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Sentencing: US Jail and Prison Population At All-Time High Again Last Year

Every year, the US Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics releases its annual reports on Prison Inmates at Midyear and Jail Inmates at Midyear, and every year we write basically the same headline. The midyear 2007 reports, released last Friday afternoon, are no exception: Once again, the number of people behind bars in the United States is at an all-time high. And although the reports do not break down the offenses for which inmates are incarcerated, according to other recent BJS reports, drug law violators continue to account for roughly one-quarter of the US jail and prison population.

According to the reports, local jails held 780,581 inmates and state federal prisons held another 1,518,535, for a total of just under 2.3 million prisoners in America on June 29, 2007. On a per capita basis, that is 762 prisoners per 100,000 US residents, up from 648 per 100,000 in 2000. The US continues to maintain its position as the world's leading jailer, in both actual numbers and per capita.

And black men continue to be overrepresented in the prison figures. Blacks make up about 13% of the US population, but 35.5% of all prisoners, BJS reported. Nearly one out of 20 (4.6%) of black males were behind bars, a rate more than double that of Hispanic men (1.7%) and more than six times that of white men (0.7%).

While the perpetual upward trend in prisoners continued, the rate of growth slowed slightly last year. In the first six months of 2007, the number of jail and prison inmates climbed 1.6%, compared to 2.0% for the same period in 2006. The slowing in prison population growth was due largely to slower growth in the 10 states with the largest number of prisoners in 2000 -- Texas, California, Florida, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. Growth in those 10 states was 0.7% in 2007, down from 2.3% the previous year.

Growth in jail populations also slowed, from 2.5% in 2006 to 1.9% in 2007. This was the smallest annual rate of growth in the jail population since 2001 and the second smallest since 1981. Still, 13 million people were sent to jails in 2007, BJS reported.

Sentencing reforms adopted by some states in the past decade may be partly responsible for the slight slowing in the growth of the incarceration behemoth, but with the drug war percolating right along the overall trend remains upward. It is difficult to stop a freight train on a dime, let alone throw it into reverse.

Australia: Doc Group Lobbies for Tougher Western Australia Marijuana Laws, Cites Mental Health Threat

The Australian Medical Association has called on the state government of Western Australia to introduce harsher marijuana laws. It warned of an increased risk of schizophrenia among pot smokers, citing a new review of international research on the links between marijuana and mental illness.

Western Australia has some of the most tolerant pot laws in the country. While the possession, use, or cultivation of any amount of marijuana remains illegal, under the state's 2004 Cannabis Control Act, adults possessing 30 grams or less or two or less non-hydroponically-grown plants can avoid a criminal conviction if they pay a fine or attend drug classes.

The Western Australia government has promised to toughen marijuana laws so that any adult who grew marijuana or possessed more than 15 grams of it would face criminal charges. But it has so far failed to introduced the legislation.

On Saturday, AMA president Dr. Rosanna Capolingua called on Western Australia Health Minister Jim McGinty to get moving. "The soft marijuana laws certainly do not help support the message that marijuana is not a soft drug," Dr. Capolingua told the newspaper The West. "Even though punitive measures are not always smiled upon as far as drug abuse goes, it really gets down to when do we start protecting people from substances such as marijuana and when do we need laws to protect people?"

Capolingua's tough stance puts her and the AMA at odds with its own official position on marijuana adopted two years ago. In its Position Statement -- Cannabis, 2006, the AMA had this to say about criminal penalties for drug use:

"It is often cited that criminal penalties will act as a deterrent to use. There is no evidence to support this. In A Public Health Perspective on Cannabis and Other Illegal Drugs, the Canadian Medical Association highlights the profound impact on health status associated with having a criminal record. The presence of a criminal record can severely limit employment prospects leading to poor health."

"Evidence indicates that strict drug laws in general encourage people to take more potent drugs and to consume them in unsafe ways. Prohibition also makes users less likely to seek treatment when they get into difficulty. 'Prohibition is the cause of a significant proportion of the health costs associated with illicit drug use and it hinders the achievement of the objective of harm minimization.' Research indicates that the introduction of liberal drug laws may result in a slight increase in temporary drug use but that it is unlikely to increase, and may even decrease, drug related health costs."

Sentencing: New Jersey Spends $331 Million a Year Jailing Nonviolent Drug Offenders, Study Finds as Legislature Ponders Reforms

As New Jersey legislators push for sentencing reforms of some mandatory minimum drug offense sentences, a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance finds that the state is spending more than $330 million a year to lock up nonviolent drug offenders. The state is also losing out financially in additional ways by imprisoning so many drug offenders, the report found.

The report, "Wasting Money, Wasting Lives: Calculating the Hidden Costs of Incarceration in New Jersey," found that the Garden State leads the nation in incarcerating drug offenders, with nearly half of all state prisoners doing time for drug offenses, well above the 31% national average. In addition to the direct costs of imprisoning about 7,000 new drug offenders each year, the state loses even more money from lost wages and tax revenues, unpaid child support, and decreased future earnings of people with criminal records. The report estimated that each person imprisoned in New Jersey will earn $100,000 less in his lifetime that he otherwise would have earned.

"We are creating an entire cast of people who will forever be economic and labor force outsiders," said Roseanne Scotti, director of DPA's New Jersey office, during a Wednesday press conference. Reduced earnings by former offenders hurt the state, she said. "It is money that would have gone into the larger New Jersey economy," Scotti said.

"The time has come for us to change from throw-away-the-key, lock-'em-up mandatory minimums," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union). "Let's understand that that hasn't worked."

Newark Mayor Cory Booker said that saddling drug users with criminal records forces them "to live on the margins as outcasts" and push them back toward drug use. "It is time to stop the madness," Booker said. "It is time to stop the hemorrhaging of good, hard-earned taxpayer dollars, pouring it into a hole that seems to get deeper and deeper and deeper."

The report release was timed to prod the legislature into passing a bill that would allow judges some flexibility in sentencing people arrested for nonviolent drug offenses in school zones. That bill, A 2762, has already passed one Assembly committee.

Wednesday, Cryan predicted the bill would pass by the end of June. Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) also came out in support of the bill that day. Now, its up to the rest of the legislature to decide whether it wants to take a baby step in the direction of reducing drug sentences and saving the state money.

Europe: New Head of British Government Drug Advisory Council Favors Downgrading Ecstasy

Professor David Nutt took over from Sir Michael Rawlins Monday as head of the British government's key advisory body on drug policy, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The British press immediately noted that Nutt has called for the down-scheduling of Ecstasy, the stimulant popular with Britain's young club crowd.
ecstasy pills
The ACMD is tasked with making drug scheduling decisions, among other things, and the government almost always follows its recommendations. A notable recent exception was the government's decision to reclassify marijuana from Class C to Class B in the face of the ACMD's repeated recommendations that it remain Class B.

In 2006, Nutt told a science and technology committee hearing that some drugs were probably not in the right drug classification schedules: "I think the evidence base for classification producing deterrence is not strong and we see that with a number of drugs," he said. "I think 4MTA, LSD and ecstasy probably shouldn't be class A."

While the press was atwitter over the remarks, the government was taking Nutt's ascension to head of the ACMD calmly. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith praised the departing Rawlins -- whose advice she ignored -- and welcomed Nutt. "I look forward to working with his successor so that the advisory council's expert advice can continue to inform our drive to reduce the harm caused by illegal substances."

Nutt's appointment and the press's questions to the Home Office may prompt a reexamination of the scheduling of Ecstasy and other drugs. "The ACMD will consider the evidence for the classification of ecstasy with an open mind based upon its social misuse and harms relative to other drugs in the classification system," a spokesman said.

Drop the Rock Coalition Meeting

Join the campaign to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws! The Rockefeller Drug Laws: Ineffective, Unjust, Wasteful, Marked by Racial Bias. - Despite so-called reforms, more drug offenders have been sent to state prison in 2007 than in 2006, 2005 and in 2004. - Over 13,000 people remain behind bars serving time under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. - Studies show that the majority of people who use and sell drugs are white, however 90% of people incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws are African-American and Latino. - Research continues to prove that drug treatment is less expensive than incarceration. It is also more effective in reducing crime and helping people overcome addiction. Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws Now! Drop the Rock supports the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. - Restore sentencing discretion to trial judges in all drug cases. - Significantly reduce sentence lengths for drug offenses. - Ensure changes in the drug laws apply to those already incarcerated. - Increase funding for alternatives to incarceration including drug treatment, education and job training. Join us for our next Drop the Rock Coalition meeting. Help us plan upcoming advocacy and educational events. To get involved call Caitlin Dunklee, Drop the Rock Coordinator at 212-254-5700 x339 or email her at For more information, see:
Thu, 06/05/2008 - 6:00pm
2090 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., Suite 200
New York, NY
United States

Dick Morris Tells John McCain to Propose Harsher Cocaine Laws

I noted last week the tendency of our revered political strategists to find themselves stuck in the 80's, arguing that harsh lock-em-up rhetoric is the only way to discuss drug policy in an election.

Well, along comes Dick Morris to prove me right in The Washington Post with this recommendation for John McCain:

Go after the Democrats for their proposals to lower sentences for crack cocaine to make them equal to those for powder cocaine. (Instead, McCain should urge raising penalties for regular cocaine.)

Obviously, the crack/powder disparity is a more nuanced political issue than something like medical marijuana. Still, I have a hard time imagining that voters in 2008 want to hear the candidates promise harsher drug laws.

It's not 1988 anymore. People know those crack laws were racist. People know about our unsustainable, out-of-control prison population. And people know the punishments for cocaine are already plenty harsh. I'm not sure where public opinion breaks on this issue, but I doubt Dick Morris does either.

If I had to guess, I'd say McCain will probably follow the path Morris proposes. The appeal of attacking a candidate who's admitted trying cocaine, and now supports a reduction in crack sentences, will be great. On the other hand, if McCain does this, he'll be standing up for a notoriously racist law in an already racially-charged election.

The candidates should choose their words carefully on this one, as should any political strategist who still thinks proposing longer drug sentences is always a guaranteed winner at the polls.

(This blog post was published by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Europe: Despite British Marijuana Reclassification, No Jail for Low-Level Sellers

Last week, the British government announced it was returning marijuana to Class B drug status, signaling an end to the four-year experiment that saw the herb downgraded to a less serious Class C drug. That meant marijuana sellers could theoretically face up to 14 years in prison. Under guidelines issued Monday by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, however, it appears that many pot sellers will face no more than low-level sanctions.

For the first time in four years, the Sentencing Guidelines Council has promulgated a range of sentencing options for every offense that can be dealt with at a magistrate's court. Under the new guidelines, marijuana users who grow their own stash and occasionally provide marijuana to friends could be punished with only a fine or probation. Even those who supply larger amounts of marijuana or other drugs to share with a small circle of friends could receive probation, according to the guidelines.

For small-scale growing or sales of marijuana, the top end punishment in magistrate's court under the guidelines is 12 weeks in custody, but that sentence would be imposed only if there were aggravating factors. Commercial cultivation or large-scale sales offenses would be handled in the more serious Crown Court, where stiffer penalties are applied.

Opposition Conservatives were quick to pounce on the apparent contradiction between the government's announced hard line and the sentencing council's guidelines. "Once again we see mixed messages going out about drugs," said Tory justice affairs spokesman Nick Herbert in a Monday statement. "Just as the government finally admits that they got it wrong when they lowered the classification of cannabis, these guidelines would see most dealers receive weak and often poorly enforced community sentences."

But despite the posturing of the Tories, the sentencing council's guidelines seem in line with the recommendations of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which opposed the reclassification.

Death Penalty: Malaysia Sentences Two to Hang for Marijuana Trafficking, Iran Executes Nine Drug Sellers

Countries around the world, but particularly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, continue to resort to the death penalty for drug offenses. This week, we report on more executions in Iran and death sentences for marijuana in Malaysia.

On Tuesday, a Malaysian court sentenced two Thai citizens to death for marijuana trafficking. The two men, Masoh Daloh, 35, and Romuelee Yakoh, 46, were convicted in the Kuala Lumpur High Court of trafficking 75 pounds of pot. They had been arrested in 2002 with 34 kilogram-sized slabs of marijuana in their vehicle. Both men have appealed their sentences.

Malaysia has hanged more than 200 people, mostly its own citizens, for drug trafficking offenses since it imposed the death penalty for them in 1975. It has come under recent criticism from Amnesty International over secrecy surrounding its resort to the death penalty, but the government denies any cover-up and insists the ultimate sanction is a necessary deterrent to criminality.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities announced May 5 that they had hanged 12 convicted criminals, including nine people convicted of drug offenses, according to the anti-death penalty organization Hands Off Cain. The nine drug offenders were hanged in the northeastern city of Bojnourd, not far from the Afghan border. One of them was hanged in public, the first reported public hanging since Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Sharoudi ordered an end to the macabre displays without his prior approval in January.

Feature: "Color Blind" Drug War Disproportionately Targets Black Americans

America's drug laws do not reference race, but the way they are enforced has a gravely disproportionate impact on African Americans, according to two reports released this week. While the two studies' conclusions are no surprise to anyone who has observed the evolution of American drug law enforcement, they provide yet more confirmation that drug prohibition in the United States reeks of racial injustice.
Released together, the two reports, one from Human Rights Watch and one from the Sentencing Project, paint a picture of a society where the color of one's skin seems to be the biggest determinant of whether one will be arrested or imprisoned on drug charges. While whites commit more drug offenses, blacks are much more likely to be busted and jailed for them, the reports found.

In its report, "Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States," Human Rights Watch examined racial disparities among drug offenders in 34 states. In those states, black men were 11.8 times more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites, and black women were 4.8 times more likely to be arrested on drug charges.

In 16 of those states, blacks are sent to prison on drug charges at rates more than 10 times greater than whites, Human Rights Watch found. The states with the most egregious racial disparities in sentencing are, in rank order, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

While blacks make up 13% of the population, they accounted for 33% of all drug arrests and more than 53% of all drug offenders entering prison in 2003, the last year studied in the report.

"Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel in the US program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The solution is not to imprison more whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders."

While the Human Rights Watch report examined disparities at the state level, the Sentencing Project's 45-page study, "Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America's Cities," looked at racial disparities at the municipal level. The findings were equally grim. In examining data from 43 of the nation's largest cities, the report found that since 1980, the rate of drug arrests for blacks in those cities had increased 225%. While whites have also been caught up in the ever-expanding drug war, their arrest rate increased by a much lower 70%.

In 11 of the cities examined, black arrest rates on drug charges are more than five times what they were in 1980. In half of those cities, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested, even though use rates are roughly constant along racial lines.

"The alarming increase in drug arrests since 1980, concentrated among African Americans, raises fundamental questions about fairness and justice," said Ryan King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project and author of the report. "But even more troubling is the fact that these trends come not as the result of higher rates of drug use among African Americans, but, instead, the decisions by local officials about where to pursue drug enforcement."

The impact of local decisions about how to prosecute the drug war can be seen in cities across the country. In Tucson and Buffalo drug arrests have increased more than eight-fold between 1980 and 2003; in Kansas City and Toledo, more than seven-fold; in Newark and Sacramento, about six-fold. In some other cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, policing decisions have resulted in much lower increases in drug arrests.

As Human Rights Watch's Fellner noted above, the answer is not to arrest and imprison more white people for drug offenses. Instead, Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project urged public officials to address racial inequities and restore credibility to the criminal justice system with a number of reforms, including:

  • Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and restoring judicial discretion to sentencing of drug offenders;
  • Increasing public funding of substance abuse treatment and prevention outreach to make these readily available in communities of color in particular;
  • Enhancing public health-based strategies to reduce harms associated with drug abuse and reallocating public resources accordingly.

Hands Off Cain Daily eNewsletter - IRAN: 12 CONVICTS HANGED

[Courtesy of Hands Off Cain] In this issue: IRAN. 12 CONVICTS HANGED NORTH CAROLINA (USA). DEATH ROW INMATE WALKS FREE-129TH EXONERATION DRC. FIGHTING TO ESTABLISH THE UNCONSTITUTIONALITY OF THE DEATH PENALTY SAUDI ARABIA. 3 PAKISTANIS EXECUTED FOR HASHISH SMUGGLING IRAN. 12 CONVICTS HANGED Drug traffickers after being executed in Iran May 5, 2008: Iran has hanged 12 convicted criminals, including nine drug traffickers and three rapists, the latest in a growing number of executions in the Islamic republic, reports said. Nine drug traffickers were hanged, one of them in public, in the northeastern city of Bojnourd, Kayhan newspaper reported, without giving the date of the executions. This appears to be the first report of a public execution in Iran since judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi ordered in January that there should be no more public executions without his approval. "One person was hanged in public," said Kayhan, without giving further details. Shahroudi's decree came after a growing number of public executions in Iran, including the hanging of two convicted murderers in the centre of Tehran. It was not clear if he had approved the reported public execution in Bojnourd. Meanwhile, three criminals convicted of kidnapping and raping at least 11 girls were sent to the gallows in the southwestern city of Ahvaz on May 3, the Quds newspaper reported. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- NORTH CAROLINA (USA). DEATH ROW INMATE WALKS FREE-129TH EXONERATION May 2, 2008: The state of North Carolina dropped all charges against Levon Jones, and he was freed after spending 13 years on death row. U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle overturned Jones's conviction two years ago, but he was held in prison awaiting a possible retrial until prosecutors announced that they were dismissing all charges. Judge Boyle criticized Jones's defense attorneys for "constitutionally deficient" performance, noting their failure to research the history and credibility of Lovely Lorden, the prosecution's star witness. The judge noted, "Given the weakness of the prosecution's case and its heavy reliance on the testimony of Lovely Lorden, there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." In April, Jones's new defense team filed an affidavit in which Lorden said, "Much of what I testified to was simply not true." She also stated that a detective coached her on what to say. Additionally, she collected $4,000 from the governor's office for offering the clues that led to the arrest of Jones. Jones's retrial was set to begin May 12th, 2008. Duplin County District Attorney Dewey Hudson decided to ask the judge in the case to drop all charges. Jones was originally convicted of robbing and shooting a bootlegger named Leamon Grady. Levon Jones is the 129th inmate to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973. He is the 8th such inmate freed from North Carolina, and the 6th person in the country exonerated in the past 12 months. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- DRC. FIGHTING TO ESTABLISH THE UNCONSTITUTIONALITY OF THE DEATH PENALTY Liévin N'Gondji May 1, 2008: ongoing penal code reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo is giving abolitionists the chance to have the death penalty recognised as unconstitutional. The current Democratic Republic of Congo constitution, in place since early 2006, recognises the "right to life" and the "inviolable nature of human beings". A proposition for an article explicitly abolishing the death penalty was rejected by the national parliament during the text's elaboration in 2005. "We have submitted two requests, one to the director of public prosecutions' office and a second to the Ministry of Justice" to formally establish the unconstitutionality of the death penalty, explains Liévin N'Gondji, a lawyer and president of Culture for Peace and Justice (CPJ), member of the World and Congolese Coalitions against the death penalty. Thanks to international aid, the DRC's judicial system is being reformed and donors financing the project have invited CPJ to participate in the joint justice Commission, principally responsible for revising the penal code. N'Gondji estimates that "approximately three quarters of those present were in agreement" with his position on the unconstitutionality of capital punishment. According to N'Gondji, the Commission will make its recommendations to the government by the end of May. The latter should then make a decision quickly. "The next three months will be crucial", he believes. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- SAUDI ARABIA. 3 PAKISTANIS EXECUTED FOR HASHISH SMUGGLING May 1, 2008: Zargar Sadajan, Roajan Sodajar, and Naik Mohammed Malak Mohammed, all Pakistanis, were executed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after being convicted of receiving large quantities of hashish. A statement released by the Saudi Interior Ministry confirmed that the men were convicted by the court, and the verdict was approved by the Cassation Court and the Supreme Judicial Council.

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