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A New York State of Mind

New York’s criminal justice failures have been in the news recently, but these failures are not unique to the Empire State.

Published: August 6, 2014


The Justice Department Monday announced the results of an investigation into the rampant abuse and neglect of young offenders held in detention in New York’s most famous jail. “Rikers Island is a broken institution,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara as the grim news broke. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails.”

On the same day, in the same city, The New York Daily News published an exclusive report detailing the racial disparities inherent in the City’s “broken windows” policing policies. Not only are blacks and Hispanics disproportionately targeted, the News reported with great statistical detail, but the city has enormous financial incentives to issue summonses for petty crimes to those least likely to be able to afford them — the revenues for those citations amounting to a huge chunk of the city’s criminal courts budget.

Also on the same day, also in the same city, The New York Times reported on the “difficult decisions” ahead for the district attorney of Staten Island, in whose jurisdiction the Eric Garner case has fallen. Garner, you will recall, is the man who was choked to death by a New York City police officer seeking to enforce a law against the unauthorized sale of cigarettes. The prosecutor, Daniel M. Donovan, Jr., surely did not need to be reminded by the Times that Staten Island “is home to many police officers and, more than any other borough, is seen as sympathetic to law enforcement.” Sympathetic enough, evidently, so that a police union spokesman said Tuesday that the chokehold we all saw on video was not a chokehold after all.

In each of the above instances, we see three themes that animate much of the conversation about criminal justice, not just in New York but all over the country. The first is cruelty on the part of public servants against those who cannot or do not speak out against their abuse arrayed against them. What is happening at Rikers — what the feds consider egregious violations of constitutional law — also is happening in South Carolina and in California and in Texas and in Mississippi and in Alabama and in Pennsylvania and in Louisiana. It is happening not just to our children but to our parents and grandparents, to men and women alike, to tens of thousands of our fellow citizens.

The second is predatory behavior on the part of public officials against those beyond prison who can and do speak out against injustice but whose voices are largely ignored in modern political discourse. This isn’t just happening to people within the boroughs of New York. It also is happening, for example, to the citizens of Georgia, where private probation laws have created perverse economic incentives that push people into debt (or into debtors’ prisons if they cannot pay their fines). On Broadway or on Peachtree Street it’s the same equation: elected officials and bureaucrats are conspiring not to serve but to prey on their constituents.

And the third is perhaps worst of all, for it is the failure or refusal on the part of otherwise good and decent people to hold accountable those who act cruelly, or unjustly, or who otherwise break these laws. Think of how many officials inside that despicable jail on Rikers Island have known for years how bad it is for young offenders. Think of all those functionaries in New York who churn out those petty summonses, day after day, seeing with their own eyes the devastating impact they can have upon a family. Think of all the rage and hate the police expressed publicly toward Eric Garner in the wake of his killing. Think of the message Bronx prosecutors sent late Tuesday when they declined to prosecute the guards accused of beating two Rikers inmates in 2012.

These failures are not unique to New York. The citizens of South Carolina have known for a decade that mentally ill inmates within their prisons are tortured and abused. The citizens of California have known for decades about prison overcrowding there. The idea that the nation’s young offenders are subjected to horrific conditions has long been known to anyone who has been paying attention. So has the problem of prison rape, which recently was the subject of federal litigation that some state officials now seek to ignore. Just look at the churlish way in which Philadelphia’s police commissioner reacted Tuesday to a critical report about his city’s “broken windows” policy.

In New York, the question is: now what? Now that the feds have exposed New York’s immoral prison regime will meaningful reform within it continue? Now that The Daily News has shown how the city uses these summonses will the people targeted finally get some relief? Now that the whole world has seen that cop choke to death that unarmed citizens, now that the coroner has declared the killing a “homicide,” will that local district attorney have the political courage to press a case against the officers responsible? These are questions people in New York surely are asking today. But the answers to them just as surely have ramifications around the country.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: AP)