WASHINGTON — Two decisions Monday, one by a federal judge in New York and the other by Attorney General Eric Holder, were powerful signals that the pendulum has swung away from the tough-on-crime policies of a generation ago. Those policies have been denounced as discriminatory and responsible for explosive growth in the prison population.
Critics have long contended that draconian mandatory minimum-sentence laws for low-level drug offenses, as well as stop-and-frisk police policies that target higher-crime and minority neighborhoods, have a disproportionate impact on minorities. On Monday, Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke the sentencing laws, and a judge found that stop-and-frisk practices in New York were unconstitutional racial profiling.
While the timing was a coincidence, Barbara Arnwine, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the effect was “historic, groundbreaking, and potentially game-changing.”
“I thought that the most important significance of both events was the sense of enough is enough,” said Arnwine, who attended the speech in San Francisco where Holder unveiled the new Justice Department policy. “It’s a feeling that this is the moment to make needed change. This just can’t continue, this level of extreme heightened injustice in our policing, our law enforcement and our criminal-justice system.”
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A generation ago, amid a crack epidemic, state and federal lawmakers enacted a wave of tough-on-crime measures that resulted in an 800 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the United States, even as the population grew by only a third. The spike centered on an increase in black and Hispanic men convicted of drug crimes; blacks are about six times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
But the crack wave has long since passed and violent-crime rates have plummeted to four-decade lows.
Against that backdrop, the move away from mandatory sentences and Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling on stop-and-frisk practices signaled a course correction on two big criminal-justice issues that disproportionately affect minorities has finally been made, according to the advocates who have pushed for those changes.
Scheindlin wrote in her ruling that the nation’s largest police department illegally and systematically singled out large numbers of blacks and Hispanics under its stop-and-frisk policy. She appointed an independent monitor to oversee major changes, including body cameras on some officers.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would appeal the ruling, which was a stinging rebuke to a policy he and the New York Police Department have defended as a tool that helped lead the city to historic crime lows. The legal outcome could affect how and whether other cities employ the tactic.
Stop-and-frisk has been around for decades in some form, but recorded stops increased dramatically under the Bloomberg administration to an all-time high in 2011 of 684,330, mostly of black and Hispanic men. The lawsuit was filed in 2004 by four men, all minorities, and became a class-action case.
Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor who wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” an influential 2010 book about the racial impact of policies like stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimum drug sentences, said the two developments gave her a sense of “cautious optimism.”
But not everyone was celebrating. William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor, described Holder’s move as a victory for drug dealers that would incentivize greater sales of addictive contraband, and he suggested the stop-and-frisk ruling could be overturned on appeal.
Otis also warned that society was becoming “complacent” and forgetting that the drug and sentencing policies enacted over the past three decades had contributed to the falling crime rates.
Yet Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, said many police chiefs agreed it was time to rethink mandatory sentencing for low-level drug offenses.
And he said departments across the country would examine the ruling in New York “to see if their practices pass muster.”
But Wexler added: “You can’t get away from the fact that in most large cities, crime is concentrated in poor areas which are predominantly minority. The question becomes, what tactics are acceptable in those communities to reduce crime? And there is a trade-off between the tactics that may be used and the issue of fairness.”
Critics have argued that aggressive policing in minority neighborhoods can distort overall crime statistics.
Federal data show, for example, that black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates.