New York State now spends more money locking up criminals than educating students at its public universities. This marks a dramatic shift in priorities. According to a report released this week, more than $761 million has been added to New York’s prison budget over the last decade, while spending for higher education has been cut by $615 million. Today, New York spends $275 million more to run prisons than state and city colleges.
These findings are the focus of a new study cowritten by the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog group, and the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a think tank in Washington, D.C. The report, titled “New York State of Mind?: Higher Education vs. Prison Funding in the Empire State, 19881998,” aims to alert New Yorkers as to how their tax dollars are being spent. Jason Zeidenberg, a policy analyst for JPI, says, “We’re spending so much on prisons that it’s having an effect on everyone, on their ability to get an education.”
It is more expensive than ever to get a degree from the State University of New York, which encompasses 64 institutions. To help offset budget cuts, SUNY’s four-year colleges more than doubled their tuition between 1991 and 1996— from $1350 to $3400. At the same time, in order to accommodate the growing inmate population, the amount of state money flowing into the prison system annually has increased— from $450 million to $1.7 billion over the last 15 years.
Ironically, this rapid rise in prison spending comes at a time when the number of violent criminals entering New York State prisons is actually declining, according to this new study. More than 60 percent of people sent to state prison last year were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Over the last five years, the percentage of people entering prison who were convicted of violent crimes has dropped from 35 percent to 27 percent.
New York’s harsh drug laws are largely responsible for this boom in inmate population. Twenty-five years ago, New York became the first state to adopt strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, which became known as the Rockefeller drug laws. Today, roughly one-third of the state’s 70,320 inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes.
The Rockefeller drug laws have had a disproportionate impact on some ethnic groups. Ninety percent of the people jailed under these laws are African American or Latino. Since 1989, more African Americans have been shipped to prison for drug crimes each year than have graduated from SUNY— with undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees put together. While 4054 African Americans got SUNY degrees in 1997, 4727 African Americans entered state prison on drug offenses. The statistics are even more dismal for Latinos. In 1997, 4459 Latinos were locked up for drug offenses while only 2563 graduated from SUNY schools.
The report concludes that the Rockefeller drug laws should be changed. They’re “stoking the economic development machinery— mainly prisons— which are in upstate rural communities where mainly white people live,” says Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association. “And they’re contributing to the devastation of the economy and the social infrastructure of the inner city where poor people of color live. It’s a morally perverse and racist policy.”
Some corrections officers say that more spending on prisons is justified in order to ease overcrowding. The state’s prisons are now operating at 130 percent of capacity, according to Council 82, the union that represents the state’s 26,000 corrections officers. “We supported prison expansion last year,” says Richard Abrahamson, Council 82’s president. “We didn’t have enough of the type of facilities to house this younger, more violent person.”
Meanwhile, some young activists worry about the message sent when prisons consume a larger slice of New York’s budget than state and city colleges. “When you tell youth [that] you’re not willing to invest in their future, you’re deterring them from realizing their full potential,” says Vincent Merry, a 25-year-old leader of the Prison Moratorium Project, which is fighting to stop prison construction in New York. “When politicians make CUNY and SUNY less accessible, they’re sending a strong message that access to opportunity is not a priority, but increasing the opportunity for you to be incarcerated is a priority.”