Prisoner Politics

Nothing was more striking in Gov. Pataki's State of the State address in January than his use of the word "reform" no fewer than 31 times in a 69-minute speech. It's striking, because if there's anything New Yorkers will not get from this administration, it's genuine reform.

For the governor to pursue real reform, he would have to challenge some entrenched Albany special interests and Republican Party politics. A look at how the governor "reformed" the Rockefeller-era drug laws reveals how unwilling or unable he is to do that.

Last year, after a decade of promises to revisit the state's 30-year-old drug laws, the governor finally signed a "reform" measure. The need for real reform was obvious; the Rockefeller laws are a well-established failure. They impose harsh minimum mandatory sentences on first-time, nonviolent drug offenders, stripping judges of the freedom to base their sentences on the facts of each individual case. Under rigid sentencing guidelines, judges are forced to lock up thousands of nonviolent young people who would be better served by effective drug treatment. The "reform" legislation did little to change this injustice.

The Rockefeller laws have wasted millions of dollars, to say nothing of the unnecessary waste of prisoners' lives that can never be recovered. Even the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed the importance of judicial discretion -- which is absent in New York's law.

When the need for real reform of these laws is so obvious, why would the governor look the other way? Because, arguably, Mr. Pataki is more interested in protecting the interests of New York's Republican Party than in serving the interests of the people of New York.

Let me describe one example of this dysfunction. The population of upstate New York, the political base for the state's Republicans, has been steadily declining in recent years. We have the greatest out-migration of any state in the nation. Our upstate communities are losing jobs too, and state government has pushed the problem from bad to worse by increasing the cost of doing business. Sadly, jobs in the prison industry are among the few employment opportunities the Pataki administration has protected upstate.

There are New Yorkers moving upstate, but they are prison inmates. In fact, prisoners from downstate represent a full 30 percent of all those "moving" upstate since 1990. While only 24 percent of New York prisoners come originally from upstate, 91 percent of all New York's prisoners are incarcerated there.

This works out nicely for New York's Republican Party. Why? Because the population figures that determine Senate and Assembly districts include prison inmates. It's simply not in the Republicans' political interests to support measures that would let those locked up under the old drug laws go free.

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 44,000 prisoners -- mainly from downstate and mainly minorities -- are incarcerated in small, upstate communities and are counted as "residents" of the communities in which they are imprisoned. Their presence in a prison adds to a legislator's constituents -- even though, as prisoners, they can't vote.

This is politically powerful for the Republican Party. There are four upstate Senate districts that qualify as districts only because they include a large prison population -- and all four are represented by Republicans. The Democrats would have to take just four more seats for the Republicans to lose their majority.

The leading defenders of the Rockefeller-era drug laws are upstate Republican Sens. Dale Volker and Michael Nozzolio, heads of the committees on codes and crime, respectively. The prisons in their two districts account for more than 17 percent of all the prisoners in the state. It may not be fair to say Volker and Nozzolio actually "represent" the inmates who make their districts viable. Sen. Volker told another newspaper that the cows in his district would be more likely to vote for him than the prisoners.

State population statistics show that, without the inmates, Volker's district is one of the four that would have to be redrawn. Are decisions on the Rockefeller-era drug laws being made as sound public policy or are they politically motivated? The potential conflict of interests is obvious. We should not count prisoners as a political base for legislators who do not honestly represent them and for whom they did not vote. In other words, remove the partisan politics and secure the integrity of legislative decisions. These are important keys to "real" reform.

Such an agenda would replace partisan politics with sound public policy, deliver results not rhetoric and restore integrity to the process. It would focus on an economic development plan for upstate New York rather than a prison construction program. It would address the education-aid debacle and the dysfunction of state government. The "government for sale" attitude should be replaced with a strong ethical code for lobbyists and special interests.

For many years, voters ignored the state government's poor performance. But this past year has brought a new awareness and justified impatience with Albany. Elected officials who serve in Albany could not avoid hearing the message and after years of dysfunction they promised change. Even seasoned Albany veterans are contorting themselves to appear as "reformers." This year they must deliver.

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union.

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