July 10, 2012
I saw Juan G. across the room. Thin almost gaunt, closely cropped salt and pepper hair, he wore faded institutional pajamas and paper slippers. He saw me, smiled and sidled over.
I was making Rounds on the Prison Medical Unit at Bellevue Hospital. We met months earlier after his surgery for a cancerous growth. During his lengthy recuperation I listened as he talked about his family’s fleeing the insanity of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, his career as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War as a nineteen year old, an intractable heroin addiction that dogged him over the next thirty five years in spite of dozens of attempts to “get straight” resulting in innumerable arrests for possession and his wife and kids.
“What’s up? How come you are back on this Unit Juan?” Though I suspected.
“Walking my grandson’s dog Tiger, off a leash. End of the month and a rookie cop picked me up, checked my record on the computer and dropped me in the precinct house and then I took the next bus to Rikers Island. He needed to make his arrest quota. So here I am. The system is doing what the system does.”
The confluence of a failing war, a severe economic recession and a “War on Drugs” that within two generations resulted in a prison system from 500,000 prisoners to currently 2.3 million, with another 800.000 on parole and 4.2 million on probation, 10 plus million in local jails and 600 hundred thousand prisoners released annually into a no man’s land of disenfranchisement from basic citizen’s rights like voting and housing opportunities and 65 million Americans fingerprinted and in a vast security database.
The majority of prisoners were in for drug related non-violent crimes. The political opportunities connected with a steady growth in commercial prison ventures, guard unions empowerment, employment opportunities in rural communities, massive federal investment in the criminal justice system, prohibitionist laws limiting judicial flexibility and Three Strike Laws forcing maximum sentencing regardless of the crimes created a perfect storm.
Thirty years ago an article Broken Windows appeared in the Atlantic by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. It offered an appealing story about the negative effects of minor disorders within communities that had the potential to lead to criminal activity and community disintegration. The broken window was the perfect metaphor for the problem of how insignificant problems lead to social decay and criminal activity and if unchecked could spread like a cancer through communities. The dots were connected from hunches gleaned from observations of community policing in New Jersey and extrapolated from studies of black Chicago housing estates.
The issue of the potential for abuse of what was criminal activity was felt to be difficult and complex. Racial profiling and abuse were to be dealt with by effective training of police officers. Decriminalization of “disruptive” behavior was a “mistake”. Disruptive behavior was vague, you knew it when you saw it. The uneven application of the medical treatment opportunities of the deinstitutionalized mentally ill was begged.
The article’s impact was significant and led to the escalation of “stop and frisk” policies targeting racial minority groups. Last year in New York City over 600.000 individuals were stopped. “Driving while black” became the outcome. Post 9/11 “flying while muslim” is targeting Muslim communities with increasing impunity.
The results of the drop in crime nationwide and internationally has been monumental over twenty years and most particularly in New York City. The drop has been twice the rate of the rest of the country. How do we separate the facts from the fictions that fueled policies that have had devastating effects on particular segments of our society.
In Frank Zimring’s The City That Became Safe, the Berkeley Professor looked hard at the data. The answer was not in stop and frisk. It was not in higher incarceration rates (they dropped in NYC). It was not in jailing squeejee men and jaywalkers. The major impact appeared to be in targeting street drug markets, the “hot spots” at the same time that drug consumption has not changed one iota.
The unintended consequences of an idea without a basis in fact had a career of its own. Mayors and Police Commissioners built computer databases and vigorously supported mass incarceration, minor drug offenses such as the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use brought felony offenses and fostered criminal careers. Communities of color were further devastated and compelling arguments have been make that Jim Crow is alive and well.
Tiger was a Chihuahua.