Creating the Criminal Justice System of the Future
When I was first elected to the New York State Senate in 1998, New York’s prison population reached an all-time high of 72,289—an increase of more than 400 percent from the early ’70s, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller led the charge to enact some of the most draconian drug laws in the country.
This was no coincidence. The Rockefeller Drug Laws established mandatory minimum prison sentences—and judges lost their discretion to reduce them even if the punishment was deemed unduly harsh—for many crimes involving the sale and possession of drugs. As a result, New York’s prison population exploded, but with no meaningful impact on crime.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws were an abject failure by any measure, yet they still retained broad support from much of the political establishment when I arrived in Albany three decades later.
In the face of this entrenched support for the status quo, I worked with my partners in government, drug treatment professionals and reform advocates to build a coalition motivated by the principle that criminal justice policies should be defined by evidence of what really works to increase public safety—and not by the fear, superstition and political grandstanding that gave birth to New York’s misguided drug laws in the first place.
After years of organizing, we finally succeeded in dismantling the broken Rockefeller system and replacing it with evidence-based diversion and treatment programs. In response, our critics dubbed our reform bill the “Drug Dealer Protection Act” and a “crime wave in the making.”
They were, of course, wrong. Six years later, crime rates are down, recidivism is down, and the prison population—especially those convicted of drug-related crimes—is shrinking. The more data we collect, the clearer this reality becomes: Arresting and incarcerating vast numbers of young men of color for low-level offenses actually harms our public safety.
With this compelling evidence—and with a new generation of activists demanding change—it is time to build on this work, expand our coalition and pursue a whole new level of criminal justice reform.
We should start by addressing the root causes that drive some of our young people to commit crime. The point of entry for our criminal justice system is often not a police stop on the street; it begins with a suspension from school or a call to the local police for minor disciplinary infractions that used to land kids in the principal’s office.
We know that suspending children from school for minor disciplinary infractions does not change behavior. It also makes it more likely that such children will enter the criminal justice system when they leave school.
That is why my office has helped to reform prejudicial, zero-tolerance school discipline policies to break the school-to-prison pipeline that entangles far too many children of color in the criminal justice system before they even graduate high school.
And, if our children do enter the criminal justice system before they graduate, we should treat them as children. New York is one of only two states in the nation that still automatically treat 16-and 17-year-olds as adults in court. It is time to seize the moment before the end of this legislative session and “Raise the Age” for determining criminal responsibility in our adult court system.
Finally, once prisoners have served their terms and paid their debt to society, they should have the opportunity to re-enter society as productive citizens. Access to jobs, housing and education are essential to preventing recidivism and ensuring that ex-prisoners can fully reintegrate into their communities. My office is working to ensure that employers and colleges alike do not deny opportunities to those who deserve a second chance.
We have made considerable progress since Gov. Rockefeller signed a punitive and irrational sentencing law that helped launch our nation’s failed experiment with mass incarceration. The political climate is more favorable to reform than ever before. Americans of all political stripes, in states and municipalities across the country, are opening their eyes to the failures of our criminal justice system. Even presidential candidates are talking seriously about reversing our nation’s unprecedented over-reliance on incarceration.
We have the moment. We have the data. Now is the time to follow the evidence and fund alternatives to incarceration that can succeed.
New York has led the way on a range of important issues for centuries. Now is the time for us to lead on criminal justice reform.