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Census count helps postpone drug reform in New York

by Peter Wagner, January 19, 2004

[New York] 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….

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.

Editorial, New York Times, Full-Employment Prisons August 23, 2001.

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