It’s Friday, one day after Kingston police rounded up 21 alleged drug dealers in “Operation Mop Up” and the first floor of the Ulster County Courthouse on Wall Street is bustling. In the lobby, friends and family members of the accused mill around talking on cell phones, speculating about the charges and waiting for their loved ones to be led from a holding cell adjacent to the waiting area into the courtroom where they’ll be arraigned before of County Court Judge Donald Williams. Two representatives of Allison’s Bail Bonds work the crowd, passing out cards bearing the company’s catch phrase: “Let us get you before your cellmates do.”
Inside Williams’ courtroom, it’s business as usual after a big drug bust. Defendants in county-jail orange and chains are brought in by sheriff’s deputies and presented with an indictment and asked if they require the services of the Public Defender’s Office. Then, with one of the county’s assistant public defenders at their side, the suspects enter a not-guilty plea and are remanded to jail to await a bail hearing.
On this Friday, however, the well-rehearsed routine is interrupted when Assistant Public Defender MariAnn Connolly, after entering a not guilty plea on behalf of Delaisia Hasbrouck, adds this: “I would ask that the record reflect that my client is an African-American.”
The line was repeated over the course of the arraignment session by Connolly and Assistant Public Defender Bryan Rounds each time a black client from Mop Up appeared before the bench. The request prompted Williams, known for his no-nonsense, sometimes-brusque bearing with counsel, to ask if the lawyers were implying that he would treat black defendants differently than white ones.
For Public Defender Andrew Kossover, who authorized his assistants to place their clients’ race on the record — and a growing number of voices locally and nationwide — the question is not whether the courts treat black drug suspects differently. It’s why in a nation where drug abuse cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines the heavy hand of the criminal justice system falls so disproportionately on poor African-American males in distressed neighborhoods like Midtown Kingston.
“We simply wanted to establish the racial disparity that exists in the criminal justice system,” said Kossover. “That unwarranted disparity causes a range of collateral consequences for marginalized communities of color.”
Casualties of war
Those consequences are laid out in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the 2010 bestselling book by civil rights attorney and legal scholar Michelle Alexander. In the book, Alexander argues that America’s four-decades-long war on drugs has helped perpetuate the racial caste system once upheld by Jim Crow segregation laws. By focusing enforcement efforts in poor black communities and stressing incarceration over rehabilitation, Alexander argues, the criminal justice system has created a vast underclass of black males who have seen their voting rights, access to scholarships and public benefits and employment prospects evaporate because of a felony drug conviction. Alexander cites U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics which show that whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates but blacks are far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug crimes. Alexander cites the example of Illinois where 90 percent of the people sentenced to state prison for drug offenses are African-American.
The book has sparked conversation and activism nationwide with “End the New Jim Crow” societies springing up around the country. In Kingston, the Rev. G. Modele Clarke, pastor of the New Progressive Baptist Church and Woodstock activist Odell Winfield teamed up to form the End the New Jim Crow Action Network in Kingston last year. The organization, like similar groups around the country, advocates for a range of reforms. Demands include the restoration of voting rights to convicted felons, an end to the for-profit private prison industry, abolishment of racial profiling and a shift away from prison and toward community-based intervention programs for drug offenders.
The group was formed, at least partially, in response to “Operation Clean Sweep.” The March 2012 multi-agency drug investigation led to 80 indictments for drug sales and dozens of prison sentences for the accused.
That sweep, and two more since, including Mop Up, focused on street-level drug dealing in Midtown Kingston. Taken together, the three drug sweeps netted 141 suspects. Based on an analysis of KPD mugshots 123 — or 87 percent — of those targeted in the undercover drug stings were black. According to 2010 census data Kingston’s population is just 13 percent African-American.
Those numbers are no surprise to Clarke. Since Clean Sweep, he said, he’s counseled an increasing number of families dealing with an incarcerated loved one or someone struggling with returning to the community after a drug-related prison stint. Clarke says he’s seen too many smart young men who could be an asset to their communities caught up in the cycle of drugs, incarceration and diminished prospects leading to recidivism.
“It is obvious to those of us who minister to disadvantaged communities that there are a disproportionate amount of black and brown men and women incarcerated for drug sales,” said Clarke. “It serves no social purpose other than to make some people appear to be hard-nosed law-and-order political figures.”
Winfield said that the point of the End the New Jim Crow Action Network was not to deny that there was a problem with drugs in the inner city or to bash local law enforcement. Winfield said the issue of mass incarceration was systemic. He cited state and federal grant programs that reward law enforcement agencies for going after low-level drug peddlers in urban areas. He also cited federal laws which until recently mandated far stiffer sentences for crack cocaine, most commonly associated with inner city African-Americans, than powder, most often sold by white and Latino dealers, as examples of how the system discriminates even when individual cops, judges and prosecutors do not.
“The police officers who walk the beat have their orders, they have to follow them,” said Winfield. “What we’re saying is that those orders are wrong and they should be changed.”
Carnright: We’re stopping violence
But District Attorney Holley Carnright said that going after street level drug dealers in high crime neighborhoods was part of a larger strategy aimed at dismantling gangs and preventing bloodshed. Operation Clean Sweep, he noted, was conceived to root out entrenched gang infrastructure in Midtown after a group of purported Bloods murdered a man to prevent him from testifying against a fellow gang member. Undercover drug sales — which are built by police working with a select number of confidential informants — offer an avenue to lock up violent criminals without having to convince a frightened civilian witness to testify against a gang with deep roots in the neighborhood. Many of the defendants targeted in the drug sweeps, police note, have gang ties and long rap sheets for non-drug crimes like robbery, assault and gun possession. The focus, they say is not on race or even drugs, but a violent criminal subculture.