Ending the Criminalization of Poverty, Mental Illness, and Substance Use
- The criminal punishment system was designed to reinforce anti-Black and ableist values. Incarceration and police contact has so often meant death for people with disabilities, especially for Black people with disabilities. Manhattan must elect a District Attorney who is committed to addressing the enormous harm prosecution, policing, and incarceration have inflicted upon these groups and who seeks to end the state’s control over them.
- As of January 2021, 52 percent of the Rikers Island population were deemed to have symptoms of a mental illness, making this jail the largest mental health provider in NY State. Vance’s office is the largest contributor to incarceration at Rikers and regularly interferes with treatment for those who need it, while imposing excessive monitoring without objective clinical support. His office embraces the myth that people with a mental illness are a threat to public safety, and before consenting to an alternative to incarceration, he requires that the accused person prove otherwise through invasive proffer sessions where the individual must admit guilt and disclose closely-held traumas to a stranger–a District Attorney who lacks any clinical training.
- Vance’s office challenges the findings of medical professionals hired by the courts to assess client/s competency to stand trial. His office regularly demands incarceration and monetary bail based on clients’ histories of mental illness and blocks access to treatment courts. Vance requires clients to plead guilty upfront to the most serious crimes charged in order to be offered alternatives to incarceration, and he seeks severe punishment, including jail, when clients are non-compliant as a result of their mental illness. Manhattan’s newly-elected DA should divert their enormous budget away from incarceration toward community groups and supportive housing for people with mental illnesses, removing law enforcement and courts from interfering.
- The criminalization of drugs similarly undermines public health and discriminates against Black and brown people. Drug prosecutions do nothing to help those who struggle with substance dependence; rather, they provide the police opportunities to surveil, search, and harm communities and selectively enforce drug laws. The Manhattan DA regularly prosecutes mere drug possession, indicts felony charges for small quantity sales, and seeks incarceration for folks who relapse during treatment. The office lacks a fundamental understanding of substance use disorder and ignores the recommendations of health experts. The newly-elected DA must decline to prosecute these cases and support the public health solutions that avoid court contact and punishment models. They must withdraw all Manhattan assistants currently assigned to the office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor and support legislation that abolishes this office. The DA should advocate to decriminalize and legalize controlled substances, especially for personal use, and to rectify the harm upon Black and brown communities caused by the War on Drugs.