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Sentencing: Vermont Bill Lowering Thresholds for Trafficking Charges Advances

A bill that would decrease the amount of drugs like cocaine or heroin necessary for people to be charged as presumptive drug traffickers was unanimously approved by the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday. The vote came two weeks after the same committee voted to lower the criminal penalties for people possessing small amounts of marijuana.

The bill, S-250, would reduce the amount of cocaine necessary to support a trafficking charge from 300 grams to 150 grams and the amount of heroin from seven grams to 3.5 grams. The amounts of the drugs needed to support conspiracy charges would also be halved, from 800 to 400 grams of cocaine and from 20 to 10 grams of heroin. People charged as traffickers would face up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Sen. Richard Sears (D-Bennington), the chairman of the committee, said the bill is aimed at stopping the inflow of hard drugs into Vermont from larger, out-of-state cities in Massachusetts, New York and Canada. He cited violence around the drug trade and reports of drug dealers hooking young women on drugs and forcing them into prostitution.

"The violence we've seen, from the problems in Rutland to the recent slashing in Bennington, reinforces the need for the justice system to have more tools," Sears said. "We are sending a message that we won't have this happening in our communities," Said Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), the bill's sponsor. Anyone possessing the quantities of drugs listed in the bill is probably a dope dealer, he said. "With the amounts that are outlined here, we are still talking about a big business," he explained.

The bill has the strong support of Vermont's drug abuse bureaucracy and law enforcement, and will probably pass. No word yet on what the long-term costs of imprisoning violators for decades will be.

Crack Sentencing Gets a Hearing on Capitol Hill While Advocates Mobilize

With the early release of some crack cocaine prisoners set to get underway next week and pressure mounting to do something about the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, the House of Representatives this week turned its attention to the issue. A Tuesday hearing in the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security saw spirited discussion of both retroactive sentence reductions for current crack prisoners and a number of bills that seek to address the disparities between crack and powder sentences.

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Alva Mae Groves died in prison at age 86 while serving a 24-year crack cocaine sentence after refusing to testify against her children. (photo courtesy november.org)
Also Tuesday, as House members debated the merits of the various proposals, drug reform, civil rights, and civil liberties groups led a day of lobbying on the Hill. Key for the activists was maintaining retroactivity so that sentence reductions for crack offenders will apply to those currently imprisoned and persuading Congress members to come together behind a sentencing reform bill that will reduce disparities.

The day of lobbying was kicked off with a morning press conference featuring Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Bobby Rush (D-IL), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), and Chris Shays (R-CT), as well as former crack prisoners Dorothy Gaines and Michael Short, who was granted clemency in December by President Bush after serving more than 15 years. After that, it was on to the Hill.

"We were in meetings all day," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which joined forces with state delegations and national organizations including the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums in the day of action on the Hill. "There were a lot of good interactions, and there is a lot of optimism about the prospects for change on the Hill. There is a strong sense that legislation could move in the next week or two," he said.

The question is which legislation? At least four bills -- H.R. 79, H.R. 360, H.R. 4545, and H.R. 5035 -- that would address the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity have been introduced in the House, and there are more in the Senate. They mandate changes ranging from completely equalizing crack and powder sentencing to reducing the discrepancy to a ratio of 20:1.

Under current sentencing laws, written during the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only 5 grams of crack. That 100:1 disparity has resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of people, mostly black (even though most crack users are white), for lengthy periods of time.

"It appears that most members of Congress, as well as the public, agree that the current disparity in crack and powder cocaine penalties is not justified and that it should be fixed," said subcommittee chair Rep. Scott as he kicked off Tuesday's hearing. "However, there is not yet a clear consensus on what that fix should be."

The basis for the sentencing disparity between crack and powder was based not on science or evidence, "but political bidding based on who could be the toughest on the crack epidemic that was believed to be sweeping America several years ago," Scott said. "There is certainly no sound basis for a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the mere possession of five grams of crack, when you could get probation for possessing a ton of powder, because mandatory minimum sentences for powder only apply to distribution, not possession cases."

Scott then offered his bill, H.R. 5035, as the best fix. "It is a simple bill that goes the furthest in addressing the problems in the current cocaine sentencing laws," Scott said. "First, it eliminates the legal distinction between crack and powder cocaine, treating them as the same drug, which they are. The bill also eliminates all mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine offenses. And lastly, it authorizes funding for state and federal drug courts, which have both proven to be effective in preventing recidivism and saving money, when compared to longer periods of incarceration."

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), one of the architects of tough crack sentencing laws in the 1980s, was singing a different tune Tuesday -- as he has for some years now. "There's no question in my mind that those people who thought that people involved with possession of crack should be sentenced at higher thought that it would in some way serve the community better," he said. "Clearly, that is not the case, and we find that to take the discretion in determining who goes to jail and who doesn't go to jail is showing lack of confidence in our judges."

Rep. Jackson-Lee, whose own bill, H.R. 4545, also addresses the crack-powder sentencing disparity, said it was time to "finally eliminate the unjust and unequal" disparities and "right the wrongs" created by the harsh anti-drug laws of the 1980s. "For the last 21 years," said Jackson-Lee, "we have allowed people who have committed similar crimes to serve drastically different sentences for what we now know are discredited and unsubstantiated differences."

It wasn't entirely an anti-disparity, pro-reform love fest in the committee, though. Ranking minority member Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said that while he supported efforts to redress the crack-powder sentencing disparity, he was worried that the Sentencing Commission's decision to make changes in the sentencing guidelines retroactive would lead to the release of violent criminals. "As a former judge and chief justice, I am vigilantly reluctant to legislatively overturn the past judgment of judges or juries, who were in the best position to consider the offense and the offender," he said.

He was echoed by a Justice Department representative. "Any reforms should come from the Congress, not the US Sentencing Commission; and second, any reforms, except in very limited circumstances, should apply only prospectively, not retroactively," testified Gretchen Schappert, US Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, laying out the Justice Department position. "We continue to believe that a variety of factors fully justify higher penalties for crack offenses. It has been said, and certainly it has been my experience, that whereas powder cocaine destroys an individual, crack cocaine destroys a community." DOJ chief Michael Mukasey has been trying to stymie retroactive releases as well, and the DOJ home page currently devotes its top link to a speech he gave to the Fraternal Order of Police on the topic.

But the committee also heard from Michael Short, a Baltimore man who served nearly 16 years in prison for selling two ounces of crack before President Bush granted him clemency last year. "I know what I did was wrong," Short told the committee. "I sold illegal drugs, and I deserved to be punished. But what I did and who I was did not justify the sentence I received. And while today I am telling my story, it is also the story of many men that I know in prison, nonviolent offenders serving 10, 20 or 30 years for crack cocaine offenses. I did not need 20 years to convince me of the error in my ways, to punish me or to set me on a right path. My sentence was altogether too long. It was too long because of the way the law treats crack cocaine. Twenty years is the kind of sentence that drug kingpins should get -- big-time drug dealers. But I was not a drug kingpin. I was sentenced like one, because the drug I was convicted for was crack cocaine."

Short also took issue with the characterization by the Justice Department and some committee members of crack offenders as dangerous criminals. "I have heard some of the comments some people in positions of power have made about crack cocaine prisoners -- that we are violent gang members and that this is why our sentences have to be so much longer. I am not that person, and most of the people that I leave behind in prison aren't either," he said. "Although I made a terrible mistake, there was no violence in my crime. I was not a gang member. I was sentenced for such a long time because of a stereotype."

Now, with hearings having been held in both chambers of the Congress -- the Senate held one two weeks ago -- it is time to get those bills moving. And that is what is happening behind the scenes on the Hill, said Piper.

"Senators Sessions, Biden, and Hatch are sitting down and trying to work out a compromise," he said. "They're trying to come up with something they can all agree on that will also pass on the floor. My sense is that it will not be the complete elimination of the sentencing disparity, but somewhere in between Hatch's 20:1 ratio and Biden's 1:1. It will likely end up being 5:1 or 10:1," Piper predicted.

Reducing the crack-powder sentencing disparity would be a "wonderful development," said Robert Weiner, former public affairs director for drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "These sentences are just crazy, they're part of the gross distortion of the criminal justice system. If you're going to do the crime, you should do the time, but it should be the same time for the same crime," he said.

But the Justice Department's strident effort to roll back retroactivity could throw a wrench in the works, Piper warned. "That is a complicating factor," he conceded. "We hope to keep that out of any compromise bill. Thousands of families are waiting for their loved ones to come home soon, and we don't want to disappoint them."

Now, after years of inaction, Congress may finally act. But it's not a done deal yet, and there is many an obstacle between here and the passage of a bill that would restore a measure of justice to crack cocaine sentences.

Opponents of Marijuana Reform Constantly Contradict Themselves

This article on a marijuana decriminalization effort in New Hampshire provides a useful case study in the utter confusion and desperation of the anti-pot peanut gallery:
…Exeter Police Chief Richard Kane, among others, is adamantly opposed. "If we reduce the penalty for small amounts of marijuana, it will eventually lead to legalization and I think that's heading in the wrong direction," he said last week.

Nashua Police Chief Donald Conley also said it would be a mistake to take the sting out of the law. [Boston Globe]
So the Police Chief begins by arguing that we must go around stinging people for possessing pot. But when reform advocates argue that too many young lives are being derailed by harsh punishments for petty offenses, Conley completely changes his tune:
But Conley said it is rare for first-time offenders to get jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"As far as someone getting arrested and their lives being ruined, I don't think that's the case," he said. "Employers are more forgiving in this day and age, and police prosecutors frequently reduce marijuana cases down to violations…"
Wait, so should we be stinging people or not? He begins by defending aggressive sanctions and ends by claiming the sanctions aren't aggressive. The contradiction is transparent and embarrassing.

It is, in fact, not at all uncommon to hear defenders of harsh marijuana laws speak approvingly of the fact that most offenders avoid jail time. Thus, it is not necessarily the practice of ruining lives for marijuana which they crave, but rather the discretion to do so should the urge happen to arise. Meanwhile, millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans are branded as criminals so that people like Chief Conley can live out their authoritarian fantasies.
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Drug Policy Alliance: Crack the Disparity -- Call the U.S. Senate Now!

[Courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance] 

Imagine being able to reform one of the worst federal drug laws of all time. You can do it. The draconian crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is on the ropes. We need you to provide the knock-out punch.

Today is a national call-in day on the issue. Please take a few minutes to call your two U.S. Senators and urge them to “eliminate the crack/powder disparity by supporting S. 1711, The Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act.” If you can’t call today, that’s OK. Call as soon as you can. Any time this week would be great. It's easy--our website will give you the phone numbers and tell you what to say.

Make a Call

Two weeks ago the Senate Crime and Drugs Subcommittee had historic hearings on the crack/powder issue. The House Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee is having hearings this week. The Drug Policy Alliance and almost a dozen other national groups are bringing in people from around the country to lobby key members of Congress tomorrow.

Support for reform is growing in both the House and Senate and among both Democrats and Republicans. We hope legislation reducing or eliminating the disparity will move within the next couple of weeks.

It’s not every day we have an opportunity to reduce government waste, improve public safety, promote fairness and restore some sanity to U.S. drug policy. So I hope you take a few minutes to make two phone calls.

Phone calls will make the biggest impact in this campaign. But if you can't call, you can look up the email addresses and fax numbers for your two U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/ .

You can find fact sheets, talking points and articles about crack/powder reform here.

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance Network 

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Stop Filling Prisons, California -- Advocates to Take Sentencing Reform Case to Voters

California's prison system is in crisis. With some 172,000 inmates, the state's prison system is second only to the federal system in size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to nearly $8 billion annually. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from cdcr.ca.gov)
In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was considering a plan to release some 22,000 nonviolent inmates early in response to the festering crisis. But that one-shot approach would not deal with the systemic problems and policies that created the prison crisis in the first place.

Now, after years of inaction in Sacramento in the face of the crisis, a well-funded initiative campaign that would result in a seismic shift in California sentencing and prison policies, especially when it comes to drug offenders and those whose offenses are related to their problematic drug use, has gotten underway. Dubbed the Non-Violent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), the initiative would dramatically expand the treatment and diversion options made available under a previous reform initiative, Proposition 36, as well as reform parole and probation programs, and make simple marijuana possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor.

About 35,000 California inmates, or about 20% of the prison population, are doing time for drug offenses. An unknown number, certainly in the thousands and possibly in the tens of thousands, are doing time for offenses related to their drug use. It is these offenders and their future brethren at whom the NORA initiative is aimed.

Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Santa Monica-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, the people who engineered the successful Prop. 36 campaign, the NORA initiative would:

  • Create a multi-track diversion program for adult offenders. Track I provides for treatment for nonviolent drug possession offenders with a plea held in abeyance during treatment. For those who wash out of Track I, Track II provides Prop 36-style treatment after conviction, with graduated sanctions for probation violations, including eventual jail time. Track III is an expansion of existing drug court programs, with stronger sanctions than the other tracks. Judges would have the discretion to use Track III not only for drug offenders, but for any non-violent offenders whose crimes are linked to their drug use. Track III would be mandatory for those identified as "high-cost offenders" (five arrests in the past 30 months). The initiative would fund the diversion and treatment program at $385 million per year.
  • Create drug treatment programs for youth. NORA would invest about $65 million a year to build a prevention and treatment program for young people where none currently exists.
  • Require California prisons to provide rehabilitation programs to all exiting inmates at least 90 days before release and for up to a year after release at state expense.
  • Allow nonviolent prisoners to earn sentence reductions with good behavior and by participating in rehabilitation programs.
  • Cut parole periods for qualifying nonviolent offenders to between six and 12 months, instead of the current up to three years. Early discharge from parole could be gained with completion of a rehabilitation program.
  • Make simple marijuana possession an infraction (ticketing offense) instead of a misdemeanor.

Not only would NORA mean freedom for thousands of nonviolent drug and drug-related offenders, it would also save California billions of dollars. Prop. 36 is estimated to have saved at least $1.3 billion in five years by diverting offenders to treatment, and the California Legislative Analyst's Office projects that NORA could generate a billion dollars a year in savings for the prison system, as well as obviating the need for a one-time prison-building outlay of $2.5 billion.

Paid canvassers for NORA are already hitting the streets in California. They have until April 21 to gather some 435,000 valid signatures to put the measure on the November ballot. NORA will make that goal, organizers vowed.

"We've just announced this to our members and started gathering signatures," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Southern California office of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "We're very excited. It looks like the largest sentencing and prison reform in American history will be on the November ballot."

"This is Prop 36 on steroids," said Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML. "If it passes, this will lead to a comprehensive rewrite of all of California's laws regarding sentencing, probation, and parole for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. And this is a professional campaign. The measure will be on the ballot in November," he flatly predicted.

"Prop. 36 has been such a success, it has been extensively studied and proven, but the biggest problem is that it isn't big enough," said Dooley-Sammuli. "Combined with the difficulty of getting any prison reform through and of even obtaining adequate funding for existing reforms because of the impasse in Sacramento -- we've seen so many prison reforms die there -- we thought we really needed to put this on the ballot for stable funding, more treatment, and more diversion," she said.

"But NORA is not just about expanding Prop. 36," Dooley-Sammuli was quick to point out. "This is primarily a prison and sentencing reform effort. It brings common sense solutions to the problem of over-incarceration in California, especially the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders in this state."

"The state has been incredibly reluctant and negligent in addressing the whole problem of nonviolent prisoners," said Gieringer. "Every effort to extricate drug offenders from the prison system has been seen as a political hot potato and has gone nowhere. Sentencing reform is political poison in Sacramento, yet we have this simmering prison crisis here in California."

If the politicians refuse to act, said Gieringer, it is time to take the issue directly to the voters. "This initiative is very justified because of the negligence of California's political class in not dealing with these issues," he said. "In fact, it is overdue, and now we the people have to try to come to grips with the failure of our political leaders to act. And I think we have the public on our side. The polling on this has been very favorable. Most people think nonviolent drug offenses should be handled with treatment, not prison."

"We have federal judges considering whether to take over the entire state prison system," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We don't have solutions coming out of Sacramento. We have very real budget problems that mean we can't afford to keep spending what we are on incarceration. NORA reallocates state spending from incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation, so we will end up with substantial savings over time," she predicted.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's move to release some prisoners early is necessary, but not sufficient, said Dooley-Sammuli. What is needed is not one-shot fixes, but systemic reforms, she said. "NORA is not a one-time opening of the jailhouse gates," said Dooley-Sammuli, "This is about systemic change in our sentencing and parole practices. This is not radical; it's common sense. This is not soft on crime; this is smart on crime. NORA will allow us to get past the politicking and get some solutions."

At this point early in the campaign season, there is no organized opposition, but that is almost certain to change. Too many powerful groups, from prosecutors to prison guards, benefit from the status quo, and fear-mongering on crime issues is a perennial favorite among politicians.

"The question is whether there will be any well-funded political opposition," said Gieringer. "Then there might be a real fight. But we haven't seen an opposition committee form yet. That's the real question mark."

NORA organizers have done their best to blunt opposition at the early stages by bringing potential opponents into the process, said Dooley-Sammuli. "We made many, many efforts to make this a collaborative process by reaching out to a wide variety of stakeholders. This has been a broad effort to bring in as many perspectives and sets of expertise as possible, and we've tried to make friends instead of foes," she said.

Coerced drug treatment is not the best of all possible worlds. But it's difficult to argue that drug law violators are better off in prison than in treatment. The NORA initiative will give California voters a chance to take a giant step in sentencing and prison reform and a small step toward true justice for drug users.

Australia: Queensland Passes Tough New Drug Law

The parliament of Queensland passed a bill last week that will increase penalties for the possession, manufacture, or trafficking of Ecstasy (MDMA) and PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine or "Death") by rescheduling them as Schedule 1 drugs, the most serious classification under the Australian state's drug classification scheme. The bill also increases the penalties for a number of other drugs and precursors and has provisions to criminalize the possession of analogues to the drugs banned by the state.

Under the new law, maximum penalties for the possession, manufacture, or sale of Ecstasy and PMA will increase from 20 to 25 years. Maximum penalties for the possession, manufacture, or sale of Valium, Sarapax, steroids, Rohypnol, and ephedrine will increase to 20 years imprisonment. Previously, the maximum penalty for their supply or trafficking was five years jail while possession carried a maximum of two years imprisonment.

The Drug Misuse Amendment Bill of 2007 will be a "serious deterrent" to drug abuse, said Queensland Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Kerry Shine. "We are determined to fight the increase in drug use in our society and these laws provide a serious deterrent to anyone thinking of becoming involved in the illegal drug trade," he said, according to Sydney Morning Herald.

"New offences have been created for the supply and production of substances such as pseudoephedrine and for the possession of equipment used in the production of dangerous drugs such as pill presses," he said. Under the new law, possession of such items can garner a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

"We have also introduced a new concept called 'analogue' which means that drugs not named in the Drugs Misuse Act, but which have a similar structure pharmacological effect, will attract the same penalties as drugs that are in it," Shine noted.

While enforcement of the new drug laws will undoubtedly lead to more people doing more prison time in Queensland, the bill claimed that the cost of implementation will be "nil." It also addressed concerns about the liberty interests of Queensland residents, saying: "Whilst it could be said that these amendments will affect the rights and liberties of individuals by increasing penalties it should be noted that the penalties are maximum penalties, not mandatory penalties and will not have retrospective effect."

Sentencing: Faced With Swollen Prisons, Idaho Ponders Reforms

With nearly 7,500 people behind bars in Idaho -- more than half of them for drug offenses -- the Idaho legislature is finally beginning to move away from the "tough on crime" posturing and infliction of mandatory minimum drug dealing sentences that helped create the current crisis. A bill with bipartisan support that would give Idaho judges the option to send people convicted of drug distribution offenses to treatment instead of mandatory prison terms if they are found to be addicts is on the move in Boise.

House Bill 516, sponsored by three Republicans and one Democrat, is in line for a full hearing at the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee this session. The bill would mark a departure for Idaho, which for years has responded to illegal drug use and sales by ratcheting up penalties.

But even the bill's sponsors are still playing to the punishment choir, if the Associated Press got it right. Rep. Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise), a cosponsor of the bill, told the committee Monday most people convicted of drug distribution offenses deserved harsh sentences. But, she said, those involved in small-time dealing because of their addictions should get a chance at treatment instead. "For these rare instances, this will allow for an alternative sentence by judges," she said. "If treatment is provided, that provides the best chance of recovering."

Under current Idaho law, most drug dealing convictions require mandatory minimum sentences of three to five years. Some methamphetamine and meth precursor offenses carry 10-year mandatory minimums, though.

The bill "ain't a bad idea," Rep. Dick Harwood (R-St. Maries) told the AP. "Our prisons are pumped full. It would be nice to give judges discretion about whether to send somebody to prison or to some other treatment program. In reality, they're the ones that are sitting on the front lines, not the legislators who are making the laws."

There is also a another bill aimed at sentencing reform in Idaho. Rep. Jim Clark (R-Hayden) has introduced a bill that would expand misdemeanor drug courts. It is aimed at stopping minor offenders from developing full-blown substance abuse problems. If these bills are truly harbingers of a new approach in the Gem State, it's about time.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the US Prison System," by Silja Talvi (2007, Seal Press, 356 pp., $15.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

Forty years ago, some 11,000 women were imprisoned in the United States. By 2004, that number had skyrocketed to 110,000, and if you add in the women in jails on any given day, the number of women behind bars is around 200,000 -- many, many of them on drug charges.

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While the overall US prisoner population has rapidly increased over the past few decades, the growth in the number of women behind prison far surpasses the overall rate. Yet most studies of the US prison and jail systems focus on the much larger male prisoner population. That's something investigate journalist Silja Talvi hopes to redress with "Women Behind Bars," and she has done an outstanding job of it.

Visiting numerous prisons -- not only in the US, but also, for comparative purposes, in Canada, England, and Finland -- and conducting hundreds of interviews with prisoners, guards, and advocates, as well as perusing the academic literature, Talvi has constructed a portrait of the US criminal justice system's treatment of women that is a harsh indictment of not only our prisons, but also the culture that perpetuates the resort to mass incarceration as a response to social problems.

It is not easy reading. After all, who wants to read about women prisoners being sexually harassed and raped by guards, who wants to read about prison wings full of mentally disturbed women prisoners screaming incessantly or rubbing feces on their cell walls, who wants to read about women prisoners committing suicide after being locked into cell-like "suicide prevention" rooms seemingly designed to drive them over the edge? Who wants to read about some of the weakest and already most brutalized members of our society who turn to dope or prostitution (or, too often, dope and prostitution), only to be imprisoned for their "crimes"?

It's an ugly subject, and that's part of the problem. Nobody wants to think about our world-leading prison population or the agonies we inflict upon it. In fact, our prison system is geared to shutting them up behind grey walls hidden from the public eye and, hopefully, from the public consciousness. But Silja Talvi is determined to rip the scales from our eyes and force us to look at what we have wrought.

She does so with verve, grace, and humanity. Not only does Talvi bring a keen critical intellect to bear, she also gives voice to the voiceless, standing aside at times to let the women prisoners of America speak for themselves. Their tales of suffering are heartrendingly grim, sometimes seeming as if they were coming from the seventh circle of Hell. The treatment of mentally ill women prisoners is a scandal. The use of female prisoners as sexual playthings by corrupted prison guards is another.

All too many of those stories are because of the decades-long, relentless escalation of the war on drugs. For many reading these words, the story of the imprisonment juggernaut created by the drug war legislation of the 1980s and nurtured by political inertia ever since is an already familiar tale. But Salvi tells it again, eloquently and passionately. We meet women like Amy Ralston, who suffered in prison for more than a decade because she wouldn't rat out her estranged husband , and Regina White, a black woman from South Carolina doing 12 years after crusading pro-life prosecutors charged her with manslaughter for doing cocaine while pregnant -- even though there was no evidence linking her child's death to her drug use.

Talvi offers a harsh critique of the policies and practices that generate thousands of new women prisoners on drug charges, many of them only spouses or girlfriends of the law's actual targets. All too often, Salvi notes, these women end up doing more time than the real culprits even if they had little or no involvement in any drug conspiracies. Prosecutors routinely make conscious decisions to charge them as co-conspirators and send them up the river for years or decades despite knowing that the women are small change. It is a cruelty and cynicism that makes even the hardened heart weep.

Talvi isn't a prison abolitionist; she argues that there are indeed some people who need to be behind bars, but that that number is a tiny fraction of those who actually are, especially women. But she is ready to take on the drug war, sex laws, and other freedom-sucking laws and practices: "I personally would prefer to see the decriminalization or legalization of drug use, the legalization of all forms of consensual sex (including prostitution), far more opportunities for truly therapeutic intervention, prevention- and intervention-minded counseling, real vocational education, and a regular and fair parole review," she writes.

Her book, a cry from heart, will hopefully help hasten that process. We should all hope so, for as the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once famously noted, "A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens, but by how it treats its criminals." As it should be, for we are all complicit in this by our silence.

In fact, as I ponder this, I am reminded of another quote, this one from a freedom-loving radical in our national past. "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." That was Thomas Jefferson. He's probably been spinning in his grave for so long, there's nothing left by now.

Maybe, just maybe, Silja Talvi will help save us from ourselves by forcing us to help those we victimize the most. Let's hope lots of people read this book and take its lessons to heart.

(Copies of Women Behind Bars are available as part of our latest membership offer.)

Michael Mukasey's Cracked Crack Logic

One of the reasons to already be unhappy with the choice of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General is his opposition to retroactively applying the minor sentencing reductions that the US Sentencing Commission enacted for federal crack cocaine prisoners. Former prisoner Malakkar Vohryzek has called him out for fear-mongering distortions on the issue over at D'Alliance. With a little number crunching, Vohryzek finds that in New York City, for example, if every application for a sentencing reduction is approved, all of eight people serving crack cocaine sentences will get out an return to the community a little early. Yet Mukasey has somehow predicted a "crime wave." Shame on him. The NAACP's Hilary Shelton -- a stalwart of the campaign to restore college aid eligibility to students who've lost it because of drug convictions, an effort many of you have read about here -- had strong words for Mukasey (via the Sentencing Law and Policy blog):
The NAACP was both saddened and offended by Attorney General Michael Mukasey's call for Congress to override the decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to apply their May 2007 decision to reduce the recommended mandatory minimum sentencing range for conviction of possession of crack cocaine retroactive to those already in prison. "Attorney General Mukasey's characterization of people currently in prison for crack cocaine convictions, and of the impact that a potential reduction in their sentences could have on our communities, is not only inaccurate and disingenuous, but it is alarmist and plays on the worst fears and stereotypes many Americans had of crack cocaine users in the 1980s," said NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary O. Shelton. "The fact that a federal judge will be called to review every case individually and take into account if there were other factors involved in the conviction, whether it be the use of a gun, violence, death or the defendant's criminal history before determining if the retroactivity can apply, appears to have eluded the Attorney General," Shelton added. "Furthermore, because more than 82 percent of those currently in prison for federal crack cocaine convictions are African Americans and 96 percent are racial or ethnic minorities, the NAACP is deeply concerned at the Attorney General's callous characterization that many of the people in question are 'violent gang members'."
Also quoted on Sentencing Law and Policy, criticism of Mukasey by the New York Times.
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United States

Senate to Hold Long-awaited Hearing on Federal Cocaine Sentencing Laws

[Courtesy of The Sentencing Project] Dear Friends: The Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary will hold a hearing on "Federal Cocaine Sentencing Laws: Reforming the 100-to-1 Crack/Powder Disparity" on Tuesday, February 12 at 2:00 p.m. in Room 226 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. "The Sentencing Project applauds the Committee for addressing this longstanding disparity," stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. "Reforming crack cocaine policy will help to remedy the unfairness and ineffectiveness of federal drug policy." Witnesses at the hearing will be: - U.S. Department of Justice designee - The Honorable Ricardo H. Hinojosa, Chair, U.S. Sentencing Commission, Washington, DC - Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Washington, DC - The Honorable Reggie B. Walton, Criminal Law Committee, Federal Judicial Conference, Washington, DC - James Felman, Co-Chair, Sentencing Committee, Criminal Justice Section, American Bar Association In addition, Marc Mauer, has been invited by the Committee to submit written testimony, focusing on the public safety consequences of crack reform and impact on racial disparity. Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), has taken a lead in reforming the crack cocaine disparity by introducing the Drug Sentencing Reform and Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007 (S. 1711), which would eliminate the 100 to 1 quantity-based sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The legislation would also focus federal law enforcement efforts on serious drug traffickers instead of the low-level offenders who are currently the target of most federal crack prosecutions. This hearing follows the U.S. Supreme Court's affirmation of judicial discretion to sentence below the guideline range based on the unfairness of the crack cocaine sentencing disparity, and the United States Sentencing Commission's vote to make retroactive its recent guideline amendment on crack cocaine offenses.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

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