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
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
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
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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