It appears that America has awakened to the problem of mass incarceration–an issue underscored by the fact that the U.S. holds less than 5 percent of the world’s population but houses about 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Congress is now making a token effort at criminal justice reform, including the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, but even this faces opposition from the most fervent police state crusaders.
In the face of inaction, one New York judge is stepping outside the box to breathe life into a much-needed national debate. Judge Frederick Block of the Federal District Court chose not to send a woman to prison who was convicted of felony drug charges, instead sentencing her to probation.
Block said that the plethora of collateral consequences that people face after being convicted—amounting to 50,000 federal and state statutes—serve “no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.”
In other words, people like Chevelle Nesbeth, who was arrested at Kennedy International Airport after 600 grams of cocaine were found in her luggage, face enough punishment through collateral consequences. There is no reason to send this nonviolent “offender” to jail.
According to the New York Times:
In the opinion, the judge said he considered her crimes to be serious and called her criminal conduct “inexcusable.” But he also listed an array of consequences that she would quite likely face as a result of her felony drug convictions, like being ineligible for grants, loans and work assistance for two years, the duration of her college career.
He noted that the inability to obtain housing and employment stemming from a conviction often results in “further disastrous consequences, such as losing child custody or going homeless,” and leads to many ex-convicts’ “becoming recidivists and restarting the criminal cycle.”
Block is doing what someone called a “judge” is supposed to do by applying factual information and rationality to the situation.
Instead of going to prison for 33-41 months, Nesbeth—who said that friends gave her the suitcase and she was unaware of the contents—was sentenced by Block to “one year of probation, to include six months of home confinement and 100 hours of community service.”
While the larger issue of the unjust War on Drugs remains, it is heartening to see that some within the system understand the draconian nature of the existing criminal justice system. And they’re doing something about it.
Judge Block’s extraordinary act comes just after U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher admitted that he used medical cannabis to treat his arthritis. It is increasingly obvious that the American government’s approach to drugs, whether medicinal or not, is completely irrational and greatly contributes to mass incarceration.
In his 42-page opinion which also called for reform, Block quoted legal scholar Michelle Alexander, who authored The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. From the book:
Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.
Block’s groundbreaking opinion was hailed by Gabriel J. Chin, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, as “the most careful and thorough judicial examination” of collateral consequences in sentencing.
“It’s going to generate debate on a critical issue in the criminal justice system — the ability of people convicted of crimes to get on with their lives,” said Chin, whom Block also quoted in his opinion.
Naturally, the U.S. attorney’s office is intent on perpetuating the status quo of swelling jails with nonviolent drug offenders. They insist that collateral consequences are “meant to promote public safety, by limiting an individual’s access to certain jobs or sensitive areas,” and “to ensure that government resources are being spent on those who obey the law.”
When the law is unjust and the punishment unwarranted, it is the duty of free thinkers to resist. Let’s hope that Frederick Block, along with countless others bravely pushing back against state tyranny, can begin to undo the burden of mass incarceration.
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