Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Rethinking Prisoner Reentry in Harlem

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Rethinking Prisoner Reentry in Harlem

Article excerpt


New York has historically played a central role in the national debate about crime in America. The 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws, which passed amid growing concern about rising crime and drug use, were among the harshest drug sentencing laws in the country when enacted. They helped to fuel an unprecedented growth in the number of persons incarcerated in the state. The mandatory minimum sentences for small amounts of heroin and cocaine (and originally marijuana) drastically reduced judicial discretion and effectively increased the power of prosecutors. The charging decisions of the prosecution in drug cases became the key determinant of whether a defendant would serve a minimum of fifteen years in prison. Consider the following:

* Between 1973 and 1998, the state's prison population grew by 400 percent, from 13,800 to just over 68,000 (Weiskopf Consulting Services 1999).

* As of March 2008, there were more than 42,000 men and women on parole in New York State (New York State Division of Parole 2008a; New York State Division of Parole 2008b).

* Half of all prison releases in the state return to New York City (New York State Division of Parole 2008b).

According to a Pew Center on the States report, males ages twenty to thirty-four are incarcerated at a rate of one in thirty, while African American males in the same age group have the highest rate of incarceration, one in nine (Warren 2008). The impact of New York's move to increase its prison population was disproportionately felt by African American residents. African Americans currently comprise 17 percent of the state's population (U.S. Census Bureau 2008), yet represent 51.5 percent of the state's 60,000-person prison population (New York State Department of Correctional Services 2009). A 2001 report from the Prison Policy Initiative says that people of color account for 87.6 percent of the growth in New York's prison population since 1970 (Wagner 2001).

In 2007, state governments spent $44 billion on corrections costs, up 127 percent from 1987. Comparatively, state spending on higher education grew by only 21 percent during the same period (Warren 2008). For poor urban communities, the ancillary costs of incarceration are high, making it difficult to support needed expenditures in health, education, housing, and social services when so many dollars are committed to prisons and jails.

Because prison plays such a major role in the life opportunities of African American males in New York State, with profound implications for Black families and neighborhoods, reforming corrections policy is critically important. The case for reform has been made on moral and pragmatic grounds. For some, reform is a social justice issue. These advocates point to the long-term impacts of incarceration not only on individuals, but also on families and communities. For others, reform is necessary for practical reasons, including the fact that the cost of incarceration is unsustainable, especially in the face of a growing body of evidence showing that alternatives to incarceration are not only cheaper, but also more effective at reducing recidivism. One examination by the Legal Action Center found that New York could save more than $89,000 per second-time, nonviolent, felony offender by providing community-based treatment instead of jaü (Legal Action Center 2008). An evaluation of New York State drug courts found that drug court participants had lower rates of recidivism one year after program participation (Rempel et al. 2003).

New York began to chart a new course in 2004 when it was selected by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) to participate in the Transition from Prison to Community (TPC) initiative. The TPC model of managing offenders emphasizes local- and state-level collaboration, better offender risk assessment, and graduated responses to criminal behavior. It seeks to improve better outcomes for persons returning from prison, reduce recidivism, and increase public safety (National Institute of Corrections n. …

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