Pubdate: Thu, 6 Dec 2007
Source: Times Union (Albany, NY)
Copyright: 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Author: Glenn E. Martin
Note: Glenn E. Martin is associate vice president of The Fortune 
Society, a New York City-based prisoner re-entry program.
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


Gov. Eliot Spitzer exercised enormous courage and vision when he
issued an executive order calling for the establishment of a
commission on sentencing reform. He gave the commission a clear
mandate to make recommendations on the future of criminal sentencing
in New York in order to reform a system that is convoluted, complex
and in disarray.

The commission's preliminary report contains some thoughtful,
forward-thinking recommendations that would improve the quality and
accessibility of substance abuse treatment and other community-based
and institutional programming. Key among these are measures that would
enhance certification and clinical training requirements for treatment
providers, including Department of Correctional Services staff; expand
merit time; expand work release and educational and vocational
training in prisons; increase access to higher education in prison;
and restore voting rights for people on parole.

While some of the recommendations are insightful and respond to the
governor's call to create an "equitable system of criminal justice,"
there are some glaring omissions. Nowhere in the report is there any
mention of the racial disparity inherent in sentencing laws. Real drug
law reform is absent. No measures are designed to undo the damage
caused by mass incarceration on certain communities.

The overwhelming majority of people who are convicted of drug offenses
in New York are African-American or Latino. In fact, although whites
and people of color use and sell illegal drugs at equal rates, 91
percent of the 14,000 people in prison under our Rockefeller era drug
laws are people of color. In 2000, of those newly committed to prison
for drug-related offenses, 93 percent were African-American or Latino,
while these groups made up only 30 percent of our state population.

The commission also fails to address the need for an immediate and
systemic expansion of alternatives to incarceration and other similar
community-based programs. That's a disappointment. Such programs not
only spare individuals the damage caused by prison, but save the state
large sums of money, with no diminution of public safety.

Although New York has been successful in reducing crime and its prison
population simultaneously over the past few years, no plan has been
put forth to reinvest the dollars saved into the communities that
continue to be ravaged by our inherently unjust criminal justice
system or in the upstate communities which rely on prisons as an
economic engine.

Parents who reside in New York's low-income communities of color have
eagerly awaited the release of this report, hoping that the proverbial
noose of the criminal justice system would soon loosen itself from the
necks of their children. Without sweeping changes, the foot of the
criminal justice system will continue to crush the necks of very
specific communities in our state, whether it's the seven highly
impacted New York City communities often discussed by policymakers and
advocates or the upstate communities of Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester
and Albany, all of which are beginning to experience a spike in
violent crime.

The commission must be on notice that this is a historic opportunity.
The citizens of New York are banking on the the commission's wisdom
and ability to create a final set of recommendations that balance
public safety, reduce reliance on incarceration, enhance victims'
rights, save public dollars, and create opportunities to rebuild the
people and communities that are disproportionately impacted by the
criminal justice system.

Anything short of this amounts to its own indeterminate sentence of
punishment for affected communities.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake