Saturday, April 11, 2009

Time to Dream Big: a letter from NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

The repeal of New York state's Rockefeller drug laws - laws that locked up tens of thousands of people, mostly African Americans and Latinos, for low-level possession or dealing - signals a perfect storm for changing our expensive, ineffective, and discriminatory drug laws.

A confluence of state fiscal crises, reduced fear of crime, and the steady drumbeat of voices for prison reform contributed to make this moment. States like California, with dangerously overcrowded prisons, are modifying their "Three Strikes" laws, adopting smarter sentencing policies similar to New York. Some states are letting prisoners go early to save money. We are at a rare moment when voices advocating an end to mass incarceration -- urging alternative sentencing and ending the practice of using prisons to lock up the mentally ill and the addicted -- are resonating with the public and lawmakers.

This moment reflects an important window in our history. It's the time to dream big. The economic and political shifts open the door to advance policies that we thought would take decades to win. Overturning the draconian drug laws in New York was one of many battles predicted to take at least five more years to win, but the political shifts-- reflected in the election of President Obama --and the unprecedented fiscal crises brings us a unique opportunity for change.`

The struggle to end the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" policies that resulted in the U.S. jailing more of its citizens than any other industrialized country has just won a significant victory. But like all struggles, we have to keep moving forward until we achieve the comprehensive change our country needs. Now is the time.

For over 35 years, families in New York were plagued by the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. The policy, which included long mandatory prison sentences for first-time non-violent drug offenders, resulted in major drug lords often going free while non-violent first offenders got harsh sentences. The rule was particularly harsh for African Americans and women. By 1990, 61 percent of all female prisoners in New York were committed for a drug offense, compared to 32 percent of men. Mothers who needed drug treatment were thrown in jail for sentences as long as 20 years, torn from their families and leaving their children to fend for themselves in the foster care system. African Americans and Latinos constituted 94 percent of the total population of drug felons in New York, while whites were 5 percent.

In fact, according to the AP, overturning the Rockefeller laws is expected to save $250 million per year at a time when the state is grappling with a projected budget hole of $17.7 billion. New York spends $45,000 annually per inmate, while treatment costs $15,000.

After decades of protest by civil rights and civil liberties groups and impacted communities, the law was repealed earlier this month. In addition to saving money, it will usher in an era of smarter crime polices. The new approach will send most non-violent drug offenders to drug courts where they have access to treatment, and implement a new law creating a drug "kingpin" offense for "organized drug traffickers who profit from and prey on drug users" and new crimes for adults who sell drugs to children. The new laws right the backward impact of the previous law that seemed to target the victims with prison and let the "bad guys" go free.

Now, instead of unemployed teenagers or girlfriends coerced into carrying drugs getting the harsh sentences, the major drug dealers will go to prison and the drug addicts will get treatment.

New York Governor David Paterson should be applauded for his longtime support for ending these cruel drug laws. Just before lawmakers agreed on repeal, he cited the example of a female drug addict who was arrested 60 times over 25 years. After being successfully treated for her addiction, she became a drug counselor. That's the wisdom of the new policy.


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