Overhauling Criminal Justice


After 35 years of filling the state's prisons with drug offenders who needed treatment more than punishment, New York State is on the verge of dismantling its infamous Rockefeller drug laws. For this to be ...

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After 35 years of filling the state's prisons with drug offenders who needed treatment more than punishment, New York State is on the verge of dismantling its infamous Rockefeller drug laws. For this to be a reality, Governor Patterson and some prosecutors will have to drop their objections to a reasonable provision on second time offenders.

The State Assembly voted last week to restore judicial discretion and end mandatory sentencing for many nonviolent, low-level drug crimes. This is a major breakthrough, if we hope to redeem the growing number of drug addicts that are affecting the overcrowding of our judicial system. If and when this measure becomes law, courts will be able to sentence many addicts to treatment instead of shackling them with long prison sentences.

The Governor and many other bureaucrats in government and law enforcement believe that repealing the Rockefeller drug laws could possibly send the wrong message to communities where drug crimes are committed and to the police who have worked hard to bust serious drug cases.

The Assembly bill provides for judicial discretion for a well-defined group of second timers, while preserving lengthy mandatory sentences for second timers with either a history of violence, records of having committed sex crimes or records of selling drugs to children. The provision protects the public safety by making sure that dangerous offenders go to jail. It allows judges to deal differently with low level second timers who deserve treatment.

We need to overhaul our whole approach to criminal justice. Lengthy mandatory jail sentences are not deterrents to any crime. A recent study clearly underscored that capital punishment does not deter violent criminals from committing their violent acts. We need to look at crime, addiction and human dysfunction in a different way. Merely being punitive does nothing to lessen crime or poor decision-making around illegal drugs and deviant behavior.

It seems to me that we have cultivated a climate that encourages and supports destructive decision-making and deviant behavior. We do not consistently enforce our prohibitions or reasonably hold people of all ages accountable. Our traditional response when people have gone too far criminally is to punish. The recidivism rate in our jails is epidemic. If we don't really think about how we are going to hold people accountable for their poor choices and criminal behavior, we are going to be a land burdened with long-term prisons.

Clearly, there are people among us who are very disturbed and need to be isolated for an extended period of time from the rest of the community. Their clinical assessments indicate that rehabilitation is not realistic. However, those people constitute probably less than 5% of those incarcerated in our prisons around the country.

Unfortunately the other 95% tend to learn too many inappropriate lessons from being incarcerated. They are not lessons that empower them to become better human beings, more willing to make a positive contribution to our world.

Instead, our barbed wire fortresses reinforce anger, hostility, dishonesty and manipulation. Unconsciously, they discourage people from starting anew and attempting to live more productive lives.

Addicts who go untreated only further their addictions and compulsions during long term incarceration. They find ways to get high and are not encouraged to work on abstinence and recovery issues. When they are released, it's only a matter of time before they break the law and are rearrested. And so the cycle continues.

The drug treatment literature indicates that many who sell drugs do so, to feed their own habits. Too often the focus is on the criminal act of selling rather than on the fact that the person selling is an active drug addict.

If we repeal the Rockefeller drug laws and do not change our philosophy and attitude toward drug addicts and addiction, the repeal will be an exercise in futility. It's not enough to change some horrific drug laws, if we are not going to treat a drug addict and drug dealer differently. They need to be held accountable. They need treatment, more than punishment. We need systems in place to provide long-term treatment. Thirty, sixty, ninety day programs for hard-core heroin and crack addicts are not enough. People with hard-core addictions need long-term residential treatment with competent personnel to deal not only with their addictive behaviors, but also with their complicated mental health issues.

This approach is costly. However, in the final analysis, we will save much more money than we will spend because the recovering addict will become a productive member of society, living by our laws and contributing to our economy. If we don't treat them, we will have to build bigger jails to accommodate the growing number of addicts that will be arrested for dealing and other deviant behavior, while under the influence. The ultimate expense, if you add it all up, will be mind boggling.

Read your local newspaper. Every day, there are more and more stories of young people being arrested because of drug and alcohol related crimes. Those experimenting with illegal drugs are escalating by the day. Heroin is infecting every community in our county. High school and college students aren't using needles, they're snorting and they are getting it cheap.

A local community has become so alarmed that they convened a forum on the drug issue in their community. Over a thousand people gathered for this informational session. Many leaving the session commented that they did not realize how serious the drug epidemic was in their middle-class neighborhood.

Ending the Rockefeller drug laws is an important first step. But, if we are to be successful in our fight against illegal drug and alcohol use, we must educate people to understand the complexity of this very serious and infectious issue. We must think outside the box and act differently.