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December 6, 2007 - Times Union (NY)

OpEd: Now Is The Time For Real Sentencing Reform

By Glenn E. Martin, associate vice president of The Fortune Society, a New York City-based prisoner re-entry program.

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Gov. Eliot Spitzer exercised enormous courage and vision when he issued an executive order calling for the establishment of a commission on sentencing reform. He gave the commission a clear mandate to make recommendations on the future of criminal sentencing in New York in order to reform a system that is convoluted, complex and in disarray.

The commission's preliminary report contains some thoughtful, forward-thinking recommendations that would improve the quality and accessibility of substance abuse treatment and other community-based and institutional programming.

Key among these are measures that would enhance certification and clinical training requirements for treatment providers, including Department of Correctional Services staff; expand merit time; expand work release and educational and vocational training in prisons; increase access to higher education in prison; and restore voting rights for people on parole.

While some of the recommendations are insightful and respond to the governor's call to create an "equitable system of criminal justice," there are some glaring omissions. Nowhere in the report is there any mention of the racial disparity inherent in sentencing laws. Real drug law reform is absent. No measures are designed to undo the damage caused by mass incarceration on certain communities.

The overwhelming majority of people who are convicted of drug offenses in New York are African-American or Latino. In fact, although whites and people of color use and sell illegal drugs at equal rates, 91 percent of the 14,000 people in prison under our Rockefeller era drug laws are people of color. In 2000, of those newly committed to prison for drug-related offenses, 93 percent were African-American or Latino, while these groups made up only 30 percent of our state population.

The commission also fails to address the need for an immediate and systemic expansion of alternatives to incarceration and other similar community-based programs. That's a disappointment. Such programs not only spare individuals the damage caused by prison, but save the state large sums of money, with no diminution of public safety.

Although New York has been successful in reducing crime and its prison population simultaneously over the past few years, no plan has been put forth to reinvest the dollars saved into the communities that continue to be ravaged by our inherently unjust criminal justice system or in the upstate communities which rely on prisons as an economic engine.

Parents who reside in New York's low-income communities of color have eagerly awaited the release of this report, hoping that the proverbial noose of the criminal justice system would soon loosen itself from the necks of their children. Without sweeping changes, the foot of the criminal justice system will continue to crush the necks of very specific communities in our state, whether it's the seven highly impacted New York City communities often discussed by policymakers and advocates or the upstate communities of Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Albany, all of which are beginning to experience a spike in violent crime.

The commission must be on notice that this is a historic opportunity. The citizens of New York are banking on the the commission's wisdom and ability to create a final set of recommendations that balance public safety, reduce reliance on incarceration, enhance victims' rights, save public dollars, and create opportunities to rebuild the people and communities that are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.

Anything short of this amounts to its own indeterminate sentence of punishment for affected communities.

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