Will Doolittle: Change in inmate counting is only a start

by Leah Sakala, February 3, 2012  

Because discussions about prison-based gerrymandering are sometimes very technical and numbers-based, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger criminal justice policy picture. Will Doolittle’s new column in the Glens Falls Post-Star zooms way out to ask what prison-based gerrymandering can reveal about broader inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York was a smart move, he says, but there’s more work to do to address disporportionate incarceration rates and rural prison industries:

Far too many of our young urban men in New York spend often-brief sojourns in rural prisons that stigmatize them for the rest of their lives, exposing them to legal discrimination and relegating them to a lower class existence.

Laws may be colorblind, but the criminal justice system is not, unfortunately. White and black people use illegal drugs at about the same rates, for example, but a much higher percentage of black people than white are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug crimes. Most of these people are young men, and once convicted, their road to a constructive, satisfying life is particularly steep.

In prison, they are numbers, little more. So many inmates per prison, so many inmates per correction officer, so many inmates per upstate job.

New York should be praised for ending prison-based gerrymandering, but other reforms to improve the criminal justice system must follow:

Prisoners bear responsibility for their actions and the only way for an individual to transcend his incarceration is to first take responsibility for where he has ended up.

But step back and consider all the black and brown young men passing through our state prisons on their way to lives of severely curtailed opportunities. It’s wrong on its face.

They’re being counted where they should be now, but they still don’t count as much as they should.

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