“Cops On the Beat: Back to Basics”
Hearing before the State Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice of the Senate of the State of New York
Testimony of Michael Z. Letwin, J.D., President, The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys*
September 18, 1990
New York, N.Y.
My name is Michael Z. Letwin. I am president of The Association of Legal Attorneys, which for more than 20 years has represented staff attorneys at the Legal Aid Society of New York City.
From 1985 through 1990, I was a staff attorney at the Society’s Criminal Defense Division in Brooklyn, during which time I handled some 1,000 cases, the vast majority of them narcotics offenses or in some ways related to narcotics. I have written an article appearing next month in Hofstra Law Review which analyses the Bennett plan in light of the failure of New York City street- level drug enforcement, particularly Operation Pressure Point and the Tactical Narcotics Teams (TNT).
New York City is currently in the midst of a near-hysteria over crime in which it is increasingly in vogue to call for more police and even the suspension of Constitutional rights. Given the dramatic increase in crime, such reactions are understandably popular. If our members viewed these proposals from their narrowest self—interest, they might welcome the increased funding for defense services that such policies would require.
Indeed, aside from military escalation in the Middle East, criminal justice spending at home appears to be the only major public works program in this country. However, from the point of view of our clients and New York City as a whole, along with many of my colleagues I firmly believe that a continuation or escalation of current criminal justice policies is both ineffective and destructive.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on over 100,000 drug arrests in 1989, mass buy-and-bust operations such as those conducted by TNT have had virtually no impact whatsoever on drugs or crime. As your committee’s memorandum notes, top dealers are seldom targeted or caught, low—level dealers are quickly replaced, and the demand for and availability of crack and other drugs is more widespread than ever.
Such programs have failed because the police simply do not impact on the deepening cycle of crime and violence, Above all, this cycle is rooted in the interaction between illegal drugs and historically high unemployment, low wages, bleak housing, inadequate schools, poor health care and other social services, segregation, police abuse and racially-motivated violence.
In recent years, these conditions have grown worse with the disappearance of stable blue-collar jobs and the attack on gains such as affirmative action, legislation and social programs won by the Black-led Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Amidst growing poverty, especially in the African-American and Latino communities, crack offers what the Rev. Jesse Jackson calls a compelling “anesthetic and escape.”
Because crack is illegal, it directly contributes to the dramatic increase in crime and violence. First, the profit in illegal drugs makes heavy weapons and bystander shootings inevitable. Fully half of 1988 homicides were drug-related, and three—quarters of those resulted from competition for control of street—level drug traffic. Thousands of other crimes are committed by users willing to do anything to feed their habit.
This atmosphere encourages even people who are not involved in drugs to engage in casual violence, such as, but hardly limited to, the highly publicized September 3d murder of Brian Watkins. In this context, the criminal justice system serves only to feed the cycle of drugs and crime. Our members find that illegal searches and seizures, frame-ups, physical abuse, and questionable shootings by police are routine in the predominantly African-American and Latino inner-cities.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers whose cases often involve only a few vials of crack are herded like cattle into New York City jails, which, at an annual cost of $58,000 per inmate, now hold 20,000 people, compared with 7,000 in 1980. Seventy percent are pre-trial detainees who, while “presumed innocent,” are guilty of being too poor to afford bail. Ninety-five percent of inmates are African—American or Latino.
The destructiveness of this process is perhaps most graphic in the special narcotics, or “N parts,” where defendants — guilty and innocent alike – – are often coerced into pleading guilty by high bail and potentially draconian sentences, Thus, even in cases where clients vehemently protest their innocence, the most ardent defense attorney must caution the defendant that a grand jury is likely to indict prior to the time at which release in the “N part” would be required; that the chance of winning a valid suppression issue is slim; that police witnesses bearing physical evidence will testify at trial that the defendant is the person who committed the offense charged; and that the jurors may well convict them out of a desire to put a dent in crime and/or other prejudices.
These factors are discussed in a crowded noisy cell, after a week or more without clean clothes, a shower, sanitary toilets, healthy food, sleep, or in many cases family contact, and with only a few minutes before the case is called. Under these circumstances, it is a gross mockery for defendants to admit, in response to the judge’s standard questions, that they are pleading guilty because they are guilty.
Guilty or not, tens of thousands of drug defendants have been shipped to state prison where 45 percent of the inmates are serving drug-related sentences, and which hold many others on drug-related charges. Out of such policies arise the kind of inmate protests and guard brutality recently witnessed at Rikers Island.
All of these costly policies are paid for by cutting still further the already meager services available to the poor. One result is that it is almost impossible to locate a residential treatment program for crack abusers who want them.
The process described above poses a particularly disturbing threat to Constitutionally-guaranteed quality legal representation for poor people charged with criminal offenses. While Legal Aid Society attorneys and support staff do their best to provide the highest possible quality of representation, the number of cases handled by the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division has risen from 172,788 in 1987 to 225,834 in 1989. In addition, our members must staff a growing number of arraignments and other assignments.
The result is intense pressure on defense attorneys from the courts and even Legal Aid management to treat clients as widgets on an assembly-line, rather than as the human beings that they are.
These and other conditions at Legal Aid, including insufficient salaries and benefits, poor working conditions and inadequate affirmative action programs, threaten to severely undermine quality defense for the poor.
Law enforcement officials and others who recognize the need for an alternative to these policies have begun to emphasize the alternative of “community policing.” While it is indeed important to find alternatives to the current approach, I do not believe that prosecution by the criminal justice system can successfully address the problems created by the interaction between drug prohibition and conditions of poverty and institutional racism in the inner-cities.
Instead of turning to more police and prisons, a sane and effective approach to the city’s problems would:
1. Recognize drugs as a social and health problem: Decriminalization would reduce street crime by legally providing abusers with drugs, while guaranteeing to them treatment on demand. It would substantially reduce turf war violence by taking the profit out of drugs. With the reduction in drug-related crime, the overall atmosphere of violence would dramatically decline.
2. Defend and Expand Constitutional Protections: Constitutional rights must be available to all, including poor people of color.
3. Dramatically improve indigent defense services: Legal Aid Society attorneys and support staff must be allowed to realize their full potential Reduce workload and improve salaries and benefits, working conditions, affirmative action and job security.
4 Remedy basic social injustice: Most fundamentally, any meaningful solution to drug abuse and crime requires that the criminal justice system not be used as a bludgeon against the poor, and that the attention now put toward manufacturing felony records and prison cells be redirected to decent jobs, housing, schools, health care, social services, and to racial and economic justice.
*Please note that not all opinions expressed here necessarily reflect those of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.