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April 18, 1994

1994.04.18: Michael Letwin, SENTENCING ANGELA THOMPSON (NY Law Journal, April 18, 1994)

New York Law Journal
Volume 211, Number 73
Monday, April 18, 1994



By Michael Letwin

AS AUTOMATIC weapons fire strikes down our city’s children, New Yorkers are right to demand an end to drug-related violence. But “drug war” policies — the latest of which is Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “buy and bust” SNAG program — only serve to further damage inner-city neighborhoods, while failing to reduce drug use or drug-related violence.

Such damage was highlighted in a late-March decision from the New York Court of Appeals concerning the fate of Angela Thompson, an African-American single mother from Harlem, who at the age of 17 was tried and found guilty of a 2.1 ounce sale of crack cocaine to an undercover police officer, a mere 33 grains over the two-ounce threshold for an A-1 felony drug sale.

At her initial sentencing, Judge Juanita Bing Newton had taken note of her age, early separation from her parents, lack of any previous criminal record, uncle’s role in recruiting her into his illegal drug business, and earlier offer by the prosecution of a sentence of 3-years-to-life in exchange for foregoing a trial.

Under these circumstances, decided Justice Newton, a former prosecutor, it was unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” to impose the 15-year-to-life mandatory minimum sentence required by the draconian Rockefeller-era drug laws. Instead, the judge gave Ms. Thompson a still hefty sentence of eight years to life.

The Appellate Division, First Department affirmed the lower sentence with the observation that otherwise Ms. Thompson would spend more time in prison than such infamous violent offenders as Amy Fisher and Robert Chambers.

On the prosecution’s appeal, however, the Court of Appeals majority (incongruously citing my law review article about the failure of New York City’s drug war) told Ms. Thompson — who during five years in prison has been enrolled in a college program — that she must serve the full mandatory minimum 15-year-to-life sentence decreed by the State Legislature.

While Ms. Thompson’s case is perhaps extreme, it reflects a broader pattern which has condemned one in four young African-American male New Yorkers to jail, prison, probation or parole.

The primary reason for this rate — which far exceeds South Africa’s — is the war on drugs. Although a majority of those who use and sell drugs are white, African-Americans and Latinos make up 93.6 percent of the drug offenders in New York’s prisons, while 64.7 percent of the women in the state’s prisons — 92.5 percent of whom are people of color — are there for drug offenses.

Ironically, however, these drug war casualties have been in vain. For as the Court of Appeals freely admitted in the Angela Thompson decision, “the harsh mandatory treatment of drug offenders has failed to deter drug trafficking or control the epidemic of drug abuse in society.”

This frank assessment is unassailable. When the Rockefeller drug laws went into effect in January 1973, there were 12,500 people in the state’s prisons. By 1993, under mass arrest programs such as the Tactical Narcotics Teams (TNT), that number had soared to some 65,000, of whom 22,179, or just over one-third, are drug offenders.

Every year it costs $30,000 to house each of these prisoners at institutions that don’t provide meaningful drug treatment, job training, education or other rehabilitation. The Cuomo administration has spent nearly $6 billion since 1983 alone to build and maintain 29,000 new prison cells, surpassing the record of all previous administrations combined.

And yet, this explosion of incarceration has utterly failed to undermine the combustible chemistry of unrelieved urban poverty, illegal drugs, and violence.

People seeking a temporary escape from the grim hopelessness of their daily lives commit robberies and burglaries to support their crack habit. Still greater violence — including planned executions and bystander shootings — is similarly generated by the artificially inflated profit in street-level drug trade, a prime employment opportunity for teenagers like Angela Thompson who face dwindling inner-city economic opportunity.

– – – –

THIS DRUG-RELATED violence has far surpassed the gangster era of early 20th century alcohol prohibition in transforming inner-city neighborhoods into free-fire kill zones.

For young people facing these conditions, lengthy prison sentences just aren’t much of a deterrent. Such sentences do, however, promote still further damage to inner-city communities. As the Appellate Division warned when upholding Angela Thompson’s reduced sentence, “[A] system of justice which mandates a 15-year prison sentence, as a minimum, on a 17-year-old girl also mandates a lifetime of crime and imposes on the community, upon her release, a woman who may be incapable of anything but criminal activity.”

Drug war policies, therefore, not only erase Angela Thompson’s future, but also represent a ritual sacrifice by which, in the court’s words, “we condemn ourselves as well.”

Governor Cuomo can use executive clemency to reverse some of the damage to Angela Thompson and save the $300,000 New Yorkers will otherwise spend to keep her locked up for 10 more years. The State Legislature can help avert such futility in the future by passing 1994 Assembly Bill A-7693, which would permit judges the discretion to go beneath mandatory minimum drug sentences in the interests of justice.

To save our city from the plague of drug-related violence, however, we must heed U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who has issued a politically-courageous call for public discussion of decriminalizing drugs in order to undercut the profit, desperation and violence with which they are now hopelessly intertwined. Only a policy which such sweeping vision — backed up by decent jobs, health care, education and drug treatment on demand — can offer our children a future other than poverty, shootings and prison.

Michael Letwin, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, is an adjunct professor at the CUNY Law School Defender Clinic.

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