linkathon part 3: the human cost of zero tolerance

This story on the impossibly high cost of so-called zero tolerance laws reminds me of the breed-specific legislation (anti-pitbull laws) plaguing Ontario. Reacting to media-created public hysteria, legislators create laws that are inhumane and injustice. I say so-called zero tolerance because something tells me the Wall Street boys who abuse Adderall and cocaine do not get the same treatment as the Latino grandmother with a joint in her purse.

This is well worth reading, both as a plea to repeal these insane laws, and as a cautionary tale to other jurisdictions who might want to institute these policies. That's right, Stephen Harper, we're looking at you.

This is also what happens when a city elects a prosecutor for a mayor.
There is no proof that the zero-tolerance policing adopted by New York and other cities in the 1990’s had anything to do with the decline in violent crime across the nation. Crime also dropped in jurisdictions that did not use the approach.

Millions of people have been arrested under the policy for minor violations, like possession of small amounts of marijuana. And one thing is beyond dispute: this arrest-first policy has filled the courts to bursting with first-time, minor offenders who do not belong there and wreaked havoc with people’s lives. Even when cases are dismissed, people can be shadowed for years by error-ridden criminal records.

The human toll is evident in New York City, where last year 50,000 people — one every 10 minutes — were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The city downplays the significance, saying these cases are typically dismissed and the record sealed if the person stays out of trouble for a year. But getting tangled in the court system is harrowing. And the record-keeping can be unreliable and far more porous than the city suggests.

An analysis by the Legal Action Center, which assists 2,500 people with criminal records each year, has found that nearly half of its clients’ rap sheets have errors. Defense lawyers say that too often the courts and police fail to report to the state about dismissals and other outcomes favorable to defendants.

As for “sealed” records, background-screening companies working for private employers can harvest data at the time of an arrest and there is no guarantee that they will update to reflect dismissals — or expunge the information when records are sealed by the courts. While it is illegal to exclude people from jobs based solely on arrest or convictions, unless there is a compelling business reason for doing so, many employers quickly write off applicants who are flagged in these databases.

New York City drove up its marijuana arrests — from just under 1,500 in 1980 to more than 50,000 a year today — despite the fact that the State Legislature in 1977 decriminalized possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, making it a violation, roughly akin to a traffic ticket. The problem is that the Legislature made public display of any amount of marijuana a misdemeanor, which can lead to arrest, jail and a record that follows the person for years. And New York’s police have been repeatedly accused of arresting people for possession after forcing them to show “in public” the small amounts they had. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly tacitly admitted this practice last year, directing officers to make an arrest only when the drug really was in view.

Critics say the fact that 87 percent of those arrested are black or Hispanic suggests that the police are deliberately singling out minority citizens for arrests that push some of them permanently to the very margins of society.

An arrest, even without a conviction, can swiftly unleash disastrous personal consequences.

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