Apr 27, 2009

The Rock Crumbles

Christopher Watler is the Project Director at the Harlem Community Justice Center.

It was a sunny and warm spring morning last Friday on the roof deck of Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities, Inc., a local community organization started by parents in 1965. There was a celebratory mood as elected officials, activist, commissioners and the press, joined by children and youth came out to witness Governor Paterson sign into law historic changes to the state’s drug laws. The new law would repeal core features of the 1970’s era Rockefeller Drug Laws, restoring judicial discretion in drug cases and expanding alternatives to incarceration and drug treatment resources.

While not the full repeal most activists and some elected officials demanded, these changes are nonetheless an important milestone for a state that helped to encourage a national addiction to incarceration for non-violent substance abusing offenders. In 1973, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed into law the toughest set of drug laws in the country. The state at the time had less than 13,000 state prison inmates, a number that would peak to over 71,000 inmates in 2000 and now stands at fewer than 63,000. Most disturbing was the disparate impact these laws have had on persons of color and the poor. The growth in incarceration of non-violent drug offenders did little to improve safety and has consumed limited resources that could be put to better use providing treatment or other essential services.

Flanked by a crew of state, local and federal legislators, activist and commissioners, Governor Paterson summed up the moment as a “step in a movement to fix our broken criminal justice system.” Despite the state’s deepening budget woes and an unprecedented fiscal crisis, State Senator Eric Schneiderman vowed that “we will rely on treatment that works, not incarceration that fails” to address the needs of substance addicted non-violent offenders. One of the key heros of the moment was Jeffrion Aubrey, who represents the 35th Assembly District in Queens. “We never gave up on the ability of human beings to change, Rockefeller defied that reality, and now we have defied Rockefeller,” said Aubrey. Robert Gangi, Executive Director of the Correctional Association of New York thanked the many community activists and formerly incarcerated persons who over the years engaged in what he described as a “people’s movement” to “Drop the Rock.”

The sense of hope and possibility was tempered by the reality of what lay ahead. According to Hip Hop mogul and activist Russell Simmons, today we are making a “small change, but sowing a good seed…much remains to be done.” Simmons is correct. Treatment and alternatives to incarceration will require resources and a sustained commitment to invest in and work with local communities to reclaim lives while preventing others from becoming lost to addiction and crime. There is an opportunity now to strengthen prisoner reentry and proven alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment courts.

Efforts to improve discharge planning for retuning inmates and to work with local community service providers to provide ready access to treatment are underway in New York State. One example of this is the County Reentry Task Force effort spearheaded by the Division of Criminal Justice Services. Across the state, thirteen Reentry Task Force programs involving local law enforcement, corrections, parole and community service providers are coordinating discharge planning, community supervision, and service delivery for high-risk reentrants. The Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force is the most recent addition to this statewide effort.

Seeing the faces of the children in Elmcor’s programs, I wondered what type of criminal justice system my generation was leaving as a legacy. I hope that, as adults, these children will look back and draw inspiration from this day as a moment when we summoned the courage to do what was right.