According to Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson, it is time to “rethink our priorities” about drug crime and sentencing. She said, “I think that I am not the only district attorney in New York who thinks that it is time to rethink our priorities … in sentencing people to prison for nonviolent drug offenses.”

Wilkinson shared her views about the War on Drugs during a panel discussion and film screening at Cinemapolis hosted by Mayor Svante Myrick on Feb. 16. The film, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, is a sweeping indictment of the drug war. Released in 2012, the film, which garnered a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, addresses the disparate racial effects of the drug war, the private prison industry, and the human toll of policies of mass incarceration.

Although the primary story focuses on a family friend of Jarecki’s, it incorporates interviews with The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, The Wire creator David Simon, neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart, John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor David Kennedy, a variety of law enforcement officials, and a number drug users and dealers. The film’s unequivocal conclusion is that the War on Drugs has done more harm than good. As Simon tells viewers, “What drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against them has.”

At the film’s conclusion, local stakeholders engaged in a question-and-answer panel discussion regarding the local implications. Myrick offered some personal background in part of his response. “I was born under Reagan in the inner city to a black male,” he said. “My father was a drug addict. He was addicted to crack cocaine, and he was addicted for 20 years and he cycled in and out of jail and prison and rehab.

“The resources we have in Ithaca are far better than the resources where I was born … The one area I think we could improve … is that of housing.” Myrick explained that the city needs both transitional and affordable housing. He said, “If we can’t get you into housing first we can’t solve any of your other problems.”

“To me, housing is the number one priority that I want to attack on the issue of drugs in the City of Ithaca,” Myrick concluded.

In response to a question about how to decrease the U.S. prison population, which the film notes is the world’s highest, one audience member called out, “Just legalize it!” Myrick responded by noting that the War on Drugs has been fought primarily in poor neighborhoods, where drug exchanges occur out in the open and residents often do not have the means to get legally prescribed drugs.

“If we treated some of those illicit drugs more like legal drugs,” said Myrick, “we would stop criminalizing poverty. We don’t send drug users to prison. We send poor people who use drugs to prison.”

Myrick asked, “What can one city in a corrupt system do to set itself apart? This screening is a part of the effort to figure that out.” Another part of the effort, he explained, is the Ithaca Municipal Drug Policy Committee, a group of about 50 local stakeholders that has been meeting for nearly seven months.

In addition to Myrick and Wilkinson, the panel included Andrew Taylor of the Southern Tier AIDS Program, Jobe Zulu of the Ithaca Youth Bureau, John Stroud, Jennifer Radcliffe, and William Rusen, CEO of Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services.  •

This article was originally published in The Ithaca Times on Feb. 18, 2015.

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