Czech cops reveal a compartment used to conceal cocaine at a local airport in 2006. (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)
America is the world capital of mass incarceration, but life for former criminals doesn’t get any easier once they’re outside prison. Getting a job with a criminal record is often a nightmare. Schools will sometimes ask about your criminal history when you apply, making the process of getting new credentials or training awkward at best. And finding a place to live as a convicted felon isn’t always simple, either. In fact, there are nearly 50,000 state and federal statutes and rules that impose penalties of various stripes on criminals in the United States.
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Brooklyn sentenced a woman convicted of drug importation with intent to distribute to probation rather than prison time, basically on the logic that the restrictions on felons outside bars are punishment enough. Judge Frederic Block suggested anything more would be overkill, as the New York Times reports.
The defendant, Chevelle Nesbeth, was 20 years old last year when she got arrested at JFK Airport in Queens with 600 grams of coke in her luggage. Nesbeth claimed friends gave her the baggage, and she had no clue coke was inside—a classic Locked Up tale if ever there was one. Jurors didn’t buy it, though, and when they convicted her, Nesbeth was looking down the barrel of as much as three years in prison.
But rather than an aberration by one rogue jurist, some experts see the sentence handed down as a sign of a possible trend where judges look at a broken criminal justice system and take matters into their own hands.
“This has been ignored for a long time, what they call the collateral consequences, the things that happen to you besides criminal punishment when you get convicted of a crime,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a former Brooklyn cop and prosecutor. “How many pounds of flesh do you want for one mistake that somebody makes?
What remains to be seen is whether judges in other jurisdictions—Brooklyn’s federal bench has something of a reputation as an outspoken one—follow suit. And of course, there’s always the possibility that a backlash follows. Enacting reforms by passing laws is always going to be preferable to relying on individual judges to make decisions like this.
“No matter what you think of the drug war, it is a problem if judges start individually doing this kind of personalized interpretation of what the law should allow,” O’Donnell says, pointing out most blacks and Hispanics arrested over drugs barely have enough on them justify a conviction on possession grounds, much less intent to distribute or trafficking. “To me it’s more an indictment of the Congress that they haven’t fixed this yet.”
The Brooklyn judge went so far as to quote Michelle Alexander, a favorite of the criminal justice reform crowd who recently suggested Hillary Clinton “doesn’t deserve the black vote.”
“Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow,” Judge Block wrote in his opinion, citing Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
If nothing else, the ruling is a reminder that whoever’s in the White House next year, and regardless of what federal or local lawmakers decide to do about the ongoing national panic attack that is the war on drugs, it’s people—judges and prosecutors—who run the justice system. A fresh injection of humanity into the lifeblood of American law enforcement seems like a welcome adjustment.
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