Most incarcerated New Yorkers now come from upstate, not NYC. What's behind the shift?

  • In US
  • 2023-01-26 08:05:04Z
  • By Democrat and Chronicle

The crack cocaine that led a young Juma Sampson to a 25-year prison sentence in 2000 weighed about as much as half a bar of soap.

If he had managed to peddle all 70 grams that day ― or even that week, that month ― Sampson said he likely would've earned no more than $3,000.

Instead, after the 23-year-old was arrested attempting to sell the drugs to an undercover cop in Rochester, he was prosecuted under two tough-on-crime initiatives: One imposed a harsher penalty for selling crack cocaine compared to its powder alternative. The other, after police found an unregistered firearm in his girlfriend's apartment, transferred Sampson's case to federal court, which doled out higher sentences for illegal gun charges oftentimes served out of state. Sampson said the gun was not his.

His first adult felony offense ― a nonviolent crime ― landed Sampson 25 years in a prison cell almost five hours away in Pennsylvania. He was released in early 2019.

Juma Sampson is now a published author and fashion designer.
Juma Sampson is now a published author and fashion designer.  

The neighborhood on Rochester's west side where Sampson grew up has one of the highest incarceration rates for communities around the state.

"In the inner city, we're not taught what it takes to thrive," Sampson, now 45, said. "We only know what it takes to survive, and that's never going to be enough."

People in New York prisons increasingly come from upstate, part of a decades-long reversal of incarcerated New Yorkers coming from the five boroughs of New York City, according to findings from a 2022 analysis of census data by Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit studying prison trends on a national scale.

Among the findings:

  • Black, Latino and lower-income communities in cities compose much of the state's prison population that, as of the 2020 census, hovered around 42,000 people, Prison Policy Initiative found in its report.

  • However, while some New York City neighborhoods see higher rates of incarceration, the highest numbers of people going to prison come from communities such as Albany, Monticello, Newburgh and Rochester.

"It's no longer something we can brush off as a New York City problem," said Emily Widra, a senior research analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative and an author of the report. "It's really affecting the whole state and communities in every county."

On Wednesday, researchers released a final report looking at incarceration rates in a dozen states, including New York.

The nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative used census data to find where people incarcerated came from in New York.
The nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative used census data to find where people incarcerated came from in New York.  

Change in NY law informed prison population shift

The Prison Policy Initiative analyzed 2020 census data after New York changed its laws on redistricting to count incarcerated people from their home locations, not the prison where they're held.

The data scales from counties - including those with the highest incarceration rates such as Schenectady, Albany and Monroe - down to census tract levels.

By contrast, New York City's boroughs had much lower rates of incarceration.

Certain neighborhoods had higher rates: Brownsville, in Brooklyn, had 722 people per 100,000 in prison, while East Harlem had 649 people per 100,000.

But that was far less than the city of Rochester, which averaged more than 1,050 people per 100,000 residents going to prison ― a figure more than five times the rate for New York City.

The Prison Policy Initiative data includes incarceration rates down to census tracts and neighborhoods across New York State.
The Prison Policy Initiative data includes incarceration rates down to census tracts and neighborhoods across New York State.  

All 62 counties had people in prison, though much of the incarcerated population came from neighborhoods that have historically been under-resourced. These neighborhoods also tended to be historically Black, a legacy of mass incarceration.

The population of people incarcerated has shifted dramatically from downstate to upstate, Windra said. In 2000, around 66% of New Yorkers incarcerated in state prisons came from the five boroughs. The number decreased to about 50% in 2010 and by 2020, it was 42%.

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Schenectady County has the highest rate of incarceration of any county in New York ― and District Attorney Robert Carney said that is mainly related to crime rates and urban density.

"We're appropriately dealing with the level of violence in our community by using prison as something that is done to protect the community from people who, if they were not incarcerated or incapacitated through incarceration, would be inflicting more harm on people," said Carney, who has been in office since 1990.

In 2019, Schenectady had the highest violent crime rate outside of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, according to state Department of Criminal Justice Services preliminary data. Meanwhile, Schenectady had higher rates of total index crime and violent crimes with firearms, much like other upstate counties.

When presented with the data on shifting incarceration rates in Rochester last fall, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley said she was more concerned about rising homicide rates and her role in upholding public safety.

Rochester last year saw 76 homicides, just a notch down from a record-breaking 81 killings in 2021.

"As my fellow leaders in public safety recognize, we cannot arrest our way out of this," Doorley said in a statement. "Together, we must continue to address the violence at its root causes. With that being said, as the district attorney, it is my job to hold violent offenders accountable … Our city is in crisis and I refuse to sit by and watch it go up in flames."

New York
New York's Clinton Correctional Facility.  

Is politics to blame for prison population shift?

In 2010, VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, worked to address gerrymandering that counted incarcerated individuals as residents where they were held in prison − often in rural, white communities − rather than where their homes were located.

When New York changed its laws around where incarcerated people were counted, the next step was to quantify which areas sent the most people to prisons, according to VOCAL-NY's civil rights campaign director, Nick Encalada-Malinowski.

He sees the numbers of incarcerated people coming from upstate communities as a reflection of politics. As New York City undertook reform with changes around sentencing − particularly with drug sentencing − other counties didn't undergo as much change, he said.

"What's happening for a lot of counties is they are incarcerating people rather than addressing any of their kind of immediate needs," he said. "You have people especially in jail, but also in prison, just cycling through. No one's actually addressing what got the person there."

Jesse Jannetta, a senior policy fellow at the left-leaning think tank, the Urban Institute, said pushes toward lowering prison populations seen across the U.S. received support because of declining crime rates. Political shifts on perceptions of crime may change that, he said.

"It's a real open question about whether there's going to be a move to greater support for incarceration," he said. "We've learned a lot over that period about effective approaches to reducing gun violence that are focused and don't rely on broad use of incarceration."

More:Hochul aims to tweak bail reform (again) and hire police officers

'To you, he has a pocket full of drugs. For him, it's hope.'

When Sampson, of Rochester, started selling drugs as a teenager, it was to help provide for his family. He remembers watching his mother work relentlessly and the feeling that it was never enough to fulfill all their needs.

He said when officers and prosecutors who live outside of neighborhoods labeled as trouble areas come in to enforce the law, they don't consider the reality of the people who live there.

Juma Sampson, local author and clothing designer.
Juma Sampson, local author and clothing designer.  

"To you, he has a pocket full of drugs," Sampson said of someone like him who might've been picked up for selling. "For him, it's hope. It's a way to keep the roof over his head, to put food on his little sister's plate. But there's no one who's going to see them for more than their circumstance."

It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep him locked up, Sampson said, and he often wonders where he could be if that money instead funded educational programs to help redirect him from his mistake.

In the three years since he returned home, Sampson has independently published several novels and developed a fashion line under his brand CHAOS Unlimited ― success he partly attributes to a mentor he found in prison, a wealthy and well-respected man who convinced Sampson he had potential to do good. It was the first time someone of that stature believed in him, and he wonders what his life could've looked like if he received that validation sooner.

"When I'm standing in front of the judge, he sees this little young Black kid in here for drugs … I'm not a second thought to them," Sampson said. "That's not fair. I'm worth more than the time they gave me. I'm worth more than what they thought I would be."

This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Most people in New York prisons are now from upstate, not NYC


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