Criminal Justice, New York

What Harry Belafonte didn’t say about city jails

In a harsh New York Times column, journalist Jim Dwyer slammed Harry Belafonte for not being truthful during his opening remarks at Bill de Blasio’s inauguration. Dwyer called Belafonte’s words “baloney.”

If you’re at all familiar with Belafonte’s career as a singer and activist, you know that he’s not kind to hold punches. After all, it was him who once said that George W. Bush was the “greatest terrorist in the world,” and that music stars Jay-Z and Beyoncé had turned their backs on social responsibility. He’s a firebrand.

In his remarks during the inauguration, Belafonte said that “New York, alarmingly, plays a tragic role in the fact that our nation has the largest prison population in the world.”

Dwyer highlighted that portion of the speech and contradicted Belafonte, pointing out that New York—both city and state—has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, citing a joint study by three important policy think-tanks.

It’s true. Thanks to a reduction in the jail population of the city, the entire state reduced its incarceration rate, according to the study Dwyer cited. What’s more, in its 2013 year-end report, the New York City Department of Correction reported a decrease of 36 percent in the city’s penal population in the 12 years Bloomberg was mayor, and that, compared to the national rate, the local rate is 30 percent lower.

But did Belafonte try to “mangle history,” as Dwyer charged?

The answer is no, if you also quote what Belafonte said right after the statement in question, which Dwyer omitted from his column: “Much of that problem stems from issues of race, perpetuated by the depth of human indifference to poverty.”

Therein lies the tragedy. That’s something no one can refute.

Because even though it is true that New York is on strong footing when it comes to its correctional policies—both for people serving time behind bars or on probation—the reality is that the great majority of those imprisoned are either black or Latino. That’s the tragedy that neither New York nor the rest of the nation has been able to solve.

Maybe what Belafonte could’ve said is the following: that out of the 12,000 people incarcerated in city jails on any given day in 2012, 90 percent were black or Latino. And that more than 50 percent of those were young people. Those figures do not come from the Bloomberg administration or a think-tank, but from the city’s Independent Budget Office, which, under the City Charter, operates independently of who is in power.

That’s what Belafonte referred to when he called our system of justice “Dickensian”: that not all are equal under the law, but that some pay more dearly than others for the same crimes, all because of living in poorer neighborhoods or having less access to opportunities.

That is the “tale of two cities” that Bill de Blasio hopes to be able to fix.

(A version of this column was originally published in Spanish in the print and online editions of New York’s El Diario.)

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