New York Newsday, February 3, 1994
Three Strikes And You’re Out, Mario
By Michael Letwin
WEEKS BEFORE President Bill Clinton proposed mandatory life sentences for third-time violent federal offenders, Mario Cuomo was at the plate with a “three strikes, you’re in” plan for New York.
The governor, who is running for a fourth term, is responding, like the president, to the public’s increasing fear of violent crime.
The “three-strikes” plan simultaneously appeals to conservative ideologues likely to support any “tough” crime measure, and to rural upstate voters anxious to shore up prison construction and operation, the leading industry in much of New York State.
As politically savvy as this measure may sound, mandatory prison sentences have failed for more than 20 years.
In January 1973, when draconian Rockefeller sentencing laws went into effect, 12,500 people were in state prisons. Today, there are 65,000 people in prison, largely due to mandatory sentencing laws.
To house them, the Cuomo administration has spent almost $6 billion since 1983 to build and maintain 29,000 hew prison cells, thereby surpassing the record of all previous administrations combined. Every year, it costs $30,000 — more than it costs to attend Harvard for one year — to keep each prisoner at institutions that lack meaningful access to drug treatment, job training or education.
And that’s not counting the billions spent annually on police, prosecutors, judges, defense attorney and local jails.
This unprecedented level of incarceration, however, has not put a dent in inner-city drug use and the violence that has accompanied it. Indeed, since the rise of crack in the rnid-1980s, the rate of violent crime has exploded.
Proponents of the Cuomo plan admit that these draconian penalties will probably fare no better. For one thing, current sentencing laws are already so harsh that a new “three strikes” law would increase penalties for only about 300 people per year. In addition, the proposal would mandate decades of expensive incarceration for people far too old to threaten anyone.
But even a law that put a million more people in prison wouldn’t make any difference, because the criminal justice system has little if any effect on the violence generated by the drug trade.
Most inner city robberies and burglaries are committed by people desperate for crack or other illegal drugs. Moreover, studies have shown that fully half of New York City’s 1988 homicides were drug-related; three-quarters of those resulted from competition to control street level drug traffic. To a much greater extent than during the early 20th Century prohibition of alcohol, these turf wars have turned entire inner city neighborhoods into free-fire zones.
As this drug related violence becomes interwoven into the social fabric, shooting has become a routine way to resolve disputes over leather jackets, sneakers, girlfriends or traffic accidents.
Much of today’s violence, therefore, is the product of a policy that keeps drugs illegal in the midst of deep and unrelenting inner-city poverty.
For these reasons, Cuomo’s threat of life imprisonment just doesn’t carry much weight with young people who live in a world where prison and death are so routine. “Tough” policies serve only to condemn almost one in four young African-American male New Yorkers to jail, prison, probation or parole — a rate higher than even in South Africa.
To its credit, the Cuomo administration has recognized some of these facts by endorsing the repeal of mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders. But mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders are also a cruel, expensive and destructive hoax.
There may be better ways to “increase the peace.” A month before Cuomo and Clinton made their politically predictable pronouncements, U S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders braved the crime-wave hysteria by suggesting that we examine whether violence would he dramatically reduced by de-criminalizing illegal drugs and by offering our children a future other than prison and death.
When will the governor known for his brilliant oratory match Dr. Elders’ political courage? Desperate times call for brave leadership. If Cuomo can’t provide that in his fourth term, maybe it’s time for voters to tell the governor, “Three strikes and you’re out.”