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Two Victories Against Mass Incarceration


The ruling by federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin against New York’s stop-and-frisk policing is the equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education applied to unconstitutional policing. Coupled with Attorney General Eric Holder’s order to end mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug offenders, the new policies are a huge victory for critics of the mass incarceration resulting from decades of politically inspired wars on gangs and drugs.

The conflict is far from over. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg vows to carry his fight for stop-and-frisk to the higher courts, leaving his crusade up to the next New York City mayor. California Governor Jerry Brown, whose advocacy of mandatory minimum sentencing led to California’s mass incarceration crisis, continues to reject the demands of hunger strikers in solitary confinement.

But official words matter. The New York judge found the New York Police Department guilty of “indirect racial profiling” on a massive and continuing scale. Holder said, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”

Turning around the institutions of the law-and-order gulag will be like turning around a super-tanker, slow, monotonous and risk-filled. But the end of the old order has begun, without a consensus on what new visions will fill the vacuum.

These are historic victories for the grass roots movements who have pressed for juvenile justice, police reform and gang peace processes for thirty years. Attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights and the national ACLU deserve credit for the stop-and-frisk decision after many years of toiling at the margins. Funding from the Soros foundation was essential to the effort.

Stop and Frisk Continues in Los Angeles

Los Angeles has managed so far to avoid a similar stop-and-frisk controversy partly because of the federal consent decree and reform of the Los Angeles Police Department, which took place during New York’s stop-and-frisk wars. As a Los Angeles Times editorial on the Scheindlin decision said, “As least one study of the reformed LAPD found higher rates of stops, frisks, arrests and searches of blacks and Latinos than whites.”

That is a massive understatement. According to a 2009 Harvard analysis requested and promoted by former LAPD Chief William Bratton, stops by LAPD officers rose from 587,200 in 2002 to 875,204 in 2008. Pedestrian stops doubled and motorists stops increased by 40 percent in those years, almost entirely in inner city precincts, inflicted on young people of color. This was a deliberate policy of using arresting powers “more aggressively for less serious crimes,” according to the Harvard study. (Link to Hayden-Garcia Dec. 17, 2010 letter to LA police commission)