Today the War on Drugs was dealt a blow as two federal officials acknowledged the racial disparities inherent in current law enforcement practices and committed to fundamental changes in how New Yorkers will be policed and charged for drug offenses.
In a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder announced major federal sentencing changes that included dropping the use of mandatory minimum sentencing in certain drug cases. He noted: “The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.” He is issuing a memo to all United States attorney offices on Monday instructing prosecutors that they may not write the specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments for drug defendants who meet the following four criteria: their conduct did not involve violence, the use of a weapon or sales to minors; they are not leaders of a criminal organization; they have no significant ties to large-scale gangs or cartels; and they have no significant criminal history. This should have the effect of circumventing some of the harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, at least at the federal level.
In addition, Holder will direct federal prosecutors to develop guidelines for some drug sentencing issues to be handled on the state or local level. In New York, discussions are already underway about creating more coordinated approach to drug policy. In April, The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) jointly released a Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy. They examined New York’s current drug policies and reimagined how those policies could realize better health and public safety outcomes in New York. The Blueprint outlines a more coordinated, effective, and evidence-based approach to drug policy, applicable at the state and municipal level, that will improve the health and safety of communities across the state.
Also, Federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled in the Floyd trial, finding that the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department violated the constitutional rights of Black and Latino New Yorkers. In a major blow to NYPD’s credibility, Judge Scheindlin appointed an outside lawyer, Peter L. Zimroth, to monitor NYPD’s compliance with the Constitution. Judge Scheindlin found that NYPD officers have been stopping innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing and “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data.” In addition to what judge Scheindlin called the “human toll of unconstitutional stops,” NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy has resulted in the unconstitutional arrests of more than 600,000 New Yorkers – predominantly young men of color – for marijuana possession since 1996 even though possessing small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized since 1977.
The following is a statement from gabriel sayegh, New York director for the Drug Policy Alliance:
“It’s a remarkable development for both the Obama administration and a federal judge to acknowledge that the war on drugs has not only failed, but has been a key driver of racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Judge Scheindlin are right to acknowledge that communities of color have been unduly targeted and impacted by our current approaches to policing and drug policy and to call for change. Now we must act to address these problems in New York. Albany can begin by doing three things: reforming our broken marijuana laws; enacting a health-based approach to drug policy; and conducting a thorough review and analysis of our entire criminal justice system to identify and address issues of institutional racial bias which lead to the kind of unequal and unfair outcomes identified by AG Holder and Judge Scheindlin. By ending wasteful and ineffective criminal and drug policies, and moving towards coordinated and effective approaches, we can promote equity and fairness while improving the safety and health of all individuals, families and communities.”