5 Winnable Issues

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Reforming the criminal justice system is often a long and challenging process. But after years of strategic effort by the Correctional Association and its allies–and with a new administration soon to take office in Albany–we have a unique opportunity to make the administration of justice in New York significantly more fair, effective and humane. This special issue of our newsletter features five of our top advocacy priorities for the new administration, and why we think their time has come.

1. Rockefeller Drug Laws

The Problem: The Rockefeller Drug Laws require harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, regardless of personal circumstance or the role the person played in the drug transaction. As a result, over 14,000 people convicted of drug crimes—most of whom have no history of violent behavior—are locked up in New York’s prisons. Locking people up on non-violent, low-level drug charges costs the state about $460 million a year, and does little to improve their lives or the well-being of their communities.

The Solution: Return sentencing discretion to judges by repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Judges can refer people convicted of low-level drug crimes to treatment, which studies have shown to be the most effective tool in the fight against drug abuse and drug-related crime.

Why We Can Win: In recent New York elections, several candidates for district attorney have campaigned—and won—on a platform of drug law reform. Minor changes to the drug laws in 2004 and 2005 show that the legislature realizes that it’s time for change. And popular opinion is behind us: 79% of New Yorkers favor restoring sentencing discretion to judges in drug cases.

2. Incarcerated Individuals with Mental Illness

The Problem: Since 1991, the number of incarcerated individuals with mental illness in New York prisons has grown by 71%—three times the rate of the overall incarcerated individual population. In the general population, incarcerated individuals with mental illness receive little treatment beyond psychotropic medication. When they act out, they often end up locked in disciplinary confinement for 23 hours a day, with minimal human contact. This isolation only makes the illness worse, frequently sending them into a downward spiral that endangers both the incarcerated person and the prison staff. Sometimes his or her stay in “the box” ends only after months or years, when the prison sentence is over, and the incarcerated person is released directly into society—a hazard to his or her welfare and to public safety. Sometimes, tragically, it ends in suicide.

The Solution: Place incarcerated people with mental illness in psychiatric care units instead of disciplinary confinement. This summer, both houses of the state legislature passed a bill that prohibits isolating incarcerated individuals with mental illness in solitary confinement; it also requires training for officers to recognize and work more effectively with this population, and provides for additional mental health services inside state prisons.

Why We Can Win: Although Governor Pataki vetoed the bill, supporters are urging the legislature to override the veto. If that doesn’t work, we’re confident that with continued advocacy, the next administration will make the bill a law. The bill has popular support, too: the New York Times, Newsday, the Albany Times-Union and several other newspapers all published editorials favoring the proposal.

3. Sexually Exploited Girls and Boys

The Problem: New York State treats sexually exploited youth as criminals. Even though young people under 17 aren’t old enough to consent legally to sex, they can be arrested for prostitution and sent to juvenile jails. They receive virtually no counseling, psychological care, or help fi nding a safe place to live—so when they get out, they usually go right back to their pimps. Experts agree that prosecuting sexually exploited young people further traumatizes them and makes it more diffi cult for them to escape the streets.

The Solution: Instead of handcuffs, courtrooms and jail cells, the state should provide services and safe havens for sexually exploited youth. The Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which was drafted by CA staff, will stop the prosecution of sexually exploited youth under the age of 18 and create a range of community-based program—including outreach, preventive services, safe houses and long-term housing—that will put them on the road to rebuilding their lives.

Why We Can Win: The Safe Harbor Act has strong bipartisan support in the legislature, including a Republican sponsor in the Republican-controlled Senate. And the public is more aware of the issue because of the recent visibility of international youth trafficking in the media.

4. Alternatives to Detention for Youth

The Problem: Most young people awaiting trial in family court have been charged with low-level, non-violent offenses and pose no threat to public safety. Yet every year, New York State spends millions of tax dollars to keep them locked up in secure detention centers until they go to court. By removing young people from their families, schools and support networks, the system actually makes it more likely that they will get in trouble again: in New York City, 44% of youth in secure detention are re-admitted within a year.

The Solution: Redirect detention funding to support community based alternative-to-detention programs (ATDs). Unlike jail, alternative programs help young people obtain the tools and resources they need to stay out of trouble—and they’re far less expensive. The Juvenile Justice Coalition, coordinated by the Correctional Association, has developed Redirect New York, a statewide budget plan that will shift funding from jails to local ATD programs.

Why We Can Win:  Similar incentive programs have been very effective in other states: Ohio, for example, was able to reduce its youth detention population by 40% in 10 years.

5. Domestic Violence Survivors in Prison

The Problem: When survivors of domestic violence defend themselves against their abusers—or commit other crimes as a result of abuse—they are often sent to prison for violent offenses, especially if they are poor or women of color. In prison, they frequently serve long sentences with little chance for early release, even though they pose virtually no threat to public safety. Prison is most often an inappropriate and inhumane response to crimes committed as a result of domestic violence. If survivors are sent to prison, they certainly should not be forced to serve long sentences.

The Solution: Grant merit time eligibility—which allows incarcerated individuals to earn time off their sentences—to domestic violence survivors who have defended themselves against their abusers or who have committed crimes as a result of abuse. Merit time eligibility is a step towards treating domestic violence survivors with the fairness and dignity they deserve, and will help them reunite with their families and rebuild their lives.

Why We Can Win:  The merit time bill received strong bipartisan support in the last legislative session and came very close to making it to the fl oor of both houses for a full vote. In addition, the Coalition for Women Prisoners, coordinated by the CA’s Women in Prison Project, has united with domestic violence and women’s rights organizations to strengthen its advocacy efforts on this issue.