A report issued this week (12/1) by the Correctional Association of New York and the Washington DC-based Justice Policy Institute reveals that over the past ten years, New York State has increased its spending on prisons by nearly as much as it has decreased spending for higher education. The culmination of ten years of education cuts and ten years of prison spending increase is that in 1998, the state is spending $1.5 billion on higher education and $1.76 billion on prisons.
Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, told The Week Online that it is the drug war, above all else, that has driven New York's prison population to 70,000 and prison spending to record highs.
"New York is home to the infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws, perhaps the most extreme set of mandatory minimums in the country, which have resulted in a stream of low-level, non-violent offenders" said Gangi.
Gangi said that while the trend of less spending for education and more for prisons was not surprising, he was shocked by both the magnitude of the shift and by its disparate racial impact.
"At one time in New York, higher education spending outstripped prison spending by a 2-1 margin. Today we're spending $260 million more on prisons than on education. What was most disturbing however were some of the radial breakdowns. New York State now has more people of color in prison on drug convictions than are enrolled in the state university system.
"The reality is that people of color, arrested and convicted for drug offenses, mostly in New York City, are being used as grist in an economic mill which provides jobs in the corrections industry in rural upstate towns. Those towns, of course, are primarily white."
Gangi believes that it is imperative to reform the Rockefeller drug laws.
"The Rockefeller laws, because of their severity and because they've been in place for some time now, are symbolic. If we can make a dent here in reforming them, it will have a trickle down effect on the rest of the country. The numbers in this report reflect the situation in one state, but they are indicative of what is going on in other states as well."
(The Correctional Association of New York/Justice Policy Institute report is available online in full at http://www.cjcj.org/jpi/nysomfront.html.)