Pubdate: Mon, 02 Jan 2012
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The Buffalo News
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Ronald Fraser, Ph. D., writes on public policy issues for the
DKT Liberty Project.
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


How did America's addiction to prisons and mass incarceration get its 
start and spread from state to state? Perhaps the best explanation is 
found in a new book titled "A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of 
Mass Incarceration in America." According to public health expert and 
Columbia professor Ernest Drucker, the rapid growth and spread of 
American prisons follows the classic life cycle of an infectious 
bacterial or viral epidemic.

 From 1970 to 2009, the number of federal prisoners increased from 
21,094 to 208,118, while state prisons went from 177,737 to 1.4 
million. When the 767,620 people in local jails are added in, 
America's grand total for 2009 was nearly 2.4 million people behind 
bars- a world record. As for New York, from 1970 to 2009, state 
inmates increased fourfold, from 12,059 to more than 58,000.

To show his toughness, New York's Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sponsored 
the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws of 1973. These laws, says 
Drucker, launched America's prison epidemic. "These laws," he writes, 
"mandated an elaborate new set of lengthy sentences for many drug 
offenses. In some cases sentences for possession and sales of small 
quantities of drugs were equal to those given for many violent crimes 
- - rape, assault and robbery."

The Rockefeller laws then became the model used by lawmakers in other 
states. In this way, the initial outbreak became contagious.

In New York, exposure to the Rockefeller laws was 30 times higher for 
blacks and Hispanics than for whites, and by 1990 these drug laws 
accounted for a third of the state's entire prison population. This 
exposure pattern was repeated in other states.

Drucker claims the epidemic is sustained by post-prison parole 
policies. Violations of administrative and technical parole rules, 
not new criminal charges, annually account for about one-third of all 
state prison admissions in America.

Ex-convicts re-entering society are often unable to find a job, 
decent housing and other social services and, says Drucker, 25 
percent to 30 percent of the children growing up in some black and 
Hispanic communities have a parent behind bars. This increases 
greatly the chances that these children will themselves one day be 

Drucker concludes: "We can now identify the features of an infectious 
disease gone out of control . . . Our decision to criminalize drug 
use in the United States has caused our epidemic of incarceration."

The Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Act of 2009 closed down mandatory 
sentences found in the original draconian statute, and earlier drug 
law reforms in 2004 and 2005 helped New York state's prison 
population decline from 70,199 in 2000, to 58,687 in 2009.

Hopefully other states will once again follow New York's lead. The 
prison epidemic spread one state at a time, and that is how America's 
plague of incarceration can end.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom