‘Stop and frisk’ unconstitutional; Holder backs down on mandatory sentencing while addictions grow

In the Northern hemisphere, August is often a time of reflection before the upward march with school and kids through ever lessening daylight hours until Christmas.  Judith Rossner’s 1983 novel ‘August’ made popular the month therapists escape by bus to Maine, the Hampton’s or Berkshires, leaving their clients problems in the city.

It’s the month the patient goes rudderless, at times feeling as if twice as much could be resolved if only the therapist hadn’t stranded them in August to themselves.

AugustNovelThe skies seem a little brighter this August.  The result?

Two legal decisions that are sure to have effects across the nation.  Attorney General Eric Holder announced he is no longer going to enforce rigid federal ‘mandatory minimum’ sentencing when it comes to low level, non-violent and non-affiliated drug offenders.  Then came the decision from the Southern District Court of New York that the New York Police Departments’s ‘stop and frisk’ policy was unconstitutional as it unfairly profiled Black and Hispanic young men.

As if a pall had been lifted from our very minds, the approach to policing and court sentencing at last would reflect the will the people and the day.   Finally, a victory for those who believe so many of our social ills rest at the feet of paramilitary authorities and courts in the U.S.

Would it were so simple.

Alas, I fear our libertine posing over these companion issues will do little more than assuage our egos and arrest our guilt.  Indeed, each may prove a Pyrrhic victory where we cannot afford another one like it.

It was many years ago, while working as a carpenter that the client, a U.S. District Court judge sought to unload her thoughts on the men at work on her home.  That morning, she was due in court to sentence a young woman to 20 years under mandatory minimum sentencing.  The woman had been a drug mule, ferrying drugs before her capture.  Still, mused the judge, what sense did it make to jail someone for so long?  What public good did it serve?  Would her sentence slow the pace of drugs passing through our porous borders?  And what about the addicts?

I first met Kennedy Hawkins seven years ago as he crouched behind my yard, cooking up his heroin.  He is now 51 years old and lives down the street from me here in Baltimore. With glowing pale eyes and the bone structure of an Ethiopian, Hawkins can mesmerize anyone he meets.  He’s also a junkie with drug convictions dating back to the early 1990’s.

New York ordered to end racial profiling. (seiu.org)
New York ordered to end racial profiling. (seiu.org)

Since 2003, Hawkins has lived on the public dime.  Grandfathered into public senior citizen housing at age 41, he has been afforded an apartment under the ‘Citizens with Disabilities Act’ that included addiction as a disability.  Since then, he has had thirteen arrests, three more convictions along with other citations after arrest.  Baltimore’s Housing Authority has taken him to court for a breach of lease.  Twice they failed.  This past April, he was arrested for possession on a street where other heroin addicts receive addiction services.   Again in July, Hawkins arrested on the same charge.

Some may see Kennedy Hawkins as Otis the harmless drunk, who spends more time in Mayberry’s drunk tank than at home.   That an unemployed junkie does the most harm to himself.

Slow down.

The Baltimore Substance Abuse System (BSAS)  reported in 2011, 40 percent of those who entered drug treatment in Baltimore had at least one dependent child.  With almost 13,000 receiving treatment in 2011, more than 5,000 children were dependent on an addict for their welfare.   And, 70 percent of those getting treatment in 2011 had been in prior rehab.

Holder takes the first step. (Public Domain)
Holder takes the first step. (Public Domain)

In Harwood since 2007, 39 people have been murdered within five blocks of where Kennedy and I live.  The youngest victim was just fifteen.   Like most cities, so much of the violent death in Baltimore is attributable to the drug trade and the gangs who vie with each other for control of that trade.  What goes on in Baltimore is a death match, often among children, over who gets to sell heroin to Kennedy Hawkins, inveterate addict.

Holder’s stance against mandatory minimum sentencing is more than laudable.  Harsh sentencing in drug cases hasn’t slowed the pace of the trade.  Finding the NYPD’s tactic of ‘stop and frisk’ unconstitutional because it targeted Blacks and Hispanic males unduly is also laudable, especially given the misuse of the tactic with ‘quotas’ by certain commanders in certain precincts in the city of New York.  Still, neither judicial review will alone have the expected effect of making our cities or our young men safer.

In 2010 $28 billion was spent in treating 40 million people with a range of addictions in 2010, according to Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Still, the study notes, in 2010, only one in ten addicts who needed alcohol or drug treatment received it.

To highlight our error in priorities, the study says the U.S. government spends more than $500 billion annually dealing with addiction, yet only two cents of every dollar was on treatment and prevention.   Instead, our government spends 96 cents of every dollar dealing with the fallout from addiction.  Lastly, the study concluded a large divergence between the medical profession and those providing addiction services.  That each is equipped with only half the tools and training they need to assess and treat addiction.

The results from Columbia should no surprise no one.  Some of us view addiction as a sin of weakness.  In opposite, others feel the addict has no responsibility under the weight of his disease.  Such a wide disparity of thought leaves the root of the drug trade, the addict, in an unforgiving limbo.  Taken to the streets where ‘stop and frisk’ is regularly employed, the inevitable change in tactics within the NYPD will still ignore the addicts and dealers who lurk behind each innocent young man, humiliated as he passes daily through a gauntlet of police.

As a person who was frisked half a dozen times by the NYPD before age 25 and has a ‘Guiliani Time’ conviction, I empathize with the plight of young men who brought suit against the police department.  From my perspective, the frisk itself is unconstitutional, regardless of color.  Even so, overall crime in New York has dropped 35 percent since 2001 while across the nation crime has dropped only 13 percent.  Even more indicative of the progress made, the arrest rates in New York are down almost a third (32 percent) since 2001, where the national average rose by 5 percent – a 37 percent swing.

It’s hard not view our few successes without thinking so much has been done on the backs of our young men of color.  Still, if all we do is ‘see the complexion, make the connection’ while not dealing with addiction, we will fall short in making neighborhoods like mine safe for those same kids.

Judge Shira Schiendlin (Public Domain)
Judge Shira Schiendlin (Public Domain)

The judge who spoke with us years ago was Shira Schiendlin, the judge who sided with the plaintiffs over ‘stop and frisk’ in New York.  While I agree with her ruling that the NYPD wrongly employed ‘stop and frisk’ with quotas for officers to meet, that the tactic was only racially motivated belies how police come to be on many street corners in the first place.

Kennedy Hawkins is a fellow citizen and man addicted.  To ignore his plight and transgressions is to ignore that as yet, we have no national standards for treatment nor solid reporting of outcomes.  In other words, until we focus our attention and money on rehabilitation of addicts, the police and young men of color across the nation will remain at loggerheads.  Each will contend with the other using the law while the addicts and dealers will continue to disregard it.