Alternatives to Incarceration

RSS Feed for this category

Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform? [FEATURE]

After decades of ever-increasing resort to mass incarceration in the United States, we seem to be reaching the end of the line. Driven in large part by economic necessity, state prison populations have, in the past three years, begun to decline slightly. The federal prison system, however, continues to grow, but now, there are signs that even at the federal level, the winds of change are blowing, and the conditions are growing increasingly favorable for meaningful executive branch and congressional actions to reform draconian sentencing policies.

prison dorm
There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle reported on Attorney General Holder's speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, where he announced a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing, especially a backing away from the routine use of mandatory minimum sentencing via charging decisions by federal prosecutors.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said Monday. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

But while Holder outlined actions that can be taken by the executive branch, he also signaled administration support for two pieces of bipartisan sentencing reform legislation moving in the Senate. Those two bills, the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), introduced in the spring, and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), introduced just last week, have better prospects of moving forward now than anything since the Fair Sentencing Act passed three years ago. .

Pat Leahy
That's because it's not just Democrats or liberals who are supporting them. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has not only the usual suspects behind it, but also The New York Times, conservative taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and a group of 50 former prosecutors. And, somewhat surprisingly, that bane of liberals, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), just came out in with model legislation mirroring the act's provisions.The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

The other bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, also has bipartisan support and was sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). It would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, make a modest expansion to the safety valve provision (though continuing to exclude anyone previously incarcerated in prison for more than 13 months in the past 10 years), and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act applicable to persons sentenced before its enactment, which would reduce sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

The Justice Safety Valve Act has companion legislation in the House, again bipartisan, sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). And another House bill, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2656), cosponsored by Scott and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, thus saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

Only bolstering the case for further sentencing reform is the US Sentencing Commission's preliminary report on crack retroactive sentencing data, released late last month. That report found that some 7,300 federal crack defendants received an average 29-month reduction in their sentences, saving roughly half a billion dollars in imprisonment costs without an concomitant increase in crime rates.

"Taxpayers have received the same level of crime control but for a half- billion dollars cheaper," noted Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "What’s not to love?"

Given the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act three years ago with conservative support, the proven budgetary benefits of reducing incarceration, and the current role of conservatives in pushing for reform, the chances are better than ever that something could pass this year, and even if it doesn't, the changes announced by Holder should ensure that at least some federal drug defendants will get some relief, observers said.

"The policies Holder described in his speech will probably help produce reduced drug sentences in some cases," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "But it is also important in a symbolic sense. The fact that the attorney general is leading this conversation may help to open up the political space where we can have a different discussion about crime policy. The discussion has been evolving significantly over recent years, and in some ways, his speech represents an affirmation that the climate has shifted, and that there is commitment from the top to moving forward on sentencing reform."

Rand Paul
"I think we're at a moment when bipartisan sentencing reform is possible," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We've got those bipartisan bills in Congress, we have that ALEC endorsement, we have Holder's speech, and more."

"Given how little bipartisan cooperation there is on anything, it's remarkable that we have two bills in the Senate addressing mandatory minimums," Mauer noted. "This bipartisan cosponsorship is very intriguing, and is contributing to the momentum. There has been no significant backlash to Holder's speech, and that suggest a pretty broad recognition that the time has come to move in this direction."

Not every reformer was as sanguine as Mauer. In California, marijuana reformers and industry players, many of whom have borne the brunt of a federal crackdown, were offended that Holder would give a speech in San Francisco and not address their issue. Harborside's Steve DeAngelo posted the following statement in reaction: "Eric Holder's speech advocating drug war changes rings hollow to those of in states that have already passed reform legislation, only to see it relentlessly attacked by Mr. Holder's very own US Attorneys," DeAngelo said. "We had hoped the Attorney General would clarify federal policy toward state cannabis laws, as he promised to do almost a year ago. But instead of concrete action to support state reform efforts, Holder offered more vague promises about future changes in federal policy."

Conversely, it wasn't just reformers seeing possible changes on the horizon.

"It is impressive that Holder has decided to stay with a lame duck president and emphasize this issue," said Phil Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University. "I think there is a consensus forming for reform, and I would not have thought that possible two years ago. If something is going to happen, I expect it to happen within the next 18 months."

Stinson made a telling, if seldom mentioned, point.

"This is largely driven by economics," he said, "but also by the fact that by now, almost everybody knows a family member or friend or friend's child who has been behind bars. It has taken awhile to get to this point, but now the issue is ripe, and the opportunity is there."

"It looks like there is a real opportunity in Congress," Piper argued. "The general consensus is that there are too many people in prison and too many tax dollars wasted. Even some of the most conservative offices we talk to want to talk about sentencing reform. Something is possible, even though this is Congress and the Obama administration we're talking about. The stars are aligning, but it will take a lot of work to get it done. There seems to be something real happening with sentencing reform based on the number of Republicans starting to talk about it, and I'm certainly more optimistic than I was a year ago."

"While things are moving in the Senate, the House is more difficult to predict," said Mauer. "But even if something does get through, the scale of the problem of mass incarceration is going to require a wholesale shift in approach and policy. The current proposals are steps in that direction, but it will require a much more substantial shift if we are to see significant reductions."

Or, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition has long argued, reforms on the back end -- sentencing -- will have limited impact on people sent to prison for drug offenses, absent change on the front end -- ending drug prohibition and prohibition-driven policing.

Whether a perfect storm for sentencing reform is brewing remains to be scene, but there are winds blowing from unusual directions. The collision of Democratic social justice liberalism and Republican fiscal conservatism and libertarianism could on this occasion produce, if not a perfect storm, at least the first rumblings of a political earthquake.

[See our related story this issue, "As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform."]

Washington, DC
United States

As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing. He said he will direct US Attorneys that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders not tied to gangs or major trafficking organizations should not be charged in ways that trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder (usjoj.gov)
Holder's announcement is only the latest indicator that -- after decades of "tough on crime" politics in Washington -- pressure is mounting to do something about the huge number of people in federal prisons. The Chronicle will be reporting on the rising calls for reform in both the executive branch and the Congress later this week.

In a major speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco Monday morning, Holder laid out Obama administration sentencing reform plans, some of which can be implemented by executive action, but some of which will require action in the Congress. The comprehensive sentencing reform package is designed to reduce the federal prison population not only through sentencing reforms, but also through alternatives to incarceration in the first place.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

"It's time -- in fact, it's well past time -- to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach," Holder told the assembled attorneys. "While I have the utmost faith in -- and dedication to -- America's legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken. The course we are on is far from sustainable. And it is our time -- and our duty -- to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans."

One of those areas, Holder said, is mandatory minimum sentencing.

"We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.  Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences -- regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case -- reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries," said the former federal prosecutor. "Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They -- and some of the enforcement priorities we have set -- have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive."

In addition to reducing the resort to mandatory minimum sentencing and directing prosecutors to use their discretion in charging decisions, Holder will also order the Justice Department to expand the federal prison compassionate release program to include "elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences."

Beside the executive branch actions, Holder also committed the Obama administration to supporting sentencing reform legislation currently pending before Congress, specifically the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619), which would give federal judges the ability to sentence below mandatory minimums when circumstances warrant, and the the Smart Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1410), which would reduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes, slightly expand the existing drug sentencing safety valve, and apply retroactively the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010's reduction in the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

"Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars," Holder said. "Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable."

Sentencing and drug reform advocates welcomed Holder's speech and the Obama administration's embrace of the need for criminal justice reforms, but also scolded the administration and lawmakers for taking so long to address the issue and for timidity in the changes proposed.

"For the past 40 years, the Department of Justice, under both political parties, has promoted mandatory minimum sentencing like a one-way ratchet. Federal prison sentences got longer and longer and no one stopped to consider the costs and benefits," said Julie Stewart, founder and head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today, at long last, the politics of criminal sentencing have caught up to the evidence. The changes proposed by the Attorney General are modest but they will make us safer and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process."

"There's no good reason, of course, why the Obama administration couldn't have done something like this during his first term -- and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann in a message to supporters. "But that said, President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve credit for stepping out now, and for doing so in a fairly decisive way."

[See our related story this issue, "Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform?"]

San Francisco, CA
United States

Chronicle Book Review: Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling

Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer (2013, The New Press, 111 pp., $17.95 PB)

Marc Mauer, the executive director of the The Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit devoted to reforming harsh sentencing practices and the way we think about crime and justice, first published the groundbreaking Race to Incarcerate back in 1999. With clinical precision, Mauer showed how -- and why -- our prison population began skyrocketing in the 1970s, driven less by crime than the politics of "tough on crime" and "tough on drugs," and how the issue of crime was inextricably interwoven with issues of race and class.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/race-to-incarcerate-graphic-retelling.jpg
The book garnered good reviews and generated some discussion on crime policy from social justice activists, academics, policy wonks, and other interested parties. In fact, it proved popular enough to merit a second edition in 2007. And now, there is Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling, a new, updated edition in graphic novel form -- one aimed not at the policy set, but at a broader and more youthful audience.

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow notes in her forward to this edition, she used Race to Incarcerate as an organizing tool, sending copies off to people who could wade through and benefit from its number-crunching and policy analysis. But she generally didn't send it to young or uneducated people, relying instead on videos, magazine articles and the like. A Graphic Retelling is designed to be accessible to people who aren't policy analysts or academics, and it succeeds impressively.

With its appropriate dark illustration by graphic artist Sabrina Jones, the graphic version of the book tells the complex and convoluted tale of America's incarceration obsession in a way that is easy to grasp, yet as powerful as paragraphs of dense text -- if not more so. With the help of Jones, Mauer's astute and pointed analysis leaps off the page in easily digestible and visually pleasing -- if sometimes disturbing -- imagery. How better to show (rather than tell) America's position as the world's leading incarcerator than a graphic of men crammed into tiny boxes piled atop more men crammed into tiny boxes in a pile that stretches to the sky?

Mauer and Jones take the reader/viewer on a tour of American punishment going back to the colonial era, when imprisonment was rarely used -- physical punishments, such as whippings or the stocks were instead the norm -- and the first "reform," the "Pennsylvania model," where penitent prisoners resided in a penitentiary, locked in their cells alone all day with their work and their Bibles, to reflect on the error of their ways. Advanced by the Quakers and seen as a humane alternative to physical punishments, the "Pennsylvania model" laid the groundwork for the prison system that has metastasized into the present-day American gulag.

But the "Pennsylvania model" had its critics early on, including Charles Dickens, who called the enforced, prolonged solitary confinement "worse than any torture of the body." Still, a century and a half after Dickens, the penitentiaries endure, and so does the massive use of solitary confinement, even though human rights groups qualify it as a human right abuse.

Race to Incarcerate really takes off, though, in the 1970s, when the prison population, which had been relatively stable for decades, also began taking off. Frightened by the tumult and turmoil of the 1960s, American voters elected "tough on crime" Richard Nixon as president, and the race to incarcerate was on, only to accelerate under Ronald Reagan, and continue full speed ahead under Democratic and Republican administrations alike until the early years of this century.

Along the way, we revisit the draconian Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s, the model for mandatory minimum sentencing that was to sweep Washington and state capitals in the years to come, as well as successive -- and successively more harsh -- federal drug and sentencing laws that have stuffed our prisons full of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

Many of those nonviolent, low-level drug offenders we pay billions to keep behind bars are poor people of color. Too many. A disproportionate number, given the percentage of black people in the population and their rates of drug use (about the same as whites).  Mauer shines here with his analysis of the race and -- gasp! -- class dimension of mass incarceration, and the shameful failure of the American political system to respond to social problems with anything other than a prison cell, especially if you happen to be the scary black male "other."

America's imprisonment binge has also inspired a contemporary reform movement, of which Mauer is both member and narrator. And, as he notes in a preface to the new edition, that movement is gaining ground. The overall prison population is now stabilized, if not actually declining, thanks to sentencing reforms in the states and, to a much more limited degree, at the federal level. (The states have had to deal with their budget crises by making real policy choices, such as reducing imprisonment levels; the federal government, on the other hand, simply prints more money and goes on its merry way.)

But even with the progress that has been made, America remains the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning its own people. Eliminating drug prohibition would cut our prison population by about a fifth, but we would still be the world's leading jailer even then. It's not that Americans are more criminal than anybody else; it's that we lack the will or the imagination to come up with more humane solutions to our social problems -- and some politician can always count on gaining support by playing to fear and the "lock 'em up" vote.

The tide may, finally, be beginning to turn, but there are many, many battles left to fight. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling is a perfect tool for educating the young and the non-wonkish about the issues involved and the forces involved in that All-American urge to punish. This book deserves a place in the high school class room, among youth groups, and among those hoping to educate and mobilize for positive change on crime, race, class, and social justice issues. It is a powerful tool for good.

Colorado Legislature Passes Sentencing Reform

In the final week of Colorado's legislative sessions, while all the attention was focused on passing marijuana commerce regulations, the state legislature quietly passed a measure designed to reduce the number of drug offenders sent to prison and save the state money. Senate Bill 250 had passed the Senate in April, the House passed it with amendments last Friday, and the Senate concurred with the House version Monday.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation.

It also creates an "exhaustion of remedies" requirement for some drug offenders. That means they must have already participated in several other forms of treatment and sentencing before being sentenced to prison.

Those and other reform provisions in the bill will save the state of Colorado $5 million a year, according to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Some 550 offenders a year will be able to avoid prison sentences for their drug offenses under the new law, according to a legislative analysis.

"It's been a long time coming," said Sen. Steve King (R), sponsor of the bill. "It starts to deal with addiction issues and getting them off drugs."

The governor is expected to sign the bill shortly.

Denver, CO
United States

Decriminalize Drug Possession, UK Experts Say

In a report six years in the making, the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission, a non-governmental advisory body chaired by Dame Edith Runciman, has called for a reboot of British drug policy and for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The report, A Fresh Approach to Drugs, found that the UK is wasting much of the $4.8 billion a year it spends fighting illegal drugs, and that the annual cost to the country of hard drug use was about $20 billion. A smarter set of drug policies emphasizing prevention, diversion, and treatment would be a more effective use of public resources, the report found.

Some 42,000 people in the UK are convicted each year of drug possession offenses and another 160,000 given citations for marijuana possession. Arresting, citing, and jailing all those people "amounts to a lot of time and money for police, prosecution, and courts," the report said.

"To address these costs, there is evidence to suggest that the law on the possession of small amounts of controlled drugs, for personal use only, could be changed so that it is no longer a criminal offence. Criminal sanctions could be replaced with simple civil penalties, such as a fine, perhaps a referral to a drug awareness session run by a public health body, or if  there was a demonstrable need, to a drug treatment program. The evidence from other countries that have done this is that it would not necessarily lead to any significant increase in use, while providing opportunities to address some of the harms associated with existing drug laws," the report recommended.

"Given its relatively low level of harm, its wide usage, and international developments, the obvious drug to focus on as a first step is cannabis, which is already subject to lesser sanctions than previously with the use of cannabis warnings. If evaluations indicated that there were no substantial negative consequences, similar incremental measures could be considered, with caution and careful further evaluation, for other drugs," the report said.

But while the commission was ready to embrace decriminalization, it was not ready to go as far as legalizing drug sales.

"We do not believe that there is sufficient evidence at the moment to support the case for removing criminal penalties for the major production or supply offenses of most drugs," it said.

Still, policymakers might want to consider lowering the penalties for growing small numbers of marijuana plants to "undermine the commercialization of production, with the associated involvement of organized crime."

The report also called for a review of harsh sentences for drug offenses, a consistent framework for regulating all psychoactive substances -- from nicotine to heroin -- and for moving the policy prism through which drug policy is enacted from the criminal justice system to the public health system.

But the Home Office, which currently administers drug policy in Britain, wasn't having any of it. Things are going swimmingly already, a Home Office spokesperson said.

"While the government welcomes the UKDPC's contribution to the drugs debate, we remain confident that our ambitious approach to tackling drugs -- outlined in our drugs strategy -- is the right one," the spokesperson said. "Drug usage is at its lowest level since records began. Drug treatment completions are increasing and individuals are now significantly better placed to achieve recovery and live their lives free from drugs. "I want to take this opportunity to thank the UKDPC for its work in this area over the past six years."

United Kingdom

Drug Policy in the 2012 Elections II: The Parties and the Presidential Race [FEATURE]

As the 2012 election campaign enters its final weeks, all eyes are turning to the top of the ticket. While, according to the latest polls and electoral college projections, President Obama appears well-positioned to win reelection, the race is by no means a done deal, and there's a chance that marijuana policy could play a role -- especially in one key swing state, Colorado, where the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a popular and well-funded campaign to pass Amendment 64.

President Obama (wikimedia.org)
But other than that, marijuana policy in particular and drug policy in general do not appear likely to be big issues, at least between Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. That's because both candidates hold similar positions:

Both oppose marijuana legalization, which will also be on the ballot in Oregon, and Washington. Obama, while at least paying lip service to patient access to medical marijuana, which will be on the ballot in Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Montana, has presided over a Justice Department crackdown on medical marijuana distribution, while Romney appears irritated and uncomfortable even discussing the issue.

"With Obama, we've all been disappointed with the backtracking, although he also needs credit for the original Ogden memo and opening the gates to a wider proliferation of medical marijuana around the country," said Drug Policy Action head Ethan Nadelmann. "For the people most disappointed with that, the paradox is that Romney offers very little of promise."

That was illustrated by GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's brief flirtation with medical marijuana. Last Friday, Ryan said medical marijuana was a states' rights issue. The comments came in Colorado, where the issue is hot.

"My personal positions on this issue have been let the states decide what to do with these things," he said in an interview with a local TV reporter. "This is something that is not a high priority of ours as to whether or not we go down the road on this issue. What I've always believed is the states should decideI personally don't agree with it, but this is something Coloradans have to decide for themselves."

But Ryan, who has a previous voting record opposing states rights to medical marijuana, did half a backtrack the next day, when one of his spokesmen explained that Ryan "agrees with Mitt Romney that marijuana should never be legalized."

Obama as president has supported increased drug war funding to Mexico and Central America, and Romney as candidate supports it as well. But his views are malleable. When running for the nomination in 2008, Romney suggested that spending on interdiction was a waste, and the money would be better spent on prevention here at home. Again, that is not so different from the Obama position which, rhetorically if not budgetarily, emphasizes treatment and prevention over interdiction and law enforcement.

The relative quiet around drug policy in the two campaigns is reflected in the Democratic platform and the Republican platform. There are only a handful of mentions of drugs or drug policy in the Democratic platform -- and the word "marijuana" doesn't appear at all -- all of them having to do with either combating international organized crime or touting the Obama administration's baby steps toward a slightly more progressive drug policy.

One of those progressive measures was overturning the federal ban on needle exchange funding, but the platform makes no mention or that or of the words "harm reduction." It does urge "supporting local prison-to-work programs and other initiatives to reduce recidivism, making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money" and says the Democrats "will continue to fight inequalities in our criminal justice system," pointing to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act as "reducing racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes." The act actually addresses only crack cocaine sentencing.

While emphasizing their tough on crime positions, the Republican platform also takes some baby steps toward a more progressive drug policy. It calls for rehabilitation of prisoners and for drug courts, supporting state efforts to divert drug offenders to treatment, and it criticizes the federalization of criminal offenses. But the single most dramatic change in the Republican platform is that has eliminated what was in previous platforms an entire section on the war on drugs.

Just as with the candidates, the platforms give drug policy little time or space. In an election driven by the economy and the fires burning in the Middle East, the issue is going to get short shrift, especially when there is little daylight between the candidates on the platforms on the issue.

There are alternatives to the bipartisan drug policy consensus, but they remain on the margins. At least three third party candidates, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, are calling for an end to the drug war and marijuana legalization, but they are all but shut out of presidential debates and media interest.

Mitt Romney (mittromney.com)
Since there is little substantive difference in the drug policy positions of the two front-runners and since their positions on marijuana legalization put them at odds with half the country -- 50% now support legalization, according to the most recent Gallup poll -- neither candidate has much incentive to open his mouth on the issue. And they may be able to get away with it.

"Can the campaigns get away with not talking about marijuana?" Drug Policy Action head Ethan Nadelmann asked rhetorically. "That depends. First, will the question get popped at one of the debates? I don't know how to influence that. The second possibility will be if the candidates are obliged to answer a question somewhere, but I don't know how much they're taking questions -- their handlers are trying to keep them on message. The third possibility is that they will say something at private events, but who knows what gets said there?" he mused.

"They are certainly going to try not to talk about it," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Given Romney's anger at a reporter for bringing up the issue and Obama's reluctance to address questions about marijuana policy in public forums, one can expect them to continue this behavior until forced to answer questions by the media or the public."

That leaves voters for whom marijuana reform is an important issue hanging out to dry.

"Unless one of the candidates sees an opportunity for a large boost in support by changing his position on marijuana policy, voters will be forced to choose between either third party candidates or the major party option that they think will do the least amount of damage to reform efforts going forward," said Fox. "If we consider Obama's behavior so far and Romney's staunch anti-marijuana statements (as well as the fact that he has never used it) it becomes a really difficult choice for voters."

Nadelmann begged to differ on that point.

"Romney has been more hostile on this issue than McCain or Bush or any Democratic candidates since Bush the Elder," he said. "He is visibly uncomfortable and even hostile regarding even the most modest drug policy reforms. Romney said if you want to legalize marijuana, you should vote for the other guy. That's very telling, with over 50% of independents and even more than 30% of Republicans supporting marijuana legalization. Why would Romney say that? The Obama campaign would have a hard time running with this, but someone else could."

Still, the lack of space between the major party candidates on the issue may leave an opening for Anderson or Johnson or Stein, Fox said.

"These candidates are the only ones offering real solutions to the quagmire of marijuana prohibition, or even taking definitive stances on the issue. The more they continue to draw public attention to marijuana reform while the major players stay silent, the more we can expect voters to pay attention to them and take them seriously," he predicted. "We can also expect their vocal support for reform to draw the attention of the major candidates and possibly elicit some sort of positive response from one or both of them. Whether that response will be sincere or simply lip-service to prevent third-party candidates from siphoning votes in key elections remains to be seen. However, even the latter would be a sign that the message is getting out and that politicians are at least starting to realize where the public stands on marijuana."

The one place where marijuana policy discussion may be unavoidable and where marijuana policy positions could influence the statewide electoral outcome is Colorado. Marijuana is a big issue in the state, not only because Amendment 64 is on the ballot, but also because of the ongoing war of attrition waged against dispensaries there by the DEA and the US Attorney. (The Colorado Patient Voters Project tracks federal activity against medical marijuana in the state, as does our own Medical Marijuana Update series, accessible with other relevant reporting in our medical marijuana archive section.)

Gary Johnson (garyjohnson2012.com)
And it's a tight race where one third party candidate in particular, Gary Johnson, is making a strong run and exploiting his popular legalization position on marijuana. While the Real Clear Politics average of Colorado polls has Obama up 48.7% to Romney's 45.3%, the race tightens up when Johnson is included in the polls.

"I think Colorado is key," said Nadelmann. "It has the initiative and it's a swing state, and there is the possibility that Gary Johnson or the Green candidate could make a difference. The polling has been split, and the question with Gary Johnson is whether he draws more from Obama or Romney."

One recent poll may hold a clue. Among the polls included in the Real Clear Politics average is a new Public Policy Polling survey, which had Obama beating Romney 49% to 46%. But when the pollsters added Johnson to the mix, he got 5%, taking three points away from Obama, but only two from Romney, and leaving Obama with only a two-point lead, 46% to 44%.

This year's election results from Colorado could mark a historic point for the marijuana reform movement, and not just because of Amendment 64, said Fox.

"This is a state where we are really going to see the power of this issue as it relates to elections," he said. "This is possibly the first time that marijuana policy could affect the outcome of a presidential election. That just goes to show how far reformers have come in just a few short years. As public opinion in support of ending prohibition continues to grow, the paradigm is going to shift from politicians avoiding the issue at all cost or being knee-jerk reactionaries who want to appear 'tough on crime' to candidates addressing marijuana policy in a rational manner as a way to build support."

We'll see in a few weeks how this all shakes out, but before then, we'll be taking an in-depth look at pot politics in Colorado in the context of Amendment 64. Stay tuned.

Please read our last week's feature, overviewing the various state ballot initiatives: Drug Policy in the 2012 Elections I: The Initiatives.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org'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.)

The GOP Platform on Crime and Drugs

With Republican delegates now gone home after their national convention in Tampa, this is as good a time as any to examine their official position on crime and drugs. The 2012 GOP Platform lays it out, and reformers may find a few things to be pleasantly surprised about, at least if elected Republicans actually adhere to their party's official positions.

What may be most significant is what isn't in the platform: Four years ago, the GOP platform had a whole section devoted to the war on drugs. That has vanished this time around.

But reformers still won't find too much to make them smile. In the platform section titled "Justice for All: Safe Neighborhoods and Prison Reform," after the boilerplate language about how "strong families and caring communities supported by excellent law enforcement" are the most effective forces in reducing crime, the Republicans get to it:

"Our national experience over the last several decades has shown that citizen vigilance, tough but fair prosecutors, meaningful sentences, protection of victims’ rights, and limits on judicial discretion can preserve public safety by keeping criminals off the streets," the platform reads. "Liberals do not understand this simple axiom: Criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public. To that end, we support mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder... We oppose parole for dangerous or repeat felons…"

But even the GOP, and, more broadly, conservatives are coming to understand that being "tough on crime" is not enough, as evidenced by the formation of the conservative Smart on Crime Coalition, some of whose positions appear to have been incorporated into the platform:

"While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community. Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization," the platform states.

It goes on to endorse state and local initiatives, such as "accountability courts," or the drug court model, and calls for government to work with faith-based institutions to try to divert first-time, nonviolent offenders -- although it doesn't say it wants to divert them from the criminal justice system, just from "criminal careers." The platform does, however, call for supporting state and local initiatives "trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation."

The platform of the party of small government and states' rights also laments that federal law enforcement has "been strained by two unfortunate expansions: the over-criminalization of behavior and the over-federalization of offenses," noting that the number of federal offenses has increased by almost 50% since the 1980s.

"Federal criminal law should focus on acts by federal employees or acts committed on federal property -- and leave the rest to the states," the platform says. Then Congress should withdraw from federal departments and agencies the power to criminalize behavior, a practice which, according to the Congressional Research Service, has created 'tens of thousands' of criminal offenses... In the same way, Congress should reconsider the extent to which it has federalized offenses traditionally handled on the state or local level."

There it is, the official platform of the Republican Party this year. One mention of drug dealers, one mention of drug users, no mentions of medical marijuana or marijuana legalization, but some hints that the GOP could live with some experimentation in the states and a smaller federal enforcement arm.

Tampa, FL
United States

Some States Move on Sentencing Reform

With state budgets devastated by the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent slow economic growth, the impulse to incarcerate is being blunted by fiscal realities. This year, a number of states have passed legislation designed to ease the financial burden of mass incarceration.

The slight trend away from mass incarceration by the states has been evident for the past couple of years, as for the first time in decades, the number of prisoners being held by the states has declined. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, the number of combined state and federal prisoners declined for the first time since 1972. The decline was driven by the states, with state prison populations down 0.5%, while the federal prison population grew by 0.8%.

A number of states, including California and Texas, have in the past decade begun reforming their sentencing practices, accounting for the decline. Recently passed sentencing reforms in several states could help see those numbers drop even further. These include:

Hawaii

Last month, Gov. Neal Abercrombie (D) signed into law two bills, House Bill 2515 and Senate Bill 2776. They will, among other things, allow judges to impose probation for first- and second-time drug possession charges. The bills also expand the use of pre-trial and parole hearing risk assessment to identify and release low-risk offenders and prisoners. And they provide funds for community-based drug treatment programs.

Illinois

Late last month, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed into law Senate Bill 2621, which restores good time credits to non-violent offenders who complete drug treatment, job training, or other rehabilitation programs. Quinn had suspended the good time credits after a 2010 scandal in which it was revealed that many prisoners had won early release after serving only weeks in prison. The new new law requires prisoners to serve at least 60 days before they could be released for good time credit, and prisoners can earn no more than 180 days of good time credit.

Missouri

Last week, a bill that reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine began law without the signature of Gov. Jay Nixon (D). The bill was approved by the Republican-led legislature on the last day of the session and reduces the state's 75-to-1 ratio in sentencing for the two different types of cocaine to a ratio of about 18-to-1.

New Jersey

Late last month, the legislature passed Senate Bill 881, under which non-violent, drug-dependent offenders will receive treatment rather than prison. The bill also removes prosecutorial objections to sending someone to drug court and expands eligibility for the state's drug court program. Gov. Chris Christie (R) is expected to sign the bill.

Ohio

Late last month, Gov. John Kasich (R) signed into law Senate Bill 337, which allows people to seal the records on one felony and one misdemeanor or two misdemeanor convictions. The idea is to make it easier for former prisoners to find work. The law also creates a certificate of qualification that will give ex-offenders the ability to get some occupational licenses they were previously barred from obtaining.

Pennsylvania

Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed into law Senate Bill 100, which incorporates many of the recommendations of his Justice Reinvestment Working Group and passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. It expands eligibility for alternative sentencing programs, allows for intermediate sanctions so that fewer technical parole violators are sent to prison, and diverts some low-level defendants from prison. But it's not all good: The bill also eliminates the pre-release program that allows qualifying prisoners to be paroled to halfway houses before their minimum dates.

Tennessee

In May, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed into law Senate Bill 3520, which allows some former prisoners to expunge certain felonies and misdemeanors from their criminal records. It only applies to those with a single conviction, but legislative fiscal analysts projected it would increase expungement requests by 60,000 a year.

The states are not undertaking a radical rethinking of the rote resort to incarceration, but they are nibbling at the edges, particularly when it comes to drug offenders. Every little bit helps.

Marking Mother's Day With Calls for Reform [FEATURE]

On this Mother's Day, more than 100,000 women are behind bars in American prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many of them are doing time for drug offenses. That's too many, said members of a new coalition, Moms United to End the War on Drugs, as they held events last week in the days running up to Mother's Day.

Gretchen Burns Bergman at the National Press Club (Moms United)
"The war on drugs is really a war on families," said Mom's United's Gretchen Burns Bergman. "It is time to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs and move from arrest and mass incarceration to therapeutic, health-oriented strategies. Moms were the driving force in repealing alcohol prohibition and now moms will play a similar role in ending the war on drugs."

Bergman, from San Diego, is the mother of two sons who have struggled with substance abuse and incarceration and is a founder of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing). A New PATH has joined forces with other groups, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the NORML Women's Alliance, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy to form Moms United to agitate for an end to the drug war and a turn toward sensible, evidence-based drug policies.

The week leading up to Mother's Day was a week of action under the rubric of Cops and Moms Working Together to End Prohibition. The week saw events and press conferences in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC, in the East and Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland on the West Coast.

"Mother's Day was derived out of an intensely political effort to organize women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line against the Civil War," said Sabrina Fendrick, coordinator for the NORML Women's Alliance. "The reason mothers were made the vehicle was because they were the ones whose children were dying in that war. Women were also largely responsible for ending alcohol prohibition. This is more than just a ‘greeting-card holiday,’ this is the beginning of an institutional change in our society. The government's war on drugs is unacceptable. For our children's sake, the concerned mothers of the world are being called on to demand the implementation of a rational, responsible, reality-based drug and marijuana policy."

Last Wednesday, at a San Diego press conference, the umbrella group unveiled the Moms United to End the War on Drugs Bill of Rights, a 12-point motherhood and drug reform manifesto which calls for "the right to nurture our offspring, and to advocate for their care and safety" and "the parental right to policies and practices that recognize addiction as a disease in need of treatment, rather than a willful behavior to be criminalized," as well as the right to have harm reduction and overdose prevention practices implemented, the right to be free from heavy-handed, constitution-threatening drug war policing, and the right to be free from drug war violence.

Moms United in Los Angeles (Moms United)
"If we stop arresting and incarcerating drug users, think of the number of children who would have the chance to look upon their parents as positive role models instead of having parents who are absent because they are incarcerated," the group said. "We have a moral and ethical obligation to give these children a better chance in life by allowing parents to take care of their families. These parents should have the opportunity to become the productive members of society and role models to their children that they want to be and that their children need and deserve."

The Bill of Rights has been endorsed by a number of religious, reform, and civil rights groups, and individuals can sign onto it, too. To sign on, go to the online petition.

"We are building a movement to stop the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs or are addicted to drugs," the group said. "We urgently call for health-oriented strategies and widespread drug policy reform in order to stop the irresponsible waste of dollars and resources, and the devastating loss of lives and liberty."

It's not just Moms United who is using Mother's Day to strike a blow for drug reform. In Colorado, where Amendment 64 to legalize and regulate marijuana is on the ballot, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a television ad featuring a young woman writing an email to her mother in which she explains that she has found her marijuana use to be safer and healthier than the drinking she did in college.

The ad is aimed at a demographic that is both critical to and difficult for the campaign: women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom are mothers. The ad appeared Friday and again on Mother's Day.

"Our goal with the ad is to start a conversation -- and encourage others to start their own conversations -- about marijuana," Betty Aldworth, the advocacy director for the campaign.

And it's not just the United States, either. In mother-honoring Mexico, which marked Mother's Day on Thursday, hundreds of women and other family members traveled to Mexico City on the National March for Dignity to demand that the government locate their loved ones gone missing in the drug wars, according to the Frontera NorteSur news service.

"They took them alive, and alive we want them," the marchers chanted.

While the drug wars in Mexico have claimed at least 50,000 lives, including 49 people whose dismembered bodies were found on a highway outside Monterrey Sunday morning, thousands more have gone missing, either simply vanished or last seen in the hands of armed, uniformed men.

The Mexican government doesn't report on how many have gone missing in its campaign against the cartels, but the Inter-American Human Rights Commission counts more than 5,000 missing persons complaints filed with police -- and this in a country where many people so mistrust the police they don't bother to file official reports.

"For some it has been years, for others months or days, of walking alone, of clamoring in the desert of the hallways of indolent and irresponsible authorities, many of them directly responsible for disappearances or complicit with those who took our loved ones away," the mothers' group said.

On Mother's Day, many mothers in Mexico have "nothing to celebrate," said Norma Ledezma, cofounder of Justice for Our Daughters in Chihuahua City. "As families, we want to take this occasion to tell society not to forget that in Mexico there is home with a plate and a seat empty."

"We have walked alone in the middle of stares and stigmatizing commentaries, and we have been treated like lepers, marginalized and condemned to the worst pain a human being could live: not knowing the whereabouts of our sons and daughters," the new mother's movement declared. "But now we are not alone. We have found hundreds of mothers and we unite our clamor and our love to recover our loved ones and bring them home."

On Mother's Day, the agony of the drug war transcends borders. And the call from mothers for a more sane and human alternative continues to grow, from Chihuahua to Chicago and from Oaxaca to Washington.

Obama Releases 2012 National Drug Control Strategy

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, but while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug law enforcement under the proposed budget, and despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years.

The administration is high-lighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

This year's drug strategy looks like last year's drug strategy, which looked like Bush administration drug strategies, which looked like Clinton administration drug strategies. When it comes to the federal drug war, it's more of the same old same old.

Look for an expanded version of this news brief Thursday afternoon, with deeper analysis and commentary from drug war observers.

Washington, DC
United States

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School

StopTheDrugWar Video Archive