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Louisiana sheriff’s comments reflect more than racism

Office of Caddo Parish Sheriff

Louisiana sheriff’s comments reflect more than racism

At a press conference on October 5th, Sheriff Steve Prator of Caddo Parish, Louisiana decried the state’s new policy that would lead to the release of some prisoners in the upcoming months. Sheriff Prator’s comments that the reforms would contribute to the release of “good” prisoners as well as “bad ones” have been roundly critiqued for “evoking slavery,” and the century-old legacy in Southern states of leasing black prisoners for profit. In fact, his comments also evoked more recent history. During the 1980s and 1990s, as the prison population dramatically expanded in many southern states, officials began to market prison labor as an economic boon to rural communities. Their actions reflected the absence of any serious policy discussion about the purpose of incarceration, besides warehousing offenders, or about what prisoners should do while serving their sentences.

The tradition of using prisoners as cheap or free labor for Southern communities is a long one. It grew out of a commonly held belief, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that former slaves would not work unless compelled or coerced and from the desire by local officials to maintain a cheap supply of labor. These beliefs led to the enactment of racist laws and practices that criminalized black Americans, who could then be forced to work without compensation. What began as convict leasing to private companies, eventually turned into labor for the state — growing crops, building roads, and constructing and maintaining public facilities (including prisons themselves). As detailed in my forthcoming book, Building the Prison State, the Florida Division of Corrections classified prisoners by their ability to work, not their security level until the 1960’s. Grade 1 prisoners were physically fit for any assignment; Grade 2 prisoners had a “slight defect, such as age, but were otherwise physically fit”; Grade 3 prisoners had “extensive physical disability, able to do only light work”; and Grade 4 prisoners were physically “unfit,” unable to do productive labor.

As Southern prison systems became more centralized and bureaucratized in the mid-20th century, prisons began providing other activities for prisoners, including education, recreation, and rehabilitative programming. Not coincidentally, the proportion of white prisoners in Southern prisons also increased. Yet work assignments — whether for private industry or the state — remained a crucial part of the prison experience.

Beginning in the 1980s, as the incarcerated population in Southern states rapidly increased, prisons there became dangerously overcrowded. By the end of that decade, state legislators voted to build new prisons in order to comply with federal court orders that found Southern prison systems unconstitutional for overcrowding and inadequate medical care. Yet officials faced stiff opposition to locating new prisons in their communities from much of the public, who considered them to be “undesirable land uses.” In response to this opposition, the Florida Department of Corrections and the governor’s office began a concerted marketing campaign to “sell” prisons to economically struggling rural communities in the northern part of the state. One of the big selling points to these communities was that prisoners could complete local public works projects at practically no cost. In addition, the state minimized the cost of prison expansion to taxpayers by using inmate labor to build and maintain new prisons. The marketing worked. County commissioners, sheriffs and state legislators began to welcome new prisons. Today, local officials in many Florida communities that house prisons will point — often with pride — at the parks, roadways, buildings and other projects that prisoners helped build.

During the 1990s, states and the federal government built approximately 170 new prisons in Southern rural towns. Yet, despite this influx, there were no coinciding policy discussions (let alone consensus) among state officials about what, exactly, prisoners should be doing while serving their sentences.

This question of how prisoners should spend their time is closely related to changing notions during the past century of the purpose of incarceration. During the first part of the 20th century, progressive experiments aside, the answer in most of the country was for prisoners to “work” so as to “normalize” the offender as a productive laborer. By the mid-20th century, that consensus had evolved into theories that prisoners should combine work with education in order to increase their prospects of becoming rehabilitated. By the 1990’s, during the heyday of “mass incarceration,” many politicians, victims’ rights organizations and law enforcement groups completely rejected the notion that prisons should be used to help rehabilitate inmates. Rather, they advocated not just to lock more people up, but to make their experience in prison as miserable as possible. Congress and President Clinton stripped prisoners of the ability to receive Pell Grants. State legislators attempted to take televisions and weight-equipment out of the state prisons and defunded correctional education. However, the expectation that prisoners work has remained constant. Corrections departments across the country routinely report the high percentage of prisoners with work assignments and often recount the benefits of this work to the state.

Today, the costs of maintaining such high rates of imprisonment have become unsustainable to many states. By 2011, states spent an estimated $52 billionon their corrections systems — 1 in 14 state general fund dollars. The state prison in Sheriff Prator’s parish closed in 2012 as a result of state budget cuts. Reformers around the country are advocating for legislation that will keep some non-violent offenders out of prison. These proposed reforms effectively put rural communities and political officials who gain from prison expansion on notice because they will deplete the supply of underpaid labor. It is hardly surprising then that Sheriff Prator and others would oppose the release of prisoners — particularly those that serve the economic needs of their communities.

The efforts of criminal justice reformers advocating for a reduction in our nation’s prison population would be strengthened by a frank acknowledgement of the economic benefits derived by rural communities from the placement of prisons. While the extent of the economic impact of prisons is debated, by bringing up this history, they can encourage an important and all-too rare public conversation about the economics of prisons. It is important for legislators, and the public, to connect these economic factors to broader discussions about what prisoners should be doing when incarcerated and, relatedly, to the overall purpose of prisons today.

This $2.75 gateway to jail targets New York’s poorest black neighborhoods

Subway turnstiles in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

This $2.75 gateway to jail targets New York’s poorest black neighborhoods

In New York City, many demographics are eligible for subsidized MetroCards, which allow them to access the increasingly expensive and dysfunctionalsubway system at a lower cost. Transit benefits are available to the elderly, disabled, and schoolchildren, and many companies offer their employees pre-tax MetroCards as part of their benefits package. But one group of New Yorkers is conspicuously left out when it comes to reduced-cost subway and bus access: Those living in poverty.

Low-income New Yorkers who can’t afford the $2.75 cost of a ride are frequently arrested for fare evasion. It’s a punishment that falls hardest on black residents in high poverty neighborhoods. And while the prevalence of racial disparities in transit enforcement isn’t a revelation, a new report from the Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY) maps fare-beating arrests in Brooklyn for the first time, illustrating their high concentration in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Further, The Crime of Being Short $2.75 emphasizes that this punishment for poverty falls harder not just on communities of color broadly, but specifically on low-income black New Yorkers. The report shows that fewer farebeating arrests take place near stations in high-poverty predominately Latinx neighborhoods, compared to their black counterparts, indicating that this targeted policing correlates with race in addition to poverty.

Disturbingly, this concentration of arrests is “not driven by poverty or crime or legitimate public safety concerns,” Harold Stolper, co-author of the report and CSSNY senior labor economist, tells In Justice Today. “This is broken windows policing at the turnstile.”

Broken windows policing is based on the theory that targeting low-level, nonviolent “quality of life” offenses such as farebeating can prevent more serious crimes. Since the theory emerged in the early 1980’s and was popularized by the New York Police Department in the 1990’s, however, the tactic has been criticized for its uneven application between communities of color and whites, its ineffectiveness, and its role in further fracturing police and community relations.

CSSNY’s findings further reveal the targeted impact of broken windows policing, which has been decried and challenged by grassroots organizers in New York City for years. By gathering arrest data from both the NYPD and two public defender organizations in Brooklyn and overlaying it with 2016 census data, the organization was able to get a more complete picture of exactly who is being arrested for fare evasion and where.

On Monday, City Councilmember Rory Lancman introduced a bill that would require the NYPD to file quarterly reports of all arrests and summonses issued for fare evasion, including demographic information of those arrested. Lancman tweeted that his bill “fills in gaps in [the] current reporting system.” With only the current NYPD arrest data, CSSNY would not have had a complete picture — hence their inclusion of stats from public defenders’ offices.

The findings illustrate how the city’s justice system criminalizes poverty in black neighborhoods. For example, young black men (ages 16 to 36) represented half of all fare evasion arrests in Brooklyn in 2016, but only comprise 13.1% of poor adults in the borough, according to the report. The highest number of fare evasion arrests per 100,000 MetroCard swipes occurred at subway stations near the border of Brownsville and East New York, two of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, blacks make up less than one-third of Brooklyn adults living in poverty, but two-thirds of those arrested for fare evasion. The report shows that the greatest concentration of fare evasion arrests occur at stations “nearest to the poorest and predominately black census tracts.” Stolper and his coauthor, Jeff Jones, attribute the disparate enforcement to the rise of broken windows policing, high arrest rates driven by quotas from NYPD supervisors, as well as explicit and implicit bias.

On top of the problematic ties between poverty, race, and policing, the report notes that farebeating arrests are expensive, estimating that the city spends roughly $50 million per year to arrest, prosecute, or fine low-income New Yorkers unable to afford the fare. “Why is the city spending all of this money to over-police the turnstile…instead of helping them access transit to get to work and to get to school?” asks Stolper.

In April, a budget proposal from the City Council called for that same amount — $50 million — to fund a pilot program that would subsidize half-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. Mayor Bill de Blasio argued that the cost should fall on the state, not the city, and in June declined to include the program in the budget. CSSNY supports the idea of half-price MetroCards, as well as decriminalizing fare evasion.

But decriminalization comes with its own pitfalls. Issuing summonses instead of arresting those who evade the fare doesn’t address the issue of policing that targets neighborhoods by race and income.

Stolper acknowledges this, saying “decriminalization is not the answer, but we support it,” and adding that ending broken windows policing is the best way to stop the criminalization of poor New Yorkers at the turnstile. The Coalition to End Broken Windows, an alliance of community-based grassroots organizations, agrees that broken windows should be the real target, but argue that decriminalization is not an acceptable solution. While summonses might seem better than a trip to jail, they do come with fines that are unrealistic for people already living in poverty. And unpaid fines can lead to open arrest warrants which, you guessed it, lead right back to jail.

“It’s better than having a criminal record,” says Stolper, “But if you can’t afford $2.75, you can’t afford $100.”

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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The Philadelphia Inquirer Just Endorsed Mass Incarceration

Beth Grossman

The Philadelphia Inquirer Just Endorsed Mass Incarceration

In May, Philadelphians went to the polls and made history, voting by a large margin to back civil rights attorney Larry Krasner in the city’s Democratic primary for district attorney. On Sunday, residents awoke to find that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board had endorsed Krasner’s Republican opponent, Beth Grossman, a former top prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office.

Krasner rallied Philadelphians to an upstart, radical campaign calling for an end to the era of mass incarceration and impunity for police misconduct. The city’s struggling paper of record endorsed a candidate who presided over a nationally infamous civil asset forfeiture program through which prosecutors seized homes and other property from city residents, oftentimes poor and working-class, black and Latino. At least, the editorial gushed, she has “a welcome hesitancy to go for the death penalty.”

Philadelphians want change. The Inquirer board ploddingly declared itself for the enervating cause of defending an intolerable status quo that will most likely be defeated on election day.

But points for consistency: Grossman is the second candidate for top prosecutor the paper has endorsed who has also been backed by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, an unapologetically reactionary officers union headed by a man who recently called Black Lives Matter protesters “a pack of wild animals.” That first FOP-backed candidate the Inquirer endorsed was Rich Negrin, one of Krasner’s primary opponents. Oddly, the board’s praise for Negrin included a note that the “criminal justice pendulum has been swinging in a new direction for some time, away from ‘tough on crime,’” but failed to mention that it was Krasner’s insurgent, movement-based campaign that had swung the primary field to the left.

It’s remarkable that the board’s opposition to Krasner, a candidate who won the primary on a wave of grassroots mobilization that has become a nationwide model for activists, is explained in so few words. The one clearly stated rationale for opposing him is that he has not been a prosecutor before. The board celebrates Grossman as “a career prosecutor” while suggesting that with Krasner, “voters should be concerned about his lack of prosecutorial experience — and mindset — needed to head an office whose job is to prosecute crime.” Inexperience as a prosecutor, however, didn’t stop the board from endorsing Josh Shapiro — a career politician who alighted from work as a young Congressional aide to the state House — in his successful 2016 run for Attorney General.

I’ll climb out on a limb and propose that it is almost as if the board is not giving the public a truthful account of why they oppose him. That honest reason, I’ll venture, has something to do with their dig on Krasner’s “mindset.” Explaining why they oppose this “mindset” — one that believes prosecutors must use their extraordinary power and discretion to help end the mass caging of more than two million Americans, and to reject the all-too-normal complicity with lying and abusive cops — would have made this shameful endorsement at least seem less cowardly.

What the Inquirer’s editorial board suffers from is a familiar case of the liberal establishment’s fetishization of technocracy, whereby a narrowly-tailored standard of experience that only a creature of the establishment could meet is prized above all else. Indeed, their editorial endorsing Hillary Clinton and panning Bernie Sanders (who has supported Krasner) employed the same rationale: Sanders, they wrote, was the “campaign’s unlikely poet laureate” but was “surprisingly short on the prose behind the poetry.” Expertise and competence are critical. But talent and experience running a brutally oppressive system should count as demerits rather than laudatory achievements. The Inquirer editorial board professes to want change yet can only seem to support candidates who will guarantee more of the same.

In reality, the board’s rationale is a pretext to protect an office that has long prized convictions and lengthy sentences regardless of the costs or whether the outcomes comport with any sense of justice. The Inquirer praises Grossman for her career going “after drug dealers, gunslingers, thieves, and blighters” and her “passion for defending the rights of crime victims.” Not a word about mass incarceration. To editorialize in favor of such a brutal status quo is an insult to the Philadelphians on whose behalf the board purports to be writing.

Many dogged reporters at the Inquirer and Daily News have exposed criminal justice system abuses. But the editorial board’s interest in injustice rarely extends beyond the cases of penny-ante-if-corrosive corruption that pervade politics in the state. Even as mass incarceration has become a defining moral issue, the board has paid precious little attention to the damage caused not only by crime but also by the criminal justice’s response to it: generations of families in a heavily poor, working-class and non-white city torn apart by imprisonment.

The Inquirer, like its sister tabloid the Daily News, has suffered tremendously in recent years as falling revenues have led to round after round of staff cuts. The city has suffered as a result. But the Inquirer editorial board is doing the paper no favors by making it seem less relevant and less in touch with the city than ever.

In the past, The Inquirer has endorsed both former District Attorney Seth Williams and state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Both are now out of their jobs after criminal convictions, the former for committing shameful but rather pathetic acts of corruption and the latter for charges stemming from petty and vengeance-driven misconduct. Where was their criticism when Williams, who had run as a progressive reformer, fought to oppose marijuana decriminalization, and ran an office that condoned police perjury and energetically endeavored to keep wrongfully convicted Philadelphians behind bars for life? Or how about when reporter Isaiah Thompson published an investigation at my alma mater, the defunct Philadelphia City Paper, exposing the state-sanctioned theft that Grossman engineered at the DA’s office through its civil asset forfeiture program? Crickets. The Inquirer without much skepticism notes Grossman “says she was following the rules at that time.” Just following the rules? Okay then. I’ll refrain from taking easy shots at that excuse.

The Inquirer endorsement did have a few words of praise for Krasner. “He rightly argues that it spends too many resources going after the poor and disenfranchised, and not enough on those who victimize Philadelphians,” they wrote. But even this friendly caveat doesn’t make much sense and gets Krasner’s campaign entirely wrong. Krasner has called for funds to be reallocated from prisons to schools, not from one sort of prosecution to another.

This editorial’s most galling failure is that it does not comprehend or acknowledge how many Philly lives mass incarceration has destroyed. The Krasner campaign is not about Larry Krasner. It’s about a grassroots rebellion against a brutal criminal justice status quo that churned Philadelphians into a state prison system that as of the end of 2016 held more than 13,000 people from the city. It’s a status quo that the editorial board is either somehow ignorant of or, more troublingly, content to leave in place.

Disclosure: Larry Krasner is a colleague of mine at the Fair Punishment Project. Yet, a quick perusal of my work should make it abundantly clear that my support for Krasner predates this shared affiliation.

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