Hakeem Jeffries ’97, a Brooklyn-based member of the New York State Assembly who announced his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives just last week, expressed his reform-minded legislative priorities candidly on January 23 in the annual Guarini Lecture, part of the Public Interest Law Center’s Leaders in Public Interest Series.

Now in his fifth year as a member of the legislature, Jeffries, who clerked at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and worked as a litigator at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison before taking office, explained he had wanted to use his advocacy skills and other training from NYU Law and legal practice on behalf of his central Brooklyn community. Citing housing, education, unemployment, and the criminal justice system as issues of particular concern, he asked, “How do we create a more perfect union?”

Hakeem Jeffries and Frank GuariniJeffries decried the prison industrial complex, akin to the military industrial complex, which, he said, created incentive to funnel less-privileged individuals into the penal system. Rattling off the four punishment objectives he had learned studying criminal law—deterrence, retribution, incapacitation, and rehabilitation—Jeffries said there now seemed to be a fifth one: economic development.

Explaining that, in the 1970s and 1980s, economically depressed communities upstate had enjoyed a financial boost when prisons were built there, Jeffries argued that “an entire economy has grown up around the notion that when you get older you will not be able to find a job in an automobile plant, but you can find a job as a correctional officer in a prison…. These facilities had become part and parcel with the economic survival of certain communities.” State senators from those areas had fought attempts to reduce the number of correctional facilities, and many of the inmates were poor minorities from New York City and a handful of inner-city communities elsewhere in the state, he said.

Jeffries worked with his colleagues to repeal the “draconian” Rockefeller drug laws that sent non-violent first-time offenders to prison for as long as 25 years. “I’m not an advocate of the legalization of drugs,” he said, “but I am an advocate for a fair and rational and even-handed drug policy.”

He also took aim at the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practice, a program under which hundreds of thousands of individuals are stopped, questioned, frisked, and searched every year. Almost 90 percent of those stopped, most of whom are black or Latino, are never charged, Jeffries said, yet the NYPD had put the names and personal information of more than a million in an electronic database. Jeffries sponsored a successful bill to shut the database down.

Despite the demise of the Rockefeller drug laws, he said, the past decade had seen an explosion of arrests in New York City for the possession of small quantities of marijuana—more than half a million in all—even though a 1977 law had downgraded marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a violation if the substance was not in plain view. But stop-and-frisk searches complicated the issue for a subgroup composed primarily of minority youths.

“All of a sudden it’s in plain view, the handcuffs go on, and that is the reason why we’ve seen an explosion in marijuana arrests,” said Jeffries. “In the view of many of us it’s classic entrapment, and it’s fundamentally unfair.” Although studies show that whites and minorities use marijuana roughly equally, he said, 85 percent of arrests are of minorities. “It can’t be criminal activity for one group of people and socially acceptable behavior for others.”

As a result of the criminal record resulting from such an arrest, many find they cannot get a job, enter college, or secure financial aid or public housing. Jeffries has introduced legislation to make plain-view possession a simple violation “so we can end the practice of needlessly ruining the lives of tens of thousands of individuals.”

He also authored a bill to reform the manner in which the census counts prisoners for purposes of legislative redistricting. Historically, the incarcerated have been included with the population of the locale in which they are serving prison time, even though most are temporary visitors who will return to their typically disadvantaged communities.

New York State Republicans hold a two-vote majority in the senate, Jeffries said, due to this practice: seven districts, all represented by senators on the political right, meet the minimum population requirement only because of their prisoners. Those politicians, he argued, “come to Albany on the backs of the incarcerated individuals who are counted as residents of those communities to then vote to sustain the policies that fuel the prison industrial complex.” Jeffries’s bill became law in 2010, making New York only the second state to count prisoners as residents of their home communities.

Jeffries concluded by returning to the question he had posed at the beginning. “How do we create a more perfect union? I’m hopeful that through our reforms in the criminal justice system we’ve taken a few steps forward in that regard, and I’m looking forward to continuing the fight in this area and beyond.”

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 3 min):