New York State Passes Important Legislation for Justice

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Melissa Moore of Drug Policy Alliance (M) speaks at a rally in support of the Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) alongside supporters of the bill on the steps on New York City Hall on November 21, 2019.
© 2019 Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa via AP Images

On Wednesday, the US state of New York enacted two groundbreaking pieces of legislation. One law will limit the cruel practice of solitary confinement, the other legalizes marijuana, and both laws will advance justice and protect rights.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) not only legalizes marijuana in New York by removing it from the state’s Controlled Substances Act, but it also takes funds generated by a sales tax on certain marijuana-related products and reinvests the money into communities most harmed by the drug war. It does so by funding community-based projects, including adult education services, job training, after school programs, and re-entry services for people recently released from custody. This will help repair the harm from decades of racist enforcement of drug laws, including arrests for possession of marijuana, as documented by Human Rights Watch and many others. The law also creates ways for people convicted of marijuana-related offenses to have their sentences removed or reclassified. New Mexico’s legislature simultaneously passed a similar bill that is awaiting its governor’s signature.

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act (HALT Solitary Act), which will go into effect in a year, limits the use of solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days and bars it entirely for several groups, including those 21 and younger, 55 and older, and people with disabilities. It also creates more humane, effective alternatives to solitary, limits its use to the most egregious conduct, and enhances procedural protections, staff capabilities, and transparency and accountability through mandatory reporting and oversight. Our research and that of others has shown that jail and prison staff often impose prolonged periods of isolation that could amount to torture under international human rights law for minor misconduct, and in conditions that are needlessly harsh, counterproductive, and inconsistent with recognition of each person’s basic humanity and dignity.

Human Rights Watch supported both pieces of legislation, which are part of the JusticeRoadmap for New York, which is taking on laws that target Black and brown communities. But it is the bold state lawmakers who supported the bills, advocates from the Drug Policy Alliance, which led efforts on the MRTA, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which led on the HALT Solitary Act, VOCAL-NY, and many others, some of whom were convicted of marijuana-related offenses or spent years in solitary confinement themselves, who are responsible for this victory. These laws will make New York a better, safer, fairer place to be.