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Drug Policy Reform Gets Standing Ovation in New Jersey Statehouse

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/christie.jpg

Something amazing happened in New Jersey yesterday. It's not the kind of news that's likely to make national headlines, but I think it says a lot about where our nation is heading when it comes to our attitudes about drug use and the criminal justice system.

The highlight came after Christie called for a revolution in New Jersey’s approach to the drug war that would divert non-violent addicts from prison and put them in treatment programs instead. And he did it with characteristic Christie style, in big bold strokes.

"I am not satisfied to have this merely as a pilot project," the governor said. "I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey." [NJ.com]

Those are strong words, especially from a man who many believe represents the future of the republican party. But more impressive than Gov. Christie's words was the way they were received:

[Former Gov.] Jim McGreevey, sitting perhaps 10 feet from Christie, jumped out of his seat to try to start a standing ovation.

And it worked. Within five or six seconds, the entire Assembly chamber, Democrats and Republicans, followed the lead of the humbled former governor, giving sustained applause from their feet.

"Addiction touches so many lives, and destroys one family at a time," McGreevey says. "The governor stated the obvious."

And yet much of what Gov. Christie has to say about drug policy is far from obvious to the leadership of his own party. In a noisy and high-profile republican presidential primary season, only Ron Paul has lent his voice to the message of a more measured and sensible approach to drug policy.

Meanwhile, the runaway front-runner, Mitt Romney, has achieved what many are calling an early lock on the nomination, and he did so without sharing any actual ideas about drug policy at all. The powerful right-wing political infrastructure that now rallies around Romney is oblivious to this conspicuous intransigence, even as he sets his sights on a showdown with Obama, where the youth vote is going to matter and concerns about issues ranging from marijuana reform to over-incarceration are increasingly resonant.

That's why it's just so weird to see a roomful of politicians clapping for drug policy reform, while so few have done anything to market that message to their supporters. If they don't yet understand that we're clapping too, we need to start clapping that much louder.

(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.)

Poland "Treatment Not Jail" Drug Law Now in Effect

An amendment to Poland's drug law that allows prosecutors to divert drug users to treatment instead of prison went into effect last Friday, PolskieRadio reported.

This crack smoker could get treatment instead of jail under a new Polish law (image via wikimedia.org)
The amendment lets prosecutors bypass the courts in a "treat, not punish" approach to drug use when confronted with people arrested in possession of small amounts of drugs. A person arrested with personal use quantities of drugs can now be immediately referred to a therapist, and prosecutors are compelled to gather information on the extent of the person's drug problem.

National Bureau for Drug Prevention spokeswoman Barbara Wilamowska told PolskieRadio she believes the new approach will result in fewer prosecutions.

Agnieszka Sieniawska, head of the Polish Drug Policy Network (PSPN), said the new system will be quicker, cheaper and more efficient.

But while the amendment represents a kinder, gentler approach to drug users, that same law increases penalties for drug trafficking.

The amendment comes into effect a month after two Polish Nobel Prize laureates, former president Lech Walesa and poet Wislawa Szymborska, signed a statement calling for lighter punishments for those arrested for personal use.

Meanwhile, a newly formed liberal political party, Palikot's Movement, is calling for the full legalization of soft drugs. It won a surprising 10% of the vote in the October general election. But Prime Minister Donald Tusk, head of the current coalition government, has said that his Civic Platform Party opposes legalization.

Poland

Fixing Our Drug Policy Will Require a Hatchet, Not a Scalpel

I have a new piece at Huffington Post discussing recent claims from the Drug Czar's office that the Obama Administration is working hard to "reform" our drug policy. We've reached an interesting moment in the debate when both sides are wrapping themselves in the flag of reform. 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Slams the War on Drugs

Last week’s joint statement from two state governors calling for the rescheduling of marijuana overshadowed another big story: NJ Gov. Chris Christie’s call for an end to the War on Drugs.

Word for word, this is hardly the most scathing indictment of the drug war we’ve ever heard. But it’s big news nevertheless, and for a few different reasons.

Christie is a highly-regarded politician that a quite a few people desperately wanted to see in the republican race for the presidency. He instantly climbs towards the top of any current list of prominent republican political figures favoring drug policy reform. He’s taken seriously in the press, and would have made big headlines with this announcement, were it not for the unfortunate timing.

Moreover, Christie uploaded this statement to YouTube himself. It’s got his name on it, which means the Governor’s office is proud of the position he’s taking and wants the public to know exactly what Chris Christie thinks about the drug war. He understands the broad and growing public support for drug policy reform, and he’s ready to play a role. That’s a promising perspective from a politician who many people think is a potential future republican president.

It’s a shame his comments didn’t get more play, but I have a feeling Chris Christie’s frustration with the War on Drugs will remain on display in the years to come, and as our political culture increasingly comes to grips with evolving public attitudes, he surely will not be the only big name joining the debate.

Gingrich Would Execute Mexico Drug Cartel Leaders

Republican presidential nominee contender Newt Gingrich said Saturday he would favor the use of the death penalty against Mexican drug trafficking organization leaders. The comments came in an interview with Yahoo News in which the former Georgia congressman and Speaker of the House also called medical marijuana in California "a joke" and suggested he would try to make life miserable for US drug users as a means of driving down drug use rates.

GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich (wikimedia.org)
Gingrich is now a leading contender for the Republican nomination. According to Real Clear Politics, which averages all polls, Gingrich is in first place nationally with 23.8%, ahead of his closest contender, Mitt Romney, who has 21.3%.

"My general belief is that we ought to be much more aggressive about drug policy, and that we should recognize that the Mexican cartels are funded by Americans," Gingrich said.

When asked if he stood by his 1996 legislation that would have given the death penalty to drug smugglers, he replied in the affirmative.

"I think if you are, for example, the leader of a cartel, sure," he said. "Look at the level of violence they've done to society. You can either be in the Ron Paul tradition and say there's nothing wrong with heroin and cocaine or you can be in the tradition that says, 'These kind of addictive drugs are terrible, they deprive you of full citizenship and they lead you to a dependency which is antithetical to being an American.' If you're serious about the latter view, then we need to think through a strategy that makes it radically less likely that we're going to have drugs in this country."

Gingrich suggested that Singapore, which imposes corporal punishment for minor offenses and the death penalty for drug offenses, was a role model. "Places like Singapore have been the most successful at doing that," Gingrich said. "They've been very draconian. And they have communicated with great intention that they intend to stop drugs from coming into their country."

For Gingrich, being aggressive on drug policy also "means having steeper economic penalties and it means a willingness to do more drug testing."

He elaborated on what he had in mind in response to another question: "I think that we need to consider taking more explicit steps to make it expensive to be a drug user," he said. "It could be through testing before you get any kind of federal aid. Unemployment compensation, food stamps, you name it."

Gingrich said that he wasn't a fan of imprisoning drug users and instead suggested that they be subjected to forced drug treatment. "I think finding ways to sanction them and to give them medical help and to get them to detox is a more logical long-term policy," he said.

Regarding medical marijuana, Gingrich, said he would continue current federal policy "largely because of the confusing signal that steps towards legalization sends to harder drugs [sic]." He also rejected letting states set their own policies "because I think you guarantee that people will cross state lines if it becomes a state-by-state exemption."

He also threw in a gratuitous jab at California's medical marijuana law. "I think the California experience is that medical marijuana becomes a joke," he said. "It becomes marijuana for any use. You find local doctors who will prescribe it for anybody that walks in."

GOP contenders Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson have taken firm anti-prohibitionist stands on drug policy, but they are finding little support among voters for a party that claims to be for limited government and states' rights. Newt Gingrich's comments on drug policy are only the latest indication that for most Republicans, continuing to fight the war on drugs trumps other party principles.

(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.)

Oklahoma House Passes Corrections Reform Bill

The Oklahoma House of Representatives Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill designed to relieve prison overcrowding. The bill, House Bill 2131, would substantially change the way Oklahoma sentences and paroles nonviolent offenders and it is estimated that it will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in coming years if it is enacted into law.

Who would have thunk it? Corrections reform is moving in Oklahoma. (Image via Wikimedia)
The bill changes "default" sentencing from consecutive to concurrent terms, which would substantially reduce the length of prison stays. Under the bill, instead of automatically sentencing offenders to consecutive terms, judges or prosecutors must specify that the terms must run consecutively.

The bill also changes the parole process by eliminating the need for the governor to approve parole for nonviolent offenders. Currently, Oklahoma requires the governor to sign off on every parole. Under the bill, if the governor does not act on a nonviolent offender parole request within 30 days, parole will be granted.

The bill also would expand eligibility for community sentencing programs and GPS monitoring for certain low-risk offenders.

"These changes would result in the better use of taxpayer dollars, increase in public safety and more appropriate consequences for low-risk offenders," said House Speaker Kris Steele (R). Changing default sentencing unless a judge or district attorney objects means "the standards will be that the sentences will run concurrently and that will ultimately save money," Steele said.

The bill passed 87-4 with no debate and no questions. It now heads to the state Senate.

Oklahoma City, OK
United States

Kentucky Cuts Drug Sentences [FEATURE]

Kentucky has become the latest state to enact sentencing reforms in a bid to rein in skyrocketing corrections costs. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) last Thursday signed into law HB 463, a comprehensive corrections bill that will save the state millions of dollars a year, in part by sentencing drug possession offenders to probation instead of prison.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (Image courtesy Gage Bradshaw)
The bill was based on a multi-year collaboration between the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project and state officials. State officials and legislators working with the project convened a Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act and issued a January report that was the basis for the legislation.

"This overhaul of Kentucky's penal code is the result of a multi-year effort involving members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches," said Gov. Beshear. "Over the last three years, we've made headway with aggressive efforts to bring common sense to Kentucky's penal code, and our prison population has dropped each of the past three years. House Bill 463 helps us be tough on crime, while being smart on crime."

The new law calls for sentences of "presumptive probation" for small-time drug possession offenders, meaning they will get probation unless judges can offer a compelling reason why they should go to prison. It also calls for drug treatment to be made available for drug offenders. It reduces penalties for small-time drug dealing while increasing penalties for large-scale trafficking. And it shrinks "drug-free" zones from 1,000 yards to 1,000 feet.

The law also reduces sentences for small-time drug dealing. Sales of less than four grams of cocaine, two grams of heroin or methamphetamine, or 10 dosage units of other controlled substances will be reduced from a Class C felony to a Class D felony.

"Today, if you sell half a gram of rock cocaine, that's a Class C felony," said Van Ingram, director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. "When the new law goes into effect in 90 days, you will have to sell more than four grams to get Class C. That means instead of a five-to-ten-year sentence, you'll be looking at one-to-five," he told the Chronicle.

The new law lowers possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a Class A misdemeanor worth up to a year in jail to a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 45 days in jail, if any jail sentence is imposed.

It also requires reforms of the probation and parole system. It will create "graduated sanctions" for parole violators, allowing authorities to impose short jail stays instead of sending them back to prison for technical violations. And it removes drug offenses from consideration when judges impose sentencing enhancements based on previous felony convictions.

Roderer Correctional Complex
Although crime rates have remained steady or dropped, Kentucky's prison population has increased fourfold in the past two decades, from 5,000 in 1990 to more than 20,000 now. Drug offenders account for 25% of the prison population, but 38% of inmates admitted since 2000. The state's corrections budget this year is $460 million, and Kentucky is set to save nearly that much over the next decade by implementing the new sentencing structure.

"Of all the problems I inherited, this is one of the most complex," Gov. Beshear said. "In early 2008, I directed Justice & Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown to convene the Criminal Justice Council and report back on recommendations for curbing the rising prison population. That report, and the work of subsequent work groups, provided the groundwork for much of these reforms."

"This bill takes major steps to both decrease recidivism while addressing the unique problems Kentucky faces with substance abuse in ways that absolutely enhance public safety," said Brown.

"House Bill 463 is landmark legislation not only for the positive changes it proposes for our penal code, but also for the manner in which it became law," said Speaker Greg Stumbo. "Anytime you can bring together as many diverse groups as this bill did, and have them agree, you're on to something special. Rep. John Tilley and Sen. Tom Jensen did a tremendous job in getting this bill to the finish line."

"It is the most significant and meaningful piece of legislation that I have had the privilege to work on since being elected to the state legislature," said Sen. Tom Jenson, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I am pleased that the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances is going to continue studying these issues. We have gotten off to a great start and we need to continue working to make things better where we can."

"I'm pleased we're making progress in tackling the problems facing our penal code," Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr. said. "With all three branches involved in this deliberative process, I'm confident that the outcome will be positive for Kentucky."

"Senator Jensen, Representative Tilley, Senate President Williams and House Speaker Stumbo worked across party lines to look at the data and forge a comprehensive package of reforms that will get Kentucky taxpayers a better public safety return on their corrections dollars," said Richard Jerome, project manager of the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project. "The legislation employs research-based strategies to reduce recidivism, hold offenders accountable and maximize the state's limited financial resources."

Sentencing reforms are becoming increasingly popular as cash-strapped states face ever increasing budget pressures. South Carolina, Colorado, New York, and Texas are among states that have reformed sentencing and other corrections practices to lower imprisonment rates and save money. Similar efforts are pending in Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Sentencing reforms don't end drug prohibition, but they do somewhat reduce its inhumanity and its costs to society, as well as to the people busted for drug offenses. That's a start.

Lexington, KY
United States

Florida Taxpayers Spent Hundreds of Millions Jailing Nonviolent Drug Abusers, Treatment a Less Expensive and More Effective Method

Location: 
FL
United States
Officials across Florida are realizing that in situations where drug offenders are non-violent it would be a better use of limited resources to send them to treatment instead of prison. But, there aren't enough treatment programs and Florida currently houses 19,414 inmates for non-violent drug offenses costing taxpayers $377,971,166 a year. Mary Lynn Ulray, the executive director of a Drug Treatment Program DACCO, says she thinks the legislature is starting to understand there is a cost benefit from drug treatment. Ulray says the agency's 6 month residential program has close to a 70 percent success rate in six months at a cost of $10,000 compare that to the average 6.4 year sentence costing taxpayer $124,601 per offender.
Publication/Source: 
WTSP (FL)
URL: 
http://www.wtsp.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=176960&catid=34

Bill to Lessen Penalties for Some Drug Offenders Clears Kentucky Senate Panel

Location: 
KY
United States
A Kentucky Senate committee has approved legislation aimed at reducing the state’s fast-rising prison population by bolstering drug treatment and alternative sentences for non-violent offenders. The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee without opposition. Supporters say the bill would produce net savings of $147 million over 10 years.
Publication/Source: 
The Gleaner (KY)
URL: 
http://www.courierpress.com/news/2011/feb/24/bill-lessen-penalties-some-drug-offenders-clears-k/

Neither Treatment Nor Jail for California Drug Offenders [FEATURE]

California voters opted for treatment over prison for drug possession offenders when they passed Proposition 36 with 61% of the vote in 2000. But now, five years after voter-mandated funding for treatment expired, the deficit-wracked state government is refusing to ante up, equally cash-starved counties are refusing to fund treatment locally, and drug offenders are ending up with neither treatment nor jail.

California State Capitol, Sacramento
When Prop 36 was fully funded by voter mandate, people who were convicted of first- or second-time drug possession offenses and decided to opt in were placed on probation with the requirement that they enter treatment. Treatment was funded by the state. But after that initial five-year mandate, and as California's budget crisis worsened, state funding has shrunk each year, and waiting lists for treatment for Prop 36 offenders began to grow.

That's even as the program has proven a success. According to research conducted by UCLA, Prop 36 has reduced the number of people imprisoned for drug possession by 40%, or 8,000 people, saving taxpayers $400 million in corrections costs this year alone. Overall, Prop 36 has saved the state more than $2 billion in corrections costs.

Perversely, Prop 36 treatment didn't get a penny of it. Once the mandated funding of around $120 million a year expired, treatment funding fell from a high of $145 million in 2007-2008 to $118 million in 2008-2009, $18 million in 2009-2010, and zero last year. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has proposed zero funding for Prop 36 treatment again this year.

"Prop 36 has helped reduce the number of people incarcerated for drug possession by nearly half, but there are still 9,000 of them in prison," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director for Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance, the group that sponsored Prop 36. "Most were never convicted of any serious or violent offense, but are there because they have a drug problem and multiple offenses. This is the same population that we've successfully been diverting from prison in huge numbers with no negative impact on public safety or on the taxpayers."

Prop 36's mandates are still in effect even if no one is allocating money to fund them. The court must still offer probation with the requirement that the offender goes to treatment, but now, instead of going to treatment, offenders go on a waiting list, which has grown weeks- and months-long as funding shrank, and which now may become endless.

"If you don't really need drug treatment, that's not a problem," said Dooley-Sammuli, "but if you have a drug problem, you are being put at a serious disadvantage. You're not getting the treatment you're entitled to under Prop 36 and you're at greater risk of being found in violation of probation and incarcerated."

With the prospect of help from the state legislature grim, counties are scrambling to figure out what to do. None of the options look very good.

"Long before we had financial support, long before there were funds to subsidize persons involved in the criminal justice system in our treatment services, we were seeing people ordered into treatment by the courts. We have just reverted back to those days," Haven Fearn, director of the Contra Costa County Health Services Department's Alcohol and Other Drug Services Division, told the Oakland Tribune. "We still offer treatment services to those individuals, but if the treatment slots are unavailable at the time the court orders it, many of them will have to go onto a waiting list."

Santa Cruz County announced that will "phase out" Prop 36 by no longer monitoring its participants, and other counties have suggested they will send offenders to Narcotics Anonymous. But counties that do not provide Prop 36 treatment could face lawsuits from Prop 36 offenders facing incarceration after failing three drug tests, if those those counties did not provide the treatment required by Prop 36.

"The counties can't opt out," said Dooley-Sammuli. "This is a sentencing statute. No county can end Prop 36. What they are choosing to end is the providing of treatment."

If legislators were smart, they would pay for treatment, said Dooley-Sammuli. "We hope they will realize that the state is crazy to not provide counties the resources to deal more effectively and more cost-effectively with people convicted of drug possession. Probation and treatment are both cheaper than jail. Not only should treatment be funded," she said, "but we know where to find it: In the $450 million currently locked up in the prison budget to incarcerate drug possessors."

Dooley-Sammuli also suggested California make possession a misdemeanor, not a felony. "The legislature recognizes that drug possession isn’t an offense that warrants incarceration in state prison, and we're asking that they follow through with what that really means," she said.

"Not only do we save money by making that a misdemeanor, we're also talking about making an important difference in the lives of people convicted of drug possession," she continued. "Having a felony on your record makes a huge difference in employment opportunities, lifetime earnings, being able to vote or adopt children, having custody of your own children, and other damaging collateral consequences."

If California isn't going to imprison drug possessors and it isn't going to provide them treatment, then perhaps it should just go ahead and decriminalize drug possession. Until it does, though, drug possession remains a felony in the Golden State. It's just that the state by law can't send offenders to prison and by choice won't pay to send them to treatment.

CA
United States

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