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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)