenses are black or Hispanic. These inmates, their 
families and communities suffer when the state chooses long prison terms 
for these offenders rather than drug treatment. In addition, inmates serve 
their sentences in prisons far from their families, weakening ties that 
help prisoners stay clean after their release. New York's drug policies are 
costly, ineffective and unfair. It would be tragic if reform was postponed 
further because these policies benefit a few influential communities.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart