“Going On”: Patience and Perseverance

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Working at the CA for over 20 years has instilled in me patience regarding criminal justice reform efforts. Understanding that our issues are often controversial and that our immediate constituency is often considered unpopular has also led me to place a high value on perseverance. As a generous donor recently wrote us: “Just go on going on until we don’t have to.” Persevering is our enduring responsibility–showing up and being there having their own merits and rewards–even though we don’t always achieve our exact aims. More than 160 years of history have taught us at the CA that when you keep pressing the issue, more times than not, eventually you reach your policy goal.

For example, we at the Correctional Association, along with many others, have diligently worked for several decades promoting meaningful Rockefeller Drug Law reform. Although there has been some positive movement in re- cent years–prosecutors, responding to public concerns generated by advocates, have been diverting more people convicted of drug crimes to treatment–there have been only modest changes in the actual statutes. Are we disappointed by the legislative outcome so far? Yes, and frustrated too. Yet undaunted. We will be back. Next year in Albany, the Drop the Rock Coalition, the Correctional Association and the many others referred to above, strong and strategic, will press again for repeal. There recently have been a few chips in the mandatory sentencing wall; we are confident that our concentrated and collective efforts will sooner or later bring all the bricks down.

Then there have been the unmistakably positive results of our sustained advocacy. Both houses of the New York State Legislature passing our landmark mental health bill is a prime example. Though Governor Pataki vetoed the proposal, reliable sources in Albany tell us that his likely successor is virtually certain to put his seal of approval on this major step forward in the humane and effective treatment of incarcerated individuals with mental illness.

Recent improvements in New York City’s court pens provide another concrete in- stance of our perseverance paying off. For over 17 years, Correctional Association representatives have monitored these facilities which hold recently arrested individuals awaiting their first appearance before a judge. In our spring newsletter, I reported on conditions in these places “on a bad day”: the overcrowding, the dark, deplorable, poorly ventilated physical plant, the breakdowns in medical services and food delivery. We also reported these problems to high-level officials in New York City’s Department of Correction and Police Department. And, in a prime example of our persistent advocacy, we conducted four monitoring visits since that bad day. The response to these tours and discussions impressed us greatly: cells bright and clean; toilets and sinks in working order; more mats for female and male detainees; free phones available in Manhattan and Queens; and more attentive health care. Commendations go to the responsible city officials for demonstrating their commitment to the principle that these cells are for holding, not punishing people, that detainees are due respect, not disdain.

Ever determined, we now look to the State’s new leaders who will assume their duties next year to respond with a similarly enlightened attitude to our proposed criminal justice reforms. Given that the individuals expected to take office will have their own political reasons to break with Albany’s past policies, we have good reason to hope. Perhaps even those harsh and outdated drug laws will finally come tumbling down. If they don’t, we’ll continue to hammer away at the wall.