Dealing with Drug Laws: A Tale of Two District Attorneys

A painting by Anthony Papa entitled VOTEA painting by Anthony Papa entitled VOTEAlbany County District Attorney David Soares is considered a hero by many for his bold stances and refreshing approaches to delivering justice. He first laid claim to this title in 2004 when he ran on a platform that advocated dramatic change in the draconian Rockefeller Drug laws that stood unchanged for 30 years. His victory over powerful incumbent Paul Clyne sent shock waves throughout the political landscape in New York’s capital.
Clyne was given a pink slip by voters for his vocal support of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and his staggering defeat triggered fear within the Republican Senate that they too might lose their jobs for not supporting Rockefeller reform.

Unlike many political figures that bob and weave themselves into office only to step away from the original platforms that brought them to victory, Soares has stuck to his guns and continues to speak out against inhumane and ineffective drug policies.

Recently, while speaking at an international harm reduction conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, he told the audience that his advice to Canada is to “stay as far away from America’s drug law policy as possible.” His comments echoed the criticisms he made of New York’s strict Rockefeller Drug Laws during his election campaign two years ago by saying “the attempt to engage in cleaning the streets of Albany one $20 sale on the street at a time is a failed policy.” He sticks by his view that more drug treatment, not more jail time, is the answer.

Only about 50 miles away, but worlds apart in their views, David Capeless, the Berkshire County District Attorney represents the polar opposite of Soares’ philosophy. He see’s the $20 method of policing his streets as an acceptable policy of law enforcement. Capeless recently pushed for and received a mandatory-minimum sentence of two years for 18 year-old Mitchell Lawrence for the $20 sale of one marijuana cigarette. It was part of a police sting operation that netted 19 defendants. Capeless has been harshly criticized by an array of concerned citizens for his use of utilizing school zone laws that mandate mandatory minimum sentencing, regardless of the circumstances. He has refused to use discretion for these first time non-violent offenders that were involved in small-time marijuana sales, turning his back on drug rehabilitation and other alternatives to imprisonment.

We have two District Attorneys with opposing views on how to deal with the issue of treatment vs. incarceration for drug offenders. Who is correct?

Recent studies have shown that treatment is the most humane and cost-effective approach to addiction. In November 2000, California passed an initiative that allows most people convicted of first and second-time nonviolent, simple drug possession to receive drug treatment instead of incarceration. More than 140,000 participants have entered the treatment program instead of imprisoning them resulting in the cost savings of approximately $1 billion.

“The financial benefits of Prop. 36 are more massive than expected. That’s the good news,” said Margaret Dooley, the Drug Policy Alliance’s Proposition 36 statewide coordinator. “But the great news is that over 60,000 people have completed treatment and have been able to rejoin their families and find work. This is the true measure of Prop. 36’s success.”

In a recent conversation with Soares, he told me that he desperately wants to defer drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, but the powers-that-be cut off his funding to do so. The recent reforms of New York’s drug laws did not include funding for community-based treatment. Without proper funding, increased numbers of people will be forced to compete for limited treatment slots. The cycle of addiction will continue, along with crime and recidivism.

With the defeat of Paul Clyne, voters spoke out against the irrational method of trying to arrest your way out of the drug problem. In Berkshire County, residents hope to give the same type of pink slip to District Attorney David Capeless in the upcoming Democratic primary on September 19. He is set to run against Judith Knight, a former assistant district attorney, who is supported by many, including a group called the Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice. They have openly and repeatedly confronted Capeless for his overzealous position.

With the election of Soares, the voters in Albany wanted more than outdated tough-on-crime zealots and chose Soares, who has chosen to be smart on crime. Now the voters of Great Barrington will soon have an opportunity to make a choice whether or not to re-elect David Capeless. If he is defeated, it will be part of a growing trend across the nation rewarding politicians that are smart on crime.


Anthony Papa is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance.

He can be reached at: [email protected].

Watch the Flash Movie: “Two Years for One Joint?”

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