Opposing The “Confinement� Bill

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The State Senate's recent vote on civil confinement legislation was a harsh lesson in leadership and the controversial bill, though it passed by an overwhelming majority, is still sending ripples throughout communities of color. 

Before I explain why I believe this bill is flawed, let me make it clear that I am not in defense of the indefensible. I am not interested in protecting sexual predators, pedophiles or otherwise. Rather, as an elected official,  I am doing everything possible to protect our children from violent criminals who commit these heinous crimes and strongly support tough measures to keep violent sexual offenders behind bars. 

As such, my decision to vote against this bill was not an easy one. In fact, I entered the state legislature that day prepared to vote for the bill just like I had done in the past. But on careful review, I could not do so in good conscience. A “yes� vote  on this bill which holds dire consequences for the communities I represent and also puts an unbearable burden on tax payers, because of fear of detractors, would have been a cowardly act.

Much like the death penalty and the Rockefeller Drug Laws which we have had to keep revisiting, I believe that we will see that in practice, this bill is hopelessly flawed. In its current form, the bill has the potential to undermine a host of constitutional rights, while empowering our criminal justice system with an open-ended and ill-defined process.

With the Rockefeller Drug Laws  we said that it was going to end illegal drugs. It hasn’t.
Neither has the death penalty  reduced violent crimes in any state including New York.  But in fact,  the disparities with both these systems where Black and Latino people are disproportionately affected is well documented.

Yet for the past five years that I have been in the Senate all we have done is raise penalties. This, though we are now seeing a light at the end of a long tunnel that has been the Campaign For Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit. Now that Governor Spitzer seems ready to deal with CFE in this year’s budget, I am hoping that it will receive the same kind of overwhelming support as the Civil Confinement Bill.

With the same voice that we have trumpeted increased  penalties, we should be talking about protecting our children by giving more monies to their schools. I will like to see our efforts concentrated on  voting monies for youth programs and the reintroduction of music, dance, art and athletics into the regular curriculum. Let’s talk about protecting our communities by increasing our police workforce and giving them the salaries, equipment, information technology and training they need to fight crimes in our communities.

According to the estimated figures outlined in the Civil Confinement Bill,  it will cost $200,000 to keep one person civilly confined for a year. The  cost to civilly commit 100 sexual offers per year is $100 million. I can think of a million ways that this kind of monies can be better utilized in prevention programs. Not to mention, that by comparison, studies show that providing in-prison therapy to sex offenders cut the rate of recidivism by 40 - 60 percent.

I want sexual predators off the streets like any body else. But I am not convinced that this bill does that.  In contrast, this bill looks more like economic development for upstate New York and support of the prison industrial complex.  I would have been happy to vote for this bill if it was clear cut and  directly targeted to sexual predators and pedophiles.

But it does not. We have a government that is predicated on the idea of protecting individual rights. That is the base of a just system that says,  better a hundred guilty people go free than one innocent  person goes to jail. This bill says the opposite. We are saying: put a hundred innocent people in jail just to ensure that we get the one guilty person. 

Finally, let me engage your readers into my  mind-set as I entered the Senate floor to vote on this bill. I was reminded of a book by Professor Martin Linsky, of the Kennedy School of Government. He wrote in “Leadership on the Line� that leadership, by definition is dangerous. That in fact, when you are doing what everybody else wants you to do, you are not providing leadership but simply servicing people. I was elected to provide leadership for the people of the 21st Senate District and of this State.

As a lawmaker I want to protect our communities, especially  from sexual predators. So I say yes, let's do whatever it takes to get sex offenders off our streets. But let’s do a civil confinement bill that protects our children and our constitutional rights. However, not  this particular bill, which is so broad that it leaves far too many questions unanswered and concerns unaddressed. 

And at the same time, let’s be more vigilant about preventive measures. Quality education for our children, programs to help adults cope with economic hardship or the challenges of parenthood, mentoring opportunities that teach kids about the dangers of drug use -- these are the kinds of preventive, quality-of-life measures that not only give individuals a sense of hope, but also offer healthy alternatives to criminal behavior.

Parker is a New York State Senator



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