Stop-and-Frisk Ruling and Drug Sentencing Revamp Alter Criminal Justice Landscape

Thursday, August 15, 2013
Judge Shira Scheindlin (AP Photo)

Monday marked far more than just the beginning of a new week. It also was the day when two significant legal decisions were announced may alter significantly the criminal justice landscape in America.


In New York City, a federal judge ruled against the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics, saying they violated the constitutional rights of minorities.


Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Attorney General Eric Holder made his own landmark decision, proclaiming the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer invoke mandatory minimum sentencing laws for low-level drug offenses, a leftover from the 1980s conservative approach to stemming the crack cocaine epidemic.


Together, the two announcements (which were not coordinated) represented “powerful signals that the pendulum has swung away from the tough-on-crime policies of a generation ago,” Charlie Savage and Erica Goode wrote for The New York Times.


The decisions did share something in common: Both reversed policies seen by critics as unfairly targeting, and imprisoning, minorities, primarily blacks and Hispanics.


Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Times that the Monday’s news was “historic, groundbreaking, and potentially game-changing.”


“I thought that the most important significance of both events was the sense of enough is enough,” Arnwine said. “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.”


Following the passage of the sentencing laws three decades ago, the U.S. prison population ballooned by 800%, even though the nation’s population grew by only a third. This fact, along with the reality that the anti-drug statutes disproportionately impacted black men and Latinos, led Holder to declare in his speech:


“We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken. And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate—not merely to warehouse and to forget.”


Back in New York, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, a Bill Clinton appointee, characterized the stop-and-frisk policy as a form of “indirect racial profiling,” due to the fact it led to an increased number of stops in minority communities. The policy, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported, led to officers’ routinely stopping “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white,” Scheindlin said.


The judge also ordered a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms, including the use of body-worn cameras for some patrol officers, although she was “not ordering an end to the practice of stop-and-frisk,” according to the Times.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Two Powerful Signals of a Major Shift on Crime (by Charlie Savage and Erica Goode, New York Times)

Holder Seeks to Avert Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Some Low-Level Drug Offenders(by Sari Horwitz, Washington Post)

Judge Rejects New York’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy (by Joseph Goldstein, New York Times)

Where Stop-and-Frisk Tactic Is Business as Usual, Skepticism Prevails (by Vivian Yee, New York Times)

Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al. (Center for Constitutional Rights)

Intimidation of Minorities Said to be Intent of NYPD “Stop and Frisk” Program (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

People Imprisoned in U.S. for Drug Offenses Skyrockets from 41,000 to 507,000 in 30 Years(by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)   

Drug Sentencing—Obama Can Do More: Debra J. Saunders (by Erika K. Solanki, AllGov)         


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