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The Corrections Officers’ Union is the Enemy of Prison Reform

The one crusade of Mayor Bill de Blasio with which I sympathize is his focus on reforming New York City prisons. They are in a disgraceful condition. Prisoners are not infrequently raped and some die because of the neglect of guards. They are sometimes unjustifiably beaten. But de Blasio is discovering a roadblock to reform—the correction officers’ union. This is a source of great cognitive dissonance to him and his left-liberal supporters because public sector unions are supposed to be an essential part of the progressive coalition.

A New York Times editorial nicely captures the dilemma. The Times tries to solve it by pretending that various malefactions of the corrections officer union are due to its nefarious leader, Norman Seabrook. It even runs an unflattering picture of him next to its critical editorial. Thus, for instance, the editorial thunders:

In a particularly brazen move in November 2013 apparently aimed at preventing an inmate from testifying against two officers, Mr. Seabrook shut down the bus service that ferried inmates back and forth to the courts, causing hundreds of them to miss their court dates.

And again:

Criminal prosecutions of correction officers are rare, but Mr. Seabrook apparently would prefer none at all. Thanks to his lobbying efforts, the State Legislature in 2014 approved a bill that would move jurisdiction for Rikers criminal cases from the office of the Bronx district attorney, whom, Mr. Seabrook dislikes, to the district attorney in Queens.

But Seabrook’s actions are not personal. They are just business – the business of public sector unions using their political clout to protect their members. They are a completely natural consequence of the powers given to public sector unions in blue states like New York.  Their ability to use union structure to coordinate campaign support for officials is what makes legislatures distort the justice system to serve their interests and  prevents  their job stop stoppages from being punished.

As Max Schanzenbach and I have observed, legislation giving special privileges to public sector unions makes them a powerful special interest group and one that is at the heart of government. They will use that power to make life easier for their members, even their worst ones.  As a result public services of all kinds will be degraded. But de Blasio and the New York Times are willfully blind to this system,  presumably because they think on balance public sector unions help the fortunes of the Democratic party.

Early progressives supported private sector unions but recognized that public sector unions are incompatible with delivering the best service to citizens, including the most vulnerable among us. Sadly, the left’s support for public sector unions is one the greatest examples today of the triumph of partisanship over the public interest.

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