Journal of the People’s Pastor

“Writing The History I’ve Lived, Living The History I Write!”


The New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform conducted a public hearing on Tuesday, November 13, 2007. It was held at the New York City Bar Association in Manhattan. I was asked to participate in a press conference preceding the hearing. Following is my statement:

First, I want to commend all of the organizations, religious institutions and individuals who have been struggling for reform of the Rockefeller Law since it is enactment in 1973, in particular, the Real Reform Coalition. Years ago, we warned that the Rockefeller Drug Laws would not succeed in solving the crime problem, particularly the drug use and trafficking problem. In fact, we argued, that it would cause greater problems. Unfortunately, our prediction has come true. So we have come here today to remind Governor Spitzer and his Commission on Sentencing Reform, that if they are sincere in wanting to change New York’s sentencing laws for the better, then they must have the courage and the compassion to face up to the fact that the current laws, especially the Rockefeller Drug Laws, have been a disaster, especially for the communities of color.

There are some staggering statistics we need to study:
According to a 2005 report of the International Center for Prison Study in London, the United States – with five percent of the world population – houses 25% of the world’s inmates. The USA’s incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40% greater than that of our nearest competitors in the industrial democracies.

In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly five thousand prisons and jails that are scattered across America. However, it is worth noting 1/3 of the inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape or robbery. However, the other 2/3 consists mainly of property or drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantage parts of society. On the average, state inmates have fewer than eleven years of schooling.

If there is any benefit, it is in the area of employment. The Correction sector employs more Americans than the combined workforces of General Motors, Fords and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employees in America. 200 billions dollars are spent annually on law enforcement and correction at all levels of government, a four-fold increase over the past quarter of a century. The racial economic disparities must be emphasized. There are fourteen thousand men and women locked up on drug charges in state prisons. 92% of them are people of color. They are not there because they sell or use illegal drugs more than whites do, but for the past two decades, the police have engaged in rampant racial profiling and concentrated their drug enforcement activities in the poorest neighborhoods. Incredibly, there began a decline in crime in 1992, yet there was an increase in prisons. One of the reasons was stated above, but primarily, some social scientists argue that the American people became punitive in their approach towards offenders. The focus shifted from rehabilitation to punishment. Offenders were no longer seen as persons to be supported, but risk to be harshly treated. Moreover, the way to deal with risks is to keep them locked up.

As of 2000, 33 states had abolished limited parole (up from 17 in 1980), 24 states had introduced 3-strikes law (up from zero) and 40 states had introduced truth – in sentencing laws (up from 3). The vast majorities of these changes occurred in the 1990’s as crime fell. There are those who argue that a part of this punitive approach drew out of the Civil Rights/Black Power/African Liberation Movement. Racist and reactionaries, never giving up on their racist intentions, use the legitimate quest for equal rights of the said Movements to whip up hysteria toward people of color, particularly black people. In addition, because of the new relationships among the media, politicians and the public, a few cases of extreme criminal behavior toward the innocent gained an inordinate amount of media attention and engendered public outrage, all of which provided opportunities for ambitious politicos.

Moreover, 70% of the people in prison right now on drug charges are from seven neighborhoods in New York City, all of them are poor communities of color. Those neighborhoods are:
Lower East Side, Central Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, East New York, South Jamaica and the Bronx.

In some of those neighborhoods, the number of young men either in prison or on parole is close to 30%. Most of the men and women these laws have incarcerated have committed no acts of violence and many are first offenders. Many of them are addicted to drugs. The Department of Corrections estimates that 20% of the new admissions to prison have drug or alcohol problems. They need compassion, not condemnation. There were others who could not find employment at living wage, sold drugs out of desperation. They need another chance. We should all remember that if God had dealt with us, as we deserved, who would be here today. There is a Bible verse that says, “Oh God if thy should mark iniquity who could stand?” Another verse, “For we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Let us be clear about drug use and trafficking. Drug abusers enter into criminal behavior to support their drug habit. Even the street pushers or dealers are drug users who are engaged in the trafficking to support their habits. To repeat, for emphasizes, I have known many drug users and pushers, and they sell the stuff not for profit but for support of their habits. They are not the ones who bring the stuff from abroad into our communities. Incarceration does not cure them. But, it can exacerbate the situation by their gaining more skills for continued criminal behavior. Another point that needs to be made, drug users are not prone to violence or rape. There may be instances of desperation that an illegal drug user will engage in extreme criminality. Nor does a drug users/pusher engage in recruitment of users, nor do they go after the young. Drug users/pushers seek only to satisfy their cravens, the easiest way to do that, the better for them. All of this pleads for understanding, sensitivity and research.

There is another harm caused by these laws, which go far beyond the individuals who get caught up in the system.

Since 1980, 125,000 children have had at least one parent imprisoned on drug charges. Because state prisons are so far away from the city, many of these children lose contact with their parents.
A major reason for the high unemployment among less educated young black men is the stigma created by high incarceration rates. Even young men who have not been imprisoned are tarred with the same brush in a version of racial profiling.

Families of prisoners and former prisoners suffer extreme economic hardship. Many of them spend their life savings on legal fees and travel expenses to visit their loved ones in prison.

I cannot close without making reference to an incredible piece of legislative maneuvering. Drug laws have undermined the political power of poor communities of color. When the National Census Bureau redraws legislative districts every 10 years, it counts prisoners as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated instead of where they actually come from. The population of some upstate towns is composed mainly of prisoners from inner city, urban areas. Last year, New York City lost almost 45,000 residents to the districts upstate, rural, white legislators. In addition, prisoners and parolees lose their rights to vote in New York. We cannot help but note the similarities in US history when slaves could not vote, but the slave states were permitted to count 3/5 of them as citizens for determining Congressional seats.
Our society is at the cross road, we can continue the cruel punishment of drug users/pushers or we can seek a cure for their sickness. It would be far more beneficial from every standpoint to put our energy and resources into finding a solution to this problem. We must go beyond treating symptoms. We must find the cause. Why is drug use, legal and illegal, or substance abuse so pervasive in the American society? We must find the answer. More severe punishment and extended incarceration is not the answer.

We can at least start with the proposal submitted by Real Reform:
Restoration of juridical discretion in all drug cases;
Expansion of community–based drug treatment and alternative–to–incarceration (ATI) Programs;
Reduction in the length of sentences for all drug offensives;
Retroactive sentencing relief for all prisoners currently incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

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