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Press Release: Presidential Commutations Urged for Prisoners Serving Long Crack Cocaine Sentences

For Immediate Release: December 16, 2008 Contact: Jasmine L. Tyler at 202-294-8292 PRESIDENTIAL COMMUTATIONS URGED FOR PRISONERS SERVING LONG CRACK COCAINE SENTENCES WASHINGTON, DC- As the holiday season approaches, and President George Bush's term comes to a close, a broad coalition of 29 civil rights, religious, academic and justice organizations have asked the president today to commute excessive sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses. "Scripture reminds us that justice in the courts is a means of healing to society and families," said Bishop Jane Allen Middleton from the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. "Yet the disparity on sentences currently being handed down between crack and powder cocaine has unfairly targeted African-Americans and the poor," she said. "While legislation is needed to equalize these sentences, granting clemency to some of those serving unusually long sentences will send a much needed signal that our criminal justice system can and should be a means of healing to society and reunifying families separated by excessive incarceration." Prior to taking office in 2001, President Bush signaled support for reforming the controversial sentencing disparity for cocaine offenses. In a CNN interview, he said the crack-powder disparity "ought to be addressed by making sure the powder-cocaine and the crack-cocaine penalties are the same." Under current law, defendants convicted with as little as five grams, the weight of two sugar packets, are subject to a federal mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Offenses involving the pharmacologically identical powder cocaine do not trigger a five year mandatory minimum until a defendant sells 500 grams of the substance, 100 times the quantity of crack cocaine. In 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the sentencing guideline range for crack cocaine offenses because the penalties were considered excessive. They also voted to apply the guideline reductions to people currently incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses but the sentence reductions were limited by the mandatory minimum sentences that only Congress can amend. According to today's letter to Bush, the president's "clemency power is the only opportunity to advance immediate reform. By granting commutations to people who have already served long sentences for low-level crack offenses, [the president can] bring deserving citizens home for the holidays." Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Love has noted that "the president's personal intervention in a case through the pardon power not only benefits a particular individual, it reassures the public that the legal system is capable of just and moral application." And, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has urged that the pardon process be "reinvigorated" to respond to "unwise and unjust" federal sentencing laws, stating that "A people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy." Today's letter to the president was also joined by a petition urging clemency for crack cocaine offenses signed by over 700 people.
Washington, DC
United States

Crack the Disparity Newsletter Vol. 1, No. 3

President Bush: Please Commute Long Sentences for Crack Cocaine As the holiday season approaches, and President George Bush's term comes to a close, a broad coalition of 29 civil rights, religious, academic and justice organizations have asked the president today to commute excessive sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses. "Scripture reminds us that justice in the courts is a means of healing to society and families," said Bishop Jane Allen Middleton from the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. "Yet, the disparity on sentences currently being handed down between crack and powder cocaine has unfairly targeted African-Americans and the poor," she said. "While legislation is needed to equalize these sentences, granting clemency to some of those serving unusually long sentences will send a much needed signal that our criminal justice system can and should be a means of healing to society and reunifying families separated by excessive incarceration." Click here to read more. Crack Sentencing Reform Makes Obama-Biden Transition's Priority List By Bruce Nicholson The Obama-Biden Transition has made elimination of the federal sentencing disparity for crack cocaine offense a key goal on its Agenda for Change in the 111th Congress. The Obama-Biden Transition Project, as it is formally known, will work to get the new administration up and running between now and the inauguration on January 20, 2009. The transition's website,, sets out an agenda divided into 22 issue areas. The Obama-Biden plan for change on crack sentencing is one of seven "Civil Rights" goals (there is no separate "criminal justice" issue area). The Obama-Biden transition reform goal is stated simply as follows: Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: Obama and Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated. National Day of Advocacy - April 2009 By Kara Gotsch With a new president and Congress to begin in January, and a renewed political optimism, the Crack the Disparity Coalition has outlined a strategy to finally eliminate the excessive mandatory minimum penalties for low-level crack cocaine offenses. That strategy includes you. Without broad national support for crack cocaine sentencing reform, success on Capitol Hill will again elude us. The 100 to 1 sentencing quantity disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine was created by Congress under the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It has resulted in average sentences for crack cocaine offenses that are three years longer than for offenses involving powder cocaine. Sentences for crack cocaine are also nearly two years longer than for methamphetamine and four years longer than for heroin. Crack cocaine is the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for a first-time possession offense. Student Activists Empowered by Lobbying, Advocacy On November 21, 2008, more than 200 students from across the United States descended on Capitol Hill to lobby Congress on repealing the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The Lobby Day was the kickoff to the 2008 Students for Sensible Drug Policy 10th Anniversary International Conference, held November 21-23 at the University of Maryland in College Park. Students for Sensible Drug Policy is known for its advocacy on drug policies that directly impact young people and students, such as student drug testing and the law that denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions. Lobbying for a change in policy that primarily impacts low-income African Americans was a welcome change for SSDP students. Save the Date: January 22-23, 2009: New Directions for New York: A Public Health & Safety Approach to Drug Policy, New York, NY April 27-28, 2009: Crack the Disparity Lobby Day, Washington, D.C. Media Attention A Fox News Three-Part Series on the case of Clarence Aaron, a former college student whose involvement in a 1993 cocaine deal got him three life sentences in federal prison. Washington Post Letter to the Editor Calling for President Bush to Use His Clemency Power on Individuals Serving Harsh Crack Cocaine Sentences. Maryland Daily Record Coverage on the Number of Individuals in the State that Have Received Sentence Reductions Since The USSC's 2007 Retroactive Adjustment ... And Look for an Opinion Piece on Commutations by Kemba Smith in USA Today Before the Close of the Year. The Crack the Disparity Coalition includes the American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Break the Chains, Drug Policy Alliance, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Open Society Policy Center, Restoring Dignity, Inc., Students for Sensible Drug Policy, The Sentencing Project, and United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society.

Press Release: New Justice Department Report finds 1 in 31 Americans in Prison, Jail, on Parole or Probation

[Courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance] FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 11, 2008 Contact: Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 or Bill Piper at 202-669-6430 New Justice Department Report: 1 in 31 Americans in Prison, Jail, on Parole or Probation More than Half of Federal Prisoners Incarcerated for Drug Law Offenses President-elect Obama, Vice President-elect Biden, and Secretary of State Nominee Clinton Favor Major Sentencing Reform A government report released today by the U.S. Justice Department found that 1 in 31 Americans were in prison or jail or on parole or probation last year. The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population, incarcerating more of its citizens per-capita than any other country in the world. The total incarcerated population of 2.3 million far exceeds China’s, which ranks second but whose overall population is four times that of the United States. More than 53 percent of federal prisoners are there for drug law violations. “Alcohol Prohibition was repealed 75 years ago because it wasted taxpayer money, increased violence, and fueled corruption; drug prohibition is doing all that and filling our prisons with hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Policymakers need to start treating drug use as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.” A recent Justice Department report found that the number of people in federal prison for drug law offenses increased from 74,276 in 2000 to 95,446 in 2007. Nationally, an estimated 500,000 people are behind bars for a drug law violation. That is ten times the total in 1980, and more than all of western Europe (with a much larger population) incarcerates for all offenses. It costs billions of taxpayer dollars to incarcerate them, and many policymakers are supporting efforts to reduce drug sentences and divert nonviolent drug law offenders to treatment instead of incarceration to save money. Earlier this year, President-elect Barack Obama, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, and Secretary of State nominee, Hillary Clinton, supported legislation in Congress to reform federal cocaine sentencing laws. Obama’s official web site states that “Obama and Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.” Under current federal law, crack cocaine offenders are punished 100 times more severely than powder cocaine offenders. “America desperately needs a coherent and compassionate national drug policy that reduces the problems associated with both drugs and drug prohibition,” Piper said. “Eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity is a great place for the Obama Administration to start.” ###

Sentencing: US Jail and Prison Population Hits All-Time (Again) -- 2.3 Million Behind Bars, Including More Than Half a Million Drug Offenders

The number of people in jail or prison in the United States hit another record at the end of last year, according to a report from the US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics released Thursday. According to the report, Prisoners in 2007, 2,293,157 people were behind bars at the end of last year, roughly two-thirds of them serving prison sentences and one-third doing jail time.
overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from
Drug offenders made up 19.5% of all people doing time in the states, or roughly 400,000 people. In the federal system, drug offenders account for well over half of the 200,000 prisoners (those numbers are not included in this report), bringing the total number of people sacrificed at the altar of the drug war to more than half a million.

Parole and probation violators accounted for about one-third of all new prison admissions last year. It is unclear how many violations were for drug-related reasons, but that number is undoubtedly substantial.

The imprisoned population continued to grow last year, albeit at a marginally slower rate than the decade as a whole. The number of those imprisoned grew by 1.8% last year, down from 2.8% in 2006, and slightly lower than 2.0% a year average since 2000.

The population behind bars continued to grow at a faster rate than the population as a whole last year. The number of people imprisoned per 100,000 population -- the imprisonment rate -- rose from 501 in 2006 to 506 last year. It was 475 per 100,000 in 2000. Since 2000, the number of people behind bars increased by 15%, while the US population increased by only 6.4%.

The prison populations in 36 states and the District of Columbia increased during 2007. The federal prison population experienced the largest absolute increase of 6,572 prisoners, followed by Florida (up 5,250 prisoners), Kentucky (up 2,457 prisoners) and Arizona (up 1,945 prisoners), resulting in 58.7% of the change in the overall prison population. Kentucky (12.3%), Mississippi (6.5%), Florida (5.6%), West Virginia (5.6%), and Arizona (5.4%) reported the largest percentage increases in their prison populations.

The prison populations in the remaining 14 states decreased. Michigan's (1,344) and California's (1,230) prison populations experienced the greatest absolute decrease, while Vermont (down 3.2%), Montana (down 2.8%), Michigan (down 2.6%), and New Mexico (down 2.6%) prison populations had the largest percent decreases.

America's position as the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita terms, remains unchallenged, and the war on drugs is playing a significant role. Interestingly, the BJS report comes one day after a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that 43 states face budget shortfalls next year. As for the federal budget deficit, well, who can even keep up with that?

Annual Isidro Aviles Memorial Chapter of the November Coalition Christmas Party

Please join us at this special annual event. For more information, contact Teresa Aviles at For more on Isidro Aviles, see
Sun, 12/14/2008 - 2:00pm - 6:00pm
4035 White Plains Road
Bronx, NY
United States

Marijuana: "Substantial" Settlement in Lawsuit in Case of DC Quadriplegic Who Died in Jail While Serving 10-Day Sentence for a Joint

The mother of a quadriplegic inmate who died after suffering breathing problems in the District of Columbia Jail has reached a settlement with the DC government and care providers. While Jonathan Magbie's mother declined to reveal a dollar figure, the ACLU National Prison Project, which helped litigate the case, called the sum "substantial."
Jonathan Magbie
Magbie, 27, a resident of nearby Maryland, was paralyzed from the neck down and used a mouth-operated wheelchair to get around. He was arrested in April 2003 when DC police found a gun and a small amount of marijuana in his pocket after they pulled over a vehicle driven by his cousin. In September 2004, DC Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin sentenced him to 10 days in jail after he pleaded guilty to marijuana possession. Although it was Magbie's first offense, Retchin later told a judicial review committee she sentenced him to jail because he said he would continue to smoke marijuana to relieve his pain.

Magbie died before making it halfway through his sentence. He needed a ventilator to breathe at night, but the DC jail infirmary didn't have one. Investigations after his death determined that he was taken to a hospital for "respiratory distress," but later returned to the infirmary. Jail doctors did not perform a follow-up exam, nor did they regularly conduct rounds to check on patients, including Magbie.

"DC's jail system had a duty to care for Jonathan Magbie's serious medical needs," said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. "The jail and the Greater Southeast Community Hospital failed to live up to that obligation and it resulted in an agonizing and unnecessary death."

As part of the settlement, correctional officials have agreed to modify a number of policies in order to protect prisoners with severe medical problems and physical disabilities, including modifying the medical screening forms for incoming prisoners and spelling out medical conditions too severe to be treated at the jail's infirmary. Also, prisoners with medical needs that can't be met by correctional staff must be transferred to a facility that can provide an appropriate level of medical care.

"The family's concern was to make certain that, to the extent anyone can prevent it, that this terrible type of event never happens again," said Alexander. "A series of people dealt with this young man, and every single place where something could go wrong, it did go wrong."

Death Penalty: Another Month of Drug War Extremism, and America's Hands Are Bloody

The resort to the ultimate sanction for drug offenders continued apace last month, thanks to the usual suspects in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. And it continues despite a UN General Assembly call a year ago to end the death penalty for all offenses and an international campaign to end it for drug offenses that began earlier this year.
International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Here, thanks to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain are the latest victims of drug war extremism. Of particular note and concern to Americans should be two cases -- November 14 in Yemen and November 25 in Thailand -- where the American military or American anti-drug personnel helped send drug suspects to their likely deaths:

Indonesia -- November 6: The News Agency of Nigeria reported that eighteen Nigerians sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Indonesia have opted for the review of their cases. Sources at the Nigerian embassy say that their lawyers have filed the appeals with the prosecutor. "They opted for the review of their cases instead of seeking for clemency for fear of being denied the clemency by the authority. "The Indonesian President hardly grants clemency for drug convicts. Once he turns down pleas for clemency on behalf of convicts twice execution is imminent and automatic,'' the source said. And by filing for a review of their cases, "they can still prolong the finality of their conviction and buy some time." The Nigerian Ambassador to Indonesia, Alhaji Ibrahim Mai-Sule, said he is optimistic about the visit of the Special Envoy to President Yar'Adua, Chief Ojo Maduekwe who came to seek clemency for the convicted Nigerians.

Yemen -- November 14: A court in Sanaa, Yemen, sentenced an Iranian to death for drug trafficking and imposed 25-year prison sentences each on 11 other Iranians and a Pakistani, officials said. Ayub Mohamed Houd, 33, who faces the death penalty, and his 12 accomplices were found guilty of bringing 1.5 tons of hashish into Yemeni territorial waters, hidden in the hold of a ship coming from Iran. The prosecution said the 13 men were interdicted by a US navy warship, which found the drugs on board their boat. They were handed over to the Yemeni authorities after the destruction of all but 20kg of drugs. At the opening of the trial on October 12, the men, whose statements in Farsi were translated into Arabic, denied the charges and said the US sailors threw a large quantity of fish into the sea from the hold.

Malaysia -- November 15: A Malaysian court sentenced two Indonesians, Mohamad Idris and Jainuddin, to death for drug trafficking, Antara newswire reported. The Kuala Lumpur based court found the two defendants guilty of distributing marijuana and were found to be in a possession of 5.7 kilogram of marijuana when they were arrested in September 2002. The two claimed that they were innocent and did not know the content of a package that they were then delivering to a person they identified as Tengku Yan, but they were never able to prove the existence of Yan.

Iran -- November 22: An Iranian man convicted of drug trafficking was hanged in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, a newspaper reported. The man, identified only by his first name Majid, was hanged for smuggling more than 300 kilos of morphine, Etemad newspaper said, without specifying when the execution took place.

Iran--November 24: Iran hanged three men convicted of drug trafficking in a prison in the Iranian southeastern city of Zahedan, the official IRNA news agency reports. The men, identified as Hossein Nahtani, Abdollah Dahmardeh and Mohammad Barahoui, were all found guilty of smuggling heroin, the report adds. Nahtani was convicted of trafficking 1.09-kilograms [2.4 pounds] of heroin, while Dahmardeh and Barahoui were sentenced for smuggling 3.8-kg [8.3 pounds] and 5.5-kg [12 pounds], respectively.

Thailand -- November 25: Two Israelis convicted of drug trafficking were sentenced to death by a Thai court. The two men plan to appeal the sentence. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem confirmed the report. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced that she may intervene in the affair should the sentences not be changed. The two Israelis, 34-year-old Vladimir Akronik and 37-year-old Alon Mahluf, were detained in the vicinity of Bangkok's Kao San Road in possession of 23,000 ecstasy pills about a year ago. Thai media reported that the two arrived in Thailand from Europe and were detained after authorities received information about them from American officials.

Saudi Arabia -- November 28: A Saudi Arabian man and a stateless Arab convicted of drug trafficking were beheaded by the sword in Riyadh. Mohammad bin Karim al-Anzi, the Saudi, and Sadok al-Khalidi were found to have introduced large quantities of hallucinogenic pills on the Saudi market, the Interior Ministry said, quoted by the state news agency SPA.

Iran -- November 29: Iran hanged two men convicted of drug trafficking in a prison in the southeastern city of Zahedan, Fars news agency reported. The report identified the two as H.F. and A.N., and said they were found guilty of smuggling 11kgs of heroin and 387kgs of opium respectively.

Feature: The Kids Are Alright -- The SSDP 10th International Conference

Buoyed by this month's election results and jazzed by the prospects for change with a new administration in Washington, some 450 student activists converged on the University of Maryland campus in College Park last weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at the group's annual international conference.
first evening gathering (photo courtesy
Hosted by University of Maryland SSDP, traditionally one of the national group's staunchest chapters, the conference saw students come from across the nation and at least two foreign countries for three days of education, training in effective activism, and hands-on lobbying on Capitol Hill. Among the attendees were representatives of Canadian SSDP, buoyed by their own national conference, the organization's second, attended by 250 people earlier this month.

For both SSDP veterans and newcomers alike, the conference provided opportunities for networking, inspiration, and education. For some of the younger attendees, it was an eye-opener.

"I didn't realize how many people were involved in this," said SSDP national office intern Ericha Richards, a freshman at American University. "It's exciting!"

Jimmy Devine of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire has been attending for several years, but still found plenty to get excited about. "It's always good to come to national, to see what the other chapters have been up to, and to meet old friends," he said. "And we're always looking for new ideas to take back with us."

On Friday, led by Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) lobbyist Aaron Houston, the students spent the morning polishing up on lobbying basics, then visited with representatives or their staffers to push for reductions in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Students reported mixed results, but that's no surprise, and even with representatives on the wrong side of the issues, lobbying is part of changing minds -- and votes.
Rep. Danny Davis (photo courtesy
On Saturday and Sunday, students gathered at the University of Maryland student union for two days of panels and training in activism. Saturday morning, they heard from movement leaders, who described the chances of drug reform at the federal level in coming years with varying degrees of optimism. With the Democratic sweep of the presidency and the Congress, the prospects have improved, but big obstacles remain, the students heard.

"This election was about change," said MPP's Houston. "It's a very exciting time, so why aren't we doing back flips?" he asked. Drug reform may get short shrift in an Obama administration faced with a free-falling economy and foreign crises, Houston answered himself. "We're walking into favorable conditions, but there are a lot of issues facing Obama and the Congress."

But the economic crisis could lead to opportunity, he said. "We have huge economic problems, and this could be the time to start talking about taxing and regulating marijuana. That could generate $10 to $14 billion a year for the federal treasury," he said.

"Change is going to happen," said Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. Wolf ticked off an ACLU reform wish list of rescheduling marijuana, ending the government monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes, ending the selective prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers, abolishing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, and banning racial profiling.

"I'm hugely optimistic about the prospects for change in Congress," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), citing support for ending the federal funding ban on syringe exchange and reducing or eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity among highly placed Democrats. "We are over the hump," the Capitol Hill veteran said. "People are not afraid any more to talk about drug policy, and we have key committee chairs on our side. We will repeal the syringe ban and reduce sentencing disparities," he predicted.
police militarization panel, featuring Reason's Radley Balko, executive director David Borden, SWAT raid victim Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, moderated by Alison Grimmer of Roosevelt University SSDP
But Piper was also looking just a bit further down the road then next year's Congress. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) comes up for reauthorization in 2010, he noted. Rather than try futilely to eliminate the office, "we can try to shift ONDCP's goals" to a more public health-oriented approach, he suggested.

"Marijuana is more popular than the past three presidents," MPP executive director Rob Kampia told a cheering audience as he recounted this year's victories for medical marijuana in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts.

Student activists took no back seat to the professionals, though, and the breadth of reform efforts by SSDP chapters, and number of campuses leading or helping with them was impressive. Conference-goers got to hear about campus campaigns ranging from establishing safe ride programs (reducing intoxicated driving without exposing students to threat of penalty); good Samaritan overdose policies (neither the student needing medical help nor the student reporting it facing threat of arrest); getting schools to stop calling police into dorms for drug infractions; reforming dorm eviction policies for substance violations; working with ballot initiative campaigns such as those in Michigan and Berkeley; public education efforts; and state lobbying campaign; among others.

One chapter, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, seemed to have done almost everything, and all during its first year. At the annual Awards Banquet, where representatives received the Outstanding Chapter Award, a raft of impressive achievements were listed off in the introduction. Not only did Kalamazoo SSDP get a safe ride program established, and Good Samaritan and not calling police into dorms for minor drug violation policies established. They also went outside the campus to bring together a coalition of community groups, government agencies and law enforcement to get approval for a needle exchange program in the city for the first time.

One highlight of the conference was the Saturday lunch debate between SSDP executive director Kris Krane and Kevin Sabet of Students Taking Action Not Drugs. The back and forth between the two, moderated by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, kept the audience rapt -- and scoring the debate like a boxing match.
Krane/Sabet debate, Washington Post's Courtland Milloy moderating
Sabet, in what must have felt like hostile territory, did his best to try to establish "common ground" with drug reformers, citing his support for addressing the crack/powder disparity and qualifying some of drug czar John Walters' policies as "stupid politics." He also cited as models programs like North Carolina's Project HOPE, where probationers and parolees confronted by positive drug tests are not sent back to prison, but are hit with quick, short jail stays. "That's a huge motivation," Sabet argued.

If Sabet was looking for agreement from Krane or the audience, he didn't find much of it. "Our metrics in the war on drugs are wrong," said Krane. "We should be measuring abuse, problem use, infection rates -- not drug use rates," he argued. "You have to get arrested to get treatment, and that's backwards," he said.

Instead of being based on the Holy Grail of reducing drug use, drug policy should have different guiding principles, Krane argued. "First, no one should be punished for using drugs absent harm to others. Second, we should adopt a harm reduction framework, and third, we should adopt a human rights framework."

"Drug use doesn't occur in a vacuum," Sabet retorted. "A lot of drug use is problematic, and some of that can be addressed by dealing with poverty, health care, and homelessness. There is common ground," he tried again.

Not so quick, Krane replied, arguing that drug use should be treated as a public health problem, not the purview of law enforcement.

"Drug trafficking is not a public health problem, it's a law enforcement problem," Sabet countered.

"Drug trafficking is a prohibition problem, not a law enforcement problem," Krane retorted to cheers from the crowd.
David Guard and Pete Guither prepare for ''Elevator Arguments'' panel
After the spirited back and forth between Sabet and Krane, attendees were treated to an address by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who zeroed in on racial disparities in drug law enforcement. "One of the most egregious aspects of our drug policy is the racial inequity," he said, reeling off the now familiar statistics about African-Americans sucked into the drug war incarceration machine and urging support for re-entry and rehabilitation efforts for prisoners. "If we can reduce crime and recidivism, if we can help these prisoners, if we can train and educate them, we are helping all of America," Davis said.

Davis, too, pronounced himself optimistic. "There is a sense of hope that we can develop a sane policy in the way we treat drugs," he told the students, "but you have to stay engaged and involved. You have to believe change is not only possible, it's inevitable."

If Saturday was a day of panelists and speechifying, Sunday was for getting down to nuts and bolts as the young activists attended a plethora of sessions hosted by more experienced veterans. Students heard presentations on best practices for chapter organizing, fundraising, making quick reform arguments, networking, working the media, and working with youth communities, and looking beyond campus reform, among others. And the lunch session was a working one, with activists dividing up geographically and deciding on locations for regional conferences to be held in the spring.

From its beginning with a handful of students in the Northeast in 1998 outraged by the Higher Education Act's drug provision, SSDP has grown to an international organization with 140 campus chapters in the US, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Nigeria. With all they learned at this year's conference, the newest generation of drug reform activists is now headed back home to spread the message and the movement to the next generation.

Visit the Drug WarRant blog for Pete Guither's seven-part series of live-written reports from the conference.

UMD SSDP window, Stamp Student Center

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District," by Peter Moskos (2008, Princeton University Press, 245 pp., $24.95 HB)

Immortalized by the hit HBO series "The Wire," Baltimore's Eastern District is one tough neighborhood in one of the country's toughest towns. With some 45,000 residents, almost entirely black, it generates 20,000 arrests a year, the vast majority of them drug-related. It's a tough, gritty neighborhood with widespread poverty, open-air drug markets, a healthy heroin (or "hair-on" in Eastern District-speak) habit, and all the attendant problems associated with those ills.
For a bit more than a year, the Eastern District was Peter Moskos' beat. The Harvard educated sociologist (now on the faculty of City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice) with an interest in police socialization joined the Baltimore Police Department to become a "participant-observer" on the sociology of policing in that department, enabling him to achieve a degree of intimacy with his fellow officers rarely achieved by outside academics.

For Moskos, and for his readers, his sojourn on the mean streets has paid off handsomely. Moskos got a book deal (and presumably a dissertation) out of his experiences, and we readers get a real treat. The uniformed Moskos -- he served exclusively as a beat officer -- was able to win the trust and fellowship of his colleagues, and in so doing, he was able to open a window on what it is like to be a police officer in the drug war.

I would imagine that most Drug War Chronicle readers -- LEAP members excluded -- have little knowledge of or empathy for the men in blue. The cops, after all, are the front line in the drug war. And, as Moskos reports, drawing on extensive notes, the drug dealers and users of the Eastern District are relatively easy pickings for police officers looking to generate arrest statistics.

"In high drug areas, there is no shortage of drug offenders to arrest," he writes. "The decision to arrest or not arrest becomes more a matter of personal choice and police officer discretion than of any formalized police response toward crime or public safety."

Not only do police routinely arrest suspect Eastern District residents -- for loitering, if nothing else -- they almost universal despise them and their drug habits. Moskos really shines at getting his comrades to speak openly and honestly about their attitudes, and in that sense, "Cop in the Hood" is as revelatory as it is sometimes disturbing. Such attitudes may be deplorable, but they are also understandable. When all you see is the worst of humanity, it's easy to get alienated. As one officer put it, "You don't get 911 calls to tell you how well things are going."

But not all beat officers are eager to arrest drug offenders. As Moskos details, the cops get frustrated by the revolving-door that sees drug offenders sent to county jail on arrest only to be spit out a few hours later or to have drug dealing charges reduced to simple possession because prisons are packed and prosecutors overworked. (Moskos observes that the drug war would grind to a halt if drug offenders uniformly demanded jury trials. Now, there's a reason to unionize drug users!)

Police officers don't want to be social workers, Moskos reports, and they are not interested in the root causes of drug use and attendant social ills. What they are interested in is doing their job with a minimum of hassle (from the streets or their superiors), returning home safely each night, and retiring with a nice pension. That means that for many officers, high drug arrest numbers early in their careers will drop off over time as they confront a combination of a sense of futility, overtime, and paperwork. As one officer put it:

You'll get out there thinking you can make a difference. Then you get frustrated: a dealer caught with less than 25 pieces will be considered personal use... Or you go to court and they take his word over yours. You're a cop and you're saying you saw something!... After it happens to you, you don't care. It's your job to bring him there [to court]. What happens after that is their problem. You can't take this job personal. Drugs were here before you were, and they'll be here long after you're gone. Don't think you can change that. I don't want you leaving here thinking everybody living in this neighborhood is bad, does drugs. Many cops start beating people, thinking they deserve it.

While Moskos by no means sugarcoats the behavior or attitudes of his coworkers, his reporting will undoubtedly help readers attain some understanding of how they got that way. "Cops in the Hood" is also useful for understanding the bureaucratic grinder facing police officers in large urban departments, where they are caught between pressures from above for more arrests, from Internal Affairs to do it by the book, from the neighborhoods to clean out the riff-raff and from the same neighborhoods to respect the civil rights of residents.

Moskos brings the added advantage of not writing like an academic. "Cops in the Hood" is engaging, even riveting, and makes its points straightforwardly. Yes, Moskos references policing theory, but he does so in ways that make it provocative instead of off-putting.

He also includes a well-researched and -written chapter on the evils of prohibition -- it's subtitled "Al Capone's Revenge" -- but in this case, it's hardly necessary. Like a good student listening to his English composition instructor, Moskos has shown us and he really doesn't need to tell us. Still, it is a strong chapter.

Moskos writes about his experience as a beat officer. That's a different animal from the largely self-selected group of police cowboys who end up in drug squads and SWAT teams. I have less sympathy for them, but that's another book, not this one.

People interested in the nitty-gritty of street-level drug law enforcement need to read this book. Criminal justice students and anyone thinking about becoming a police officer need to read this book, too. And the politicians who pass the laws police have to enforce (or not), need to read this book as well, although they probably won't.

Compact for Racial Justice: An Agenda for Fairness and Unity, New Report Released

[Courtesy of The Sentencing Project] 

Dear Friends,
We're pleased to call your attention to a newly released report, Compact for Racial Justice: An Agenda for Fairness and Unity.  The publication was produced by the Applied Research Center as a proactive agenda for fairness and unity in communities, politics, and the law. 
The Sentencing Project was the lead author of the chapter promoting criminal justice reforms (beginning at page 17). In this chapter, we discuss the failed crime policies of the past 30 years, marked by the six-fold increase in the prison population since 1972.  Much of this increase can be attributed to the War on Drugs and the consequent sentencing disparities it imposed.   In addition to calling for reforms of current policies, we caution policymakers in the new administration against repeating the mistakes of the past through enacting policies and practices that impose harsh penalties that produce disproportionate effects on minorities, youth, and immigrants. 
Finally, we offer four specific recommendations for immediate action: implement racial impact statements, abolish the mandatory detention of immigrants, support people in reentry and the communities where they return, and make racial equity a standard for all criminal justice policy and practice.
You can obtain this publication here.   
We hope you find this report useful in your work.
-The Sentencing Project

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