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NYT Mandatory Minimum Editorial - Amazing

January 07, 2005

"Seldom has a public policy done so much damage so quickly."

Editorial Obvserver: Why Some Politicians Need Their Prisons to Stay Full
December 27, 2004

The mandatory sentencing fad that swept the United States
beginning in the 1970's has had dramatic consequences -
most of them bad. The prison population was driven up
tenfold, creating a large and growing felon class - now 13
million strong - that remains locked out of the mainstream
and prone to recidivism. Trailing behind the legions of
felons are children who grow up visiting their parents
behind bars and thinking prison life is perfectly normal.
Meanwhile, the cost of building and running prisons has
pushed many states near bankruptcy - and forced them to
choose between building jails and schools.
Seldom has a public policy done so much damage so quickly.
But changes in the draconian sentencing laws have come very
slowly. That is partly because the public thinks keeping a
large chunk of the population behind bars is responsible
for the reduced crime rates of recent years. Studies cast
doubt on that theory, since they show drops in crime almost
everywhere - even in states that did not embrace mandatory
minimum sentences or mass imprisonment. In addition, these
damaging policies have done nothing to curb the drug trade.
Changing prison policy, however, is no longer a simple
matter. The business of building and running the jailhouse
has become a mammoth industry with powerful constituencies
that favor the status quo. Prison-based money and political
power have distorted the legislative landscape in ways that
will be difficult to undo.
These problems are on vivid display in New York, which
started mass imprisonment when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller
persuaded the Legislature to pass the toughest drug laws in
the nation at the start of an ill-starred "war on drugs" 30
years ago. The Rockefeller laws introduced the country to
mandatory sentencing policies that barred judges from
deciding who goes to jail and for how long. Instead, the
laws required lengthy sentences - 15 years to life - for
nonviolent, first-time offenders, many of whom would have
received brief sentences, drug treatment or community
service under previous laws.
Nearly all of the prisoners ended up in upstate New York,
where failing farms and hollowed-out cities offered a lot
of room for building. Politicians in these sparsely
populated districts caught on quickly and began to lobby to
have the new prisons located in their communities. As a
result, nearly 30 percent of the people who were counted as
moving into upstate New York during the 1990's were prison
The influx of inmates has brought desperately needed jobs
to the region and resulted in districts whose economies
revolve around prison payrolls and whose politics are
dominated by the union that represents corrections
officers. The inmates also helped to save political careers
in areas where legislative districts were in danger of
having to be merged because of shrinking populations.
Inmates, as it turned out, were magically transformed into
"residents," thanks to a quirk in the census rules that
counts them as living at their prisons. Although people
sentenced under the drug laws frequently serve long
sentences, many prisoners remain behind bars only briefly
before returning to homes that are often hundreds of miles
Felons are barred from voting in 48 of 50 states -
including New York. Yet in New York, as in the rest of the
country, disenfranchised prisoners are included in the
population counts that become the basis for drawing
legislative districts.
An eye-opening analysis by Prison Policy Initiative's Peter
Wagner found seven upstate New York Senate districts that
meet minimal population requirements only because prison
inmates are included in the count. New York is not alone.
The group's researchers have found 21 counties nationally
where at least 21 percent of the "residents' were inmates.
The New York Republican Party uses its majority in the
State Senate to maintain political power through fat years
and lean. The Senate Republicans, in turn, rely on their
large upstate delegation to keep that majority. Whether
those legislators have consciously made the connection or
not, it's hard to escape the fact that bulging prisons are
good for their districts. The advantages extend beyond jobs
and political gerrymandering. By counting unemployed
inmates as residents, the prison counties lower their per
capita incomes - and increase the portion they get of
federal funds for the poor. This results in a transfer of
federal cash from places that can't afford to lose it to
places that don't deserve it.
Lately, polls have shown growing support for drug law
reform. In November, prominent New York Republicans ran
into trouble when they faced candidates who made
Rockefeller reform an issue. In response, the State Senate
endorsed a plan that cut sentences for drug possession
crimes, which was the easy part. But it stonewalled on the
crucial change, which would have returned to judges the
discretion to sentence at least some offenders to drug
treatment instead of prison.
While other political forces support the mandatory
sentences - most notably the powerful local prosecutors -
prison rights advocates have recently begun to argue that
prison district politicians are more concerned about
keeping the prisons full than about crime. The idea of
counting inmates as voters in the counties that imprison
them is particularly repulsive given that inmates are
nearly always stripped of the right to vote. The practice
recalls the early United States under slavery, when slaves
were barred from voting but counted as three-fifths of a
person for purposes of apportioning representation in

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