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Old Jack City

Who might finally burst the city's safety bubble? The drug lords of yesteryear.

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An eerily ascending murder rate. Four police precincts with rises in major crimes. Across the city, a new parlor game has emerged: predicting when New York's pendulum will swing back and unhappy days will be here again. But if the worst is indeed ahead of us, the next drug-and-crime wave could come courtesy of the same folks who brought us the last one.

Each year, more and more of the most dangerous drug dealers who were locked up by the stringent Rockefeller drug laws in the late eighties and early nineties are being released -- coming home to a city that's tamed and unfamiliar but still, in some cases, trying to get back in business. "They get their corners back. They could be away ten years, but they get it back," says Miller F., a 32-year-old ex-con from Bedford-Stuyvesant who just served four years in state prison for attempted murder. "I know three people like that. And because they've been in jail, they're even more rugged. They've got little teenage kids selling for them."

A de facto big-brother program for young dealers certainly doesn't bode well for street-crime trends. "We've already seen signs of an upswing in cocaine and heroin use by young dealers who stayed away from using those substances until now," says Richard Curtis, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice anthropology professor who oversees needle exchanges in Bushwick and the Bronx. "These young people don't have any mentors on the street. Now there are all these guys who have nothing but time to do that."

From 1980 to 1990, the number of drug felons imprisoned each year in New York State jumped from 886 to 11,000 -- fueled by the state's decision to let even minuscule crack possessions trigger long mandatory sentences. Now, as some of the harshest late-eighties offenders come home to roost, releases are starting to outpace imprisonments. "The release numbers are high nationally, but New York is far and away the highest," says Marc Mauer, head of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.

Of course, Rockefeller sentences locked away many low-level, nonviolent drug traffickers too -- and for those people, long jail time has changed their lives and, in turn, transformed the character of their neighborhoods. "If you had a community where half the men had been to a private high school like Choate, you know the community would be changed by that," says Lynn Zimmer, a Queens College sociology professor who has studied the city's mid-eighties enforcement explosion. "I think you have to think about entire communities socialized to prison life."

Not nearly enough programs are in place to keep ex-cons from falling back into crime. And since public housing is off-limits to ex-drug offenders and a revamped welfare system keeps a tight grip on benefits, the street often presents the quickest way to get cash. As many as 30 percent of all state imprisonments are now the result of parole violations, many for drug-tinged urine samples. In the decade to come, the parts of the city that already need the most help may look like revolving-door prisons away from prison.

"Jails are big, bad, and mean places, and people become meaner there," warns Nancy Mahon, director of the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture at George Soros's Open Society Institute. "We're in the midst of a sort of unnamed crisis. When this trend bursts, we're going to be in a lot of trouble."


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