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Rockefeller, Cuomo and the War (On Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs

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Eric Schlosser’s (terrific) 1998 article on the prison-industrial complex is making the rounds in the wake of Mario Cuomo’s death. But the lesson some people seem to be drawing from it — i.e. that Cumomo was a major villain in the WO(SCOPWUS)D — seems very strange to me:

When Mario Cuomo was first elected governor of New York, in 1982, he confronted some difficult choices. The state government was in a precarious fiscal condition, the inmate population had more than doubled since the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws, and the prison system had grown dangerously overcrowded. A week after Cuomo took office, inmates rioted at Sing Sing, an aging prison in Ossining. Cuomo was an old-fashioned liberal who opposed mandatory-minimum drug sentences. But the national mood seemed to be calling for harsher drug laws, not sympathy for drug addicts. President Reagan had just launched the War on Drugs; it was an inauspicious moment to buck the tide.

Unable to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, Cuomo decided to build more prisons. The rhetoric of the drug war, however, was proving more popular than the financial reality. In 1981 New York’s voters had defeated a $500 million bond issue for new prison construction. Cuomo searched for an alternate source of financing, and decided to use the state’s Urban Development Corporation to build prisons. The corporation was a public agency that had been created in 1968 to build housing for the poor. Despite strong opposition from upstate Republicans, among others, it had been legislated into existence on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, to honor his legacy. The corporation was an attractive means of financing prison construction for one simple reason: it had the authority to issue state bonds without gaining approval from the voters.

Over the next twelve years Mario Cuomo added more prison beds in New York than all the previous governors in the state’s history combined. Their total cost, including interest, would eventually reach about $7 billion. Cuomo’s use of the Urban Development Corporation drew criticism from both liberals and conservatives. Robert Gangi, the head of the Correctional Association of New York, argued that Cuomo was building altogether the wrong sort of housing for the poor. The state comptroller, Edward V. Regan, a Republican, said that Cuomo was defying the wishes of the electorate, which had voted not to spend money on prisons, and that his financing scheme was costly and improper. Bonds issued by the Urban Development Corporation carried a higher rate of interest than the state’s general-issue bonds.

The machinations Cuomo went through to build prisons certainly look ugly, but they were a result of the familiar fact that the public’s appetite for locking people up substantially exceeds its appetite to pay taxes to do it. On the larger issue, it seems to be that the primary villains here are Rockefeller and the many legislators on both sides of the aisle who enacted draconian drug laws. Unless there was something Cuomo could have done to repeal the draconian drug laws — which in the political climate of the 80s and with a Republican-controlled Senate seems vanishingly unlikely — his actions represented the worst course of action except for all the others. Perhaps the assumption is that if Cuomo didn’t build more prisons the number of convictions would have been substantially reduced, but this kind of logic has a horrible track record even by the standards of heighten-the-contradictions arguments. It seems far, far more likely that the result would have been similar numbers of convictions only with California-style horrific prison overcrowding. I don’t really understand what Cuomo was supposed to have done differently on this.

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