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New York City police officers stop to observe two young people, who were not selling drugs but were hanging out on a known drug corner in the Bronx in the 1980s.
Commentary

Three Strikes Didn’t Work. It’s Time to Pay Reparations

Black and brown men paid the price for supplying what the recreational drug market demanded: cocaine and weed.

I was raised in the South Bronx in the late 1980s and ’90s. I came of age and into my consciousness while a generation of men of color were herded into the criminal justice system under the rigid, unyielding habitual offender laws — three-strikes laws — for nonviolent drug-related offenses.

As shown in decades of analyses, the legacy of that policy that swept neighborhoods and entire cities clean of young men has been families broken apart, household incomes systematically gutted and swaths of urban spaces left vulnerable and bereft.

To me and other kids in neighborhoods like mine, the national dragnet on black and brown men and boys manifested itself daily: An older brother no longer there to walk one of our classmates to school because he was at Rikers awaiting trial. A neighbor child stuck alone in her apartment while her mom worked the night shift because her father had “gone upstate,” the common euphemism for someone sent to a state prison near the border with Canada. For us in the Bronx, it might as well have been Siberia.

For many families at our high school and church, the signs of a disappeared brother, husband or son began to show slowly. At first, there was the void left in the home and the block. Then surfaced the additional restrictions put on other young men and women in the house: no staying out past 7 p.m., not even in summer when New York City apartments were often 10 degrees hotter than outside. No talking to anyone standing on a corner all day and exchanging cash for bags of weed with people with New Jersey and Connecticut plates. And absolutely no eye contact or small talk with police officers who roamed our streets in their cruisers all hours of the day and night. Mothers could not risk the consequences of us smart-mouthed kids speaking out-of-turn to a cop.

In time, those warnings grew into fears that frequently kept residents from calling the police, even when they perceived danger on their own street. Studies have shown that after the death of a black man at the hands of police, residents are less likely to dial 911. But that’s also part of the decades-long hindsight we now have; facts that are intractable to us today but that, when I was growing up in the quintessential American ghetto, were lost on authorities and policymakers in New York and around the country.

In my Bronx neighborhood, after fathers went upstate, mothers often had to work two jobs to keep families afloat, even in rent-controlled apartments. Or they had to do the unthinkable and apply for Section 8 and welfare to help care for an infant. Grandmas would arrive from the Caribbean to become the stay-at-home parent, do the cooking and cleaning, and keep their daughters from succumbing to their virtual widowhood.

Commentary

Original analysis and perspectives from across the spectrum on criminal justice

And all of this for what?

Warehousing these men did not end drug trafficking. Jailing them did not make neighborhoods safer. Disappearing them did not keep rich white suburban kids from overdosing, a problem that has grown demonstrably worse with the opioid crisis. The only thing these draconian drug laws accomplished was the election and re-election of politicians who had no understanding or willingness to learn about the true consequences of their power.

Today, the men who were taken from neighborhoods like mine are in their forties and fifties, having spent most of their lives in prison. Their families torn asunder, their children and siblings derailed, and their future — should they eventually be released — a total blank. The only way for states and the federal government to atone and begin to undo the damage is to commute their sentences, reverse their convictions, and pay these men reparations.

That means material reparations, not just symbolic amends. An official apology would be a good start. More tangible actions include erasing their records, as well as the creation of a dedicated services department similar to the Veterans Administration that can offer job placement help, mental health options, housing assistance, educational pathways and reintegration support for those who were excessively charged and over-incarcerated.

Mine is not a radical stance. It is one built over years of reporting on this lost generation of black and brown men who paid such a high price for supplying what the recreational drug market demanded: cocaine and weed. Today there’s a booming economy enriching white weedpreneurs ready to invest as states decriminalize marijuana. The injustice of this is transcendent, but that is not something we can ever change. So let’s push for states and the government to take bold and necessary action in helping these men become full citizens again.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the founder and CEO of Lantigua Williams & Co., a podcast network whose productions include Latina to Latina, Shot Caller and 70 Million, an open-source show debuting today to chronicle jail reform at the local level.