Brian Flynn spoke about legalizing pot, rehabilitating prisoners and punishing opioid dealers during an in-depth interview on a criminal justice system he called “corrupt.”
The Greene County resident is competing against six other Democrats in the 19th District Primary to see who will take on Republican Congressman John Faso in November’s mid-term elections.
The racial and economic disparities in America’s criminal justice system must be resolved, Flynn said.
Though his campaign is about creating jobs and raising wages, just as important is “removing those barriers that have kept people down and out,” he said, “and I think one of those barriers is, in fact, our pretty unevolved and corrupt criminal justice system, which is one of the reasons I’m obsessed with it.”
Flynn talked of reforming certain laws to balance out the justice system, as well as re-thinking the ways laws are implemented and by whom.
During the 45-minute interview, there was one subject Flynn came back to several times: Mary Jane.
Flynn said he has been for federally legalizing recreational pot “for a long time,” arguing it would cut down on racial disparities in arrests, enrich the 19th District’s communities, and cut down on the number of people in jail awaiting trial by unclogging the court system.
Legalization would also “take some of the power away from the monopolistic pharmaceutical companies,” Flynn said, which he believes need to be held accountable for kicking off the opioid crisis.
“[Marijuana] is an effective and safe pain management alternative to opioids,” Flynn said, adding he felt the pharmaceutical, alcohol and tobacco industries were actively working against legalization.
Pot can also reduce symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in veterans, he said.
“We have some vets who are on our staff at our campaign, and they’ve talked to us openly about this, how they, and a lot of their vet colleges, could’ve used marijuana as a way of dealing with PTSD,” he said.
The Veteran’s Affairs Administration (VA) not looking into pot to ameliorate PTSD symptoms is “a typical case of the corrupt special interests,” Flynn said.
The VA cannot prescribe or recommend marijuana, even in states where it is legal.
Legalization would also create tax revenue, Flynn said.
Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana by referendum in late 2012, collected nearly a quarter-billion dollars from various pot taxes in 2017, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Flynn also mentioned job creation as a positive to legalization, and responded to a question about existing pot dealers being put out of business by corporations (a fear expressed by dealers in the Hudson Valley) by saying the dealers could legitimize their businesses.
“[Pot dealers] can become entrepreneurs — which they are now — but I’m suggesting that they would actually be able to come out of the shadows and get the benefits of being a real business leader,” Flynn said, adding they would benefit in other ways, such as being able to receive health insurance through their jobs.
When asked if he would have a problem with the number of recreational pot smokers rising if pot was legalized, Flynn laughed.
“No, not at all, no,” he responded.
Pot crimes are one of the non-violent offenses clogging the courts system, Flynn said, and pre-trial detention was another aspect of the justice system he thinks should change.
There are two basic ways to be incarcerated in the U.S. — in jails or in prisons. Prisons are for those who have been sentenced to more than a year. The crimes tend to be significant — two-thirds of the New York state prison population are there for violent felony charges, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision — and 99 percent of prisoners have actually been convicted (the other one percent are there for parole violations).
Jails, on the other hand, are for those sentenced for a year or less, or for those slogging through the court system who haven’t gotten the option of getting out on bail, or who have not been able pay the bail offered.
Seventy-three percent of New Yorkers in jail fall into this second category, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services — those incarcerated who have never been convicted.
Waiting for a trial is often a lengthy process. In Columbia County, the average person had to wait 351 days for their trial to begin, according to 2016 and 2017 data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Statistics.
This system causes those charged with minor crimes to sign off on plea bargains they might not otherwise accept to expedite their case, Flynn said.
“You’ve got situations where people are charged with misdemeanors, low-level crimes, [who] can’t make bail, and basically plead out…because they have to get out of jail,” Flynn said.
Judges should set bail taking into consideration the defendant’s means, Flynn said, or else the wealthy are able to walk free, and others are jailed without being convicted because of their income level.
The U.S. should focus less on punitive justice and more on restorative justice, Flynn said.
“It seems from the outside (that) we pretty much have an eye-for-an-eye approach with the way we punish people for crimes,” he said. “My thinking is restorative justice is a more integrated approach that actually looks to rehabilitate people.”
“Restorative justice” doesn’t aim for retribution, but instead, aims to correct the harm visited upon the victims or the community by emphasizing amends and accountability.
The federal government should provide guidelines for state legislatures emphasizing restorative justice, and free up judges to give out more restorative sentences by doing away with federal mandatory minimum sentences, Flynn said.
“Let’s actually look at the data and see what works and what doesn’t work…many times we’re paying to keep non-violent criminals in jail, when, if we could find a rehabilitative approach, we could get them out of jail quickly. There’s two benefits,” Flynn said. “One, they’re back in society and contributing, and the second thing is, we are, in fact, spending less money keeping them incarcerated.”
The U.S. spends $80.7 billion a year to incarcerate people and on the probation and parole systems, according to the Prison Policy Institute, and an additional $29 billion on the criminal court system.
Flynn’s progressive approach to incarceration only goes to far, however. When asked about heroin and fentanyl dealers, he draws a hard line in the sand.
“If you’re dealing pot — no one’s going die of an overdose from pot, but if you’re actually increasing the use of fentanyl, you’re really giving people death sentences,” he said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid up to 50 times as powerful as heroin that has erupted into the black market in the last few years. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids such as Tramadol killed more people in the U.S. in 2016 than heroin, and the number of people dying from these drugs increased six-fold in just three years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Though he is for a rehabilitative approach to users, Flynn said dealers should continued to be held responsible for the opioid epidemic.
When asked about a federal law allowing dealers to be charged in their customers’ overdose deaths, Flynn said he was a supporter.
“Y’know, at this point, based on the number of friends and neighbors that I’ve seen killed…I’m OK with that,” he said.
The law, which has only been used a handful of times, carries a minimum of 20 years in prison, and a maximum of life.
However, Flynn also said the U.S. should also hold the “original source” of the opioid epidemic responsible — pharmaceutical companies that produce and market prescription painkillers.
A big part of Flynn’s stance on criminal justice reform is taking away the racial disparities in arrests and incarceration. It’s another reason Flynn wants to legalize pot — he cited a report by Politico ___ revealing that blacks and Latinos made up 86 percent of arrests in New York City for fifth-degree possession of marijuana — the offense handed out to people accused of smoking pot in public or possessing between 25 grams and four ounces of the drug.
Another way to decrease these disparities is by making the criminal justice system more reflective of the population, Flynn said. There should not only be more minority and women police officers, but “targeted recruiting” of minorities and women for district attorney (DA) positions, he added.
The DAs representing the 11 counties in NY-19 are all white, but are elected, and therefore could not be recruited. However, the majority of criminal prosecutors in these counties are not DAs, but assistant district attorneys, who are hired.
Flynn is opposed to the death penalty in all cases, even in one that affected him directly.
Flynn’s brother was killed in the 1988 Lockerbie Bombing, where a bomb denotated on a Pan Am flight over Scotland, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 people on the ground.
The one man arrested in the attack, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, was released by the Scottish government after serving less than nine years of his life sentence because he had developed cancer.
Flynn, who had become an advocate for the victims of the attack, wrote several op-eds at the time railing against the decision.
However, even this terrorist should not be executed, Flynn said.
“Even in light of that experience, I never even considered the death penalty,” he said. “It doesn’t work, its inefficient, it is immoral, it violates fundamental human rights — everything about it is wrong, and it should be eliminated.”
Laws should be passed by Congress to eliminate the death penalty as a sentence for federal crimes, and the federal government should also look at providing guidelines for states to prevent them from using the punishment, Flynn said.