Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Repeat Offenders

Paris Drake is accused of a senseless and brutal crime on a busy Midtown street in broad daylight. Whether or not he is convicted of bashing a woman's head with a brick, his arrest has highlighted the criminal justice system's failure to deal with repeat offenders.

Before the alleged attack, Drake had been jailed more than twenty times and was a free man for exactly 17 days out of the last eight years. Like many of his fellow inamtes, Drake was arrested several times on drug-related charges (an estimated 70% of the City's 70,000 inmates have a history of drug abuse). Most of his crimes were misdemeanors, which typically bring sentences of only a few weeks or months in jail.

Clearly, the system doesn't work for Drake and thousands of others who spend years cycling in and out of prison. Prison advocates call for more drug programs, but too often inmates themselves complain that these programs don't work. Most of the ex-cons I spoke to in a recent study of parole--even those who insisted they needed help to stay clean--ridiculed the rehab programs available to them. Some skipped out without consequences. When Drake, for instance, was finally ordered to seek treatment after years of revolving-door prison stints, he blew it off.

Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki have called for a kind of "three strikes and you're out" policy that would mandate longer sentences for repeat offenders after a certain number of misdemeanors in a given time period. Steven M. Fishner, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, has said "It is for people like Paris Drake, for offenders who sell marijuana repeatedly in city parks, and for others who make a career of committing crimes and skating under the mandatory sentences for felonies."

Such a plan might please prison-happy public officials, but probably won't change criminal behavior. Why not? The motivation needed to go straight is extremely difficult to manufacture, whether you're giving inmates a boot camp regimen or drug programs, long terms upstate or slap-on-the-wrist sentences. The problem is, for those ex-cons who are determined not to return to prison, it's difficult to find a job that pays the bills, and exceedingly easy to get back into crime, especially selling and using drugs. Until this balance changes--perhaps by making effective pre-release programs a priority--no proposal to reduce the number of repeat offenders is likely to succeed.

Jerome Sounds Off:

Quality of Life Crime #54: Selling cheap goods on the subway. (Good thing too, since mostly recent Chinese immigrants are in that racket nowadays, and with their mangling of the language and their haggard countenances, these people are comical at best, downright disturbing if you're in a bad mood. Not the kind of thing you want the tourists to see. Plus, they're cutting into Duracell and Doublemint sales at legitimate rent-paying stores. And remember the "broken-windows" theory Ð today they're selling yo-yos, tomorrow they're hawking stolen watches, pretty soon they're robbing you at gunpoint when you try to take the train! That's why I'm glad I saw a sting operation last week--six uniformed and two plainclothes officers nabbing two guys who, I was told, make thousands of dollars a week selling $1 batteries. It's a good thing these crooks are off the streets now, but not before pocketing our hard-earned George Washingtons and menacing our quality of life.)

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

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