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Chronicle Book Review: This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, by Anthony Papa

After decades of the war on drugs and other "tough on crime" policies, America seems finally to have begun to come to its senses. The imprisonment rate has leveled off, and we're no longer seeing year after year after year of ever-increasing numbers of people behind bars in the land of the free.

We've seen that change at the federal level, with the Fair Sentencing Act, softening of the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, and Justice Department instructions to prosecutors to avoid hitting bit players with mandatory minimum sentences. We've seen that at the state level, with sentencing reforms in dozens of states leading to an actual reduction in the number of state prisoners. And we've even seen it at the local level -- the nation's system of city and county jails -- through things like marijuana decriminalization and reforms in bail practices.

That's all well and good, but we're still the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita term, with more than two million people locked up (China only has 1.5 million). Tens of thousands of them are non-violent drug offenders sentenced under draconian laws enacted before the fever broke -- confined not for years, but for decades -- and writing less brutal sentencing laws now isn't much help to them.

In his waning days in office, President Obama struck a bold blow for justice and made modern presidential history by granting clemency to more than 1,700 federal drug prisoners. Let's be crystal clear here: These were not pardons granted to people who had finished their sentences and long ago returned to society and now wanted their records wiped clean. Obama's commutations meant that people currently spending their lives behind prison walls walked free -- years or decades before they otherwise would have. Hundreds, mostly third time drug offenders serving life sentences, would have died in prison.

But the president can only grant pardons or commutations to people in the federal system, and the vast majority of American's prisoners are in state prisons. Each state governor holds a pardon power similar to the federal chief executive's, but it is used sparingly, some might even say stingily, and has certainly never been wielded in a mass fashion to achieve a social justice end like Obama did at the federal level.

That's a crying shame -- and a potential focus of reform organizing -- because a governor's signature can liberate a human being who not only deserves a chance to breathe the air of freedom, but who may actually make our world a better place by being in and of it instead of being locked away from it -- and us.

Ask Tony Papa. He was a young New York City family man with his own business who, short on cash, took an offer to make a few hundred bucks by delivering some cocaine back in the 1980s, when New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws were still in full effect. It was a sting, and Papa got popped. Like thousands of others, the luckless he quickly entered the state's drug war gulag, sentenced to 15 years to life.

In an earlier work, 15 to Life, Papa told the story of his bust, his seeming eternity behind bars, his slammer-honed artistic talent, and how an anguished self-portrait that seemed to encapsulate the horror and madness of crushing drug prohibition resulted in some high-placed interest, followed by media attention, a public campaign on his behalf, and his release after 12 years when he was granted clemency by then-Gov. George Pataki. It is a remarkable tale of punishment, perseverance, and redemption.

And now, he's back with the rest of the story. In This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, the personable Papa tells the tale of his life after rebirth -- and makes achingly clear how the trauma of years-long incarceration lingers in the psyche of the freed. There is a clear public policy moral buried in these pages, too: Getting out of prison is only the first step, reentry into society is hard, society itself seems to make it even harder, a virtual obstacle course for people taking the baby steps of freedom, but if we as a society are smart, we will make the effort, for our own collective sake as well as out of a humanitarian impulse.

Compared to most newly freed prisoners, Papa had it good. The campaign for his release had made him connections, he could find work, he could revive his familial ties, yet still he struggled, and understandably so. When you've spent a dozen years being told what to do, freedom isn't easy.

Papa had his demons, and part of the way he fought them was by resolving not to forget the prisoners he left behind. Within a year of his release, inspired by the courageous years-long struggle of the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, those survivors of the thousands taken and killed by the military dictatorship of the 1970s, he and comic/political gadfly Randy Credico formed the New York Mothers of the Disappeared along with family members of the thousands imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws.

Papa, Credico, and the Mothers played a critical role in early efforts to overturn the Rockefeller drug laws, and his tales of feckless politicians, preening celebrity intervenors, and back room double-dealing are the inside dirt on the glacial process of bringing some sanity to the state's drug laws. It ain't pretty, but reform did happen -- eventually -- and Papa got his social justice payback. If that isn't redemption-worthy, I don’t know what is.

This Side of Freedom is one part memoir, one part social history, one part heart-felt manifesto. Papa is an effective, engaging writer who tells his story in discrete episodes and has a knack for jumping from the personal to the political like a quivering quantum particle. You'll meet a range of colorful characters and experience the gamut of human emotion -- the highs, the lows, the ennui -- as you follow Papa's path.

His is one portrait of life in turn-of-the-21st Century America: mindless cruelty and brutality, mixed with racial injustice, but leavened with the will to resist. Read and ask yourself: How many other Tony Papas are out there, watching their lives tick away as they're locked in the cells, when they could be out here helping the rest of us make our world a better, more just and humane place?

Interview: Marc Mauer on Criminal Justice Reform in the Trump Years [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

For nearly half a century, America has been in the grip of incarceration fever. Beginning with the "law and order" campaigns of Richard Nixon, reprised by Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," and seemingly carried on by inertia through the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, the fever only began to break in the last few years.

The Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer (Human Rights Project/Bard College)
For the first time in decades, we have not seen the ever-increasing uptick in the number of people behind bars in the United States. After the incredible expansion of imprisonment that made the land of the free the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, the US prison population may have finally peaked. Small declines have occurred in state prison populations, and the federal prison population, fueled largely by drug war excess, is stabilizing.

Much of the progress has come under the Obama administration, but now, there's a new sheriff in town, and he doesn't seem remotely as reform-friendly as Obama. What's going to happen with sentencing reform and criminal justice under Trump and the Republicans?

To try to find some answers, we turned to someone who's been fighting for reform for decades now, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit committed to working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Drug War Chronicle: When it comes to sentencing reform, we're likely in for a rough ride these next few years with tough-talking Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. But before we look forward to what may come, it's worth looking back at where we've been and what's been accomplished in the last eight years. How did sentencing reform do under Obama?

Marc Mauer: I think we saw very substantial reform, both in terms of actual policy changes that have made a real difference, but also in terms of a change in the political environment, which is really critical for long-term reform.

We saw substantial changes coming out of Congress, the White House, and the US Sentencing Commission. In Congress, probably the most substantial piece of legislation was the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced -- but didn't eliminate -- the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

But changes put in place by the Sentencing Commission have had the largest impact. It amended the sentencing guidelines to reduce punishments for drug offenders, which affected an estimated 46,000 people currently serving federal drug sentences. Of those, about 43,000 have seen their cases reviewed, with 29,000 getting sentence reductions and 14,000 getting denied. These are going to be rolling reductions -- for people who might have had three years left, the guidelines change might knock that down to six months; for people doing 30 years, it might knock it down to 27. They still have a long way to go, but not as far as before. This is having and will have the most significant effect.

The Obama White House was very active on sentencing reform, too. Obama commuted more than 1,700 federal prison sentences, a third of those life sentences, typically for third-time drug offenses, and that has a very significant effect. They've also done a number of initiatives around re-entry, collateral consequences, "ban the box" policies, and the like.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidance to employers about when it is and isn't appropriate to use prior criminal records when considering employment applications. The administration set up an interagency reentry council that brought together a number of cabinet agencies to see what they could do to have an impact on easing reentry.

There's been a congressional ban on inmates using Pell grant education funds, which only Congress can overturn, but the Obama administration created a pilot Pell grant program and was able to restore some funding on a research basis. The estimate is that about 12,000 incarcerated students will be able to take advantage of that.

President Obama meets with federal prisoners, El Reno, Oklahoma, 2015 (whitehouse.gov)
DWC: Now, it's a new era, and Jeff Sessions appears set to become our next attorney general. He was something of a player on criminal justice issues in the Senate; what's your take on what to expect from him on sentencing and criminal justice reform?

MM: I'm not overly optimistic. He's been supportive of some criminal justice reform in the past, most notably the Fair Sentencing Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act -- that involved a left-right coalition that felt prison rape was a bad thing, and provided money for research, training, and oversight as ways to reduce prison rape and sexual assault.

But in other areas, he's pretty much a hardliner. He was one of a handful of Republicans who vocally opposed sentencing reform legislation that was moving through Congress last year. He's one of the reasons the bill never got a Senate floor vote, even though it had passed out of the Judiciary Committee.

He's expressed skepticism about the work of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, particularly toward the consent decrees that it has imposed on cities and police departments making them agree to try to deal with tensions police law enforcement and African-American communities. That wasn't a pro- or anti-law enforcement approach; we have a real problem, and we need to get the parties working together. Getting law enforcement and local officials to agree that we have a problem is a very important tool to address a very serious problem.

To just say as Sessions does that he supports law enforcement doesn't get us very far. What do we do when law enforcement isn't doing the right thing, when it's violating people's rights? This will be very problematic.

And he continues to express support for harsh sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what perspective he has on what federal prosecutors should do. Eric Holder directed US Attorneys to change their charging practices in low-level drug cases so that people with minimal criminal histories wouldn't be hit with mandatory minimum sentences when possible. We haven't heard from Sessions whether he will keep that in place, or overturn it, or come up with something else. That will be critical. Attorneys general have swung back and forth on this.

DWC: That sentencing reform bill died last year, in part because of election year politics. Now the campaigns are over, but the Republicans control Congress. What are the prospects for anything good happening there now?

MM: There is some hope for sentencing reform. Among the Republican leadership, both Sen. Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have publicly expressed a desire to see criminal justice reform go through this Congress. It's not entirely clear what that would look like -- would it look like last year's bill or only contain some aspects? -- but it is encouraging that they're voicing support for moving in that direction. Clearly, the big question is how the White House responds.

DWC: That is the big question. So, what about Trump? What do you foresee?

MM: Well, during the campaign, Trump called himself the law and order candidate, and he's been a vocal proponent of the death penalty and other tough measures, so that isn't encouraging. And if Sessions becomes attorney general, he would be involved, too, and that doesn't bode well for sentencing reform. Whether he makes this a priority issue or lets his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill take the lead will tell us a lot about the prospects.

DWC: With Trump and a Republican Congress you're facing a different political constellation than you were last year. How does that change your work, or does it?

MM: It doesn't change much in the day-to-day work. To make criminal justice reform work, we've always needed to make it bipartisan. It's been too sensitive and too emotional for so long that it's just not going to work unless it's bipartisan. That worked with crack sentencing and some other sentencing reform measures moving through Congress, and we are just going to continue the work. We meet regularly with congressional offices.

When it comes to justice reform issues, the political environment has shifted from the days of just "lock 'em up." There is growing and substantial support for reform from the right, not uniformly, but there is enough commonality of purpose that there is a good base for some kind of legislative change. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, though.

DWC: Our conversation has focused so far on the federal level, but it's the states -- not the feds -- who hold the vast majority of prison inmates. How are things looking at the state level, and what impact do you thing the new order in Washington will have at the statehouse?

The states have begun reducing their prison populations. (nadcp.org)
MM: Unlike issues like health care, criminal justice is primarily a state and local issue, and over the last 10 or 15 years, there has been significant forward momentum. Overall, the state prison population has declined modestly, but in a handful of states they have achieved reductions of 25% or 30% over this period. And they did it on their own; this wasn't inspired by Washington.

And this wasn't just a blue state phenomenon. The state with the most substantial prison reduction was New Jersey with 31% -- under Christ Christie, who was generally supportive. Other states that saw big reductions were California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, but also Mississippi. We've also seen reforms enacted in places like Georgia and South Carolina, and Republican governors have been supportive.

It's quite likely the momentum we see at the state level will continue to a significant extent. At that level, policymakers are closer to the issue, and money issues are more relevant -- states actually have to balance their budgets. And by now, a number of states have had good experiences with reducing prison populations, with no adverse effects on public safety. The public has been supportive, or at least not opposed.

DWC: So, where do we go from here?

MM: Our goals and our strategy largely remain the same. We have to speak to broad audiences and work both sides of the aisle. Most importantly, we have to remember that criminal justice reform has never been easy. For several decades, we spent a good part of our careers trying to explain why tough on crime policies are counterproductive. It's been a long battle, but it's come to the point where the public environment has been shifting in a more rational, compassionate direction.

We have to build on the hard work that's been done. Now, we have Black Lives Matter and related grassroots activity, which has really spread quite quickly, creating a broader demand for change from the ground up. Some political leaders lead, but many follow; the more active support there is around the country, the more politicians have to respond.

Still, going backwards is quite possible. What happens to the commitment to civil rights? What happens to sentencing policy? If not actual backward movement, probably at least a halt to work around reentry programming in prisons and the like. That would be a real shame. We have made significant progress, the field has a much greater store of knowledge about what works and what doesn't. We are ready to try to expand on that; it would be extremely foolish in terms of public safety not to take advantage of that.

Black Lives Matter Makes A Powerful Connection With Racist Drug War [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

The Black Lives Matter movement sprung out of the unjust killings of young black men (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown), either at the hands of self-styled vigilantes or police. But as the movement blossomed and matured, BLM began turning its attention to a broader critique of the institutional racism behind police violence against the black population.

While the war on drugs plays a central role in generating conflict between the black community and law enforcement, the critique of institutional racism in policing and the criminal justice system necessarily implicates the nation's drug policies. The grim statistics of racially biased drug law enforcement are well-known: blacks make up about 13% of the population, but 30% of all drug arrests; blacks account for nearly 90% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions; black federal crack offenders were sentenced to far more prison time that white powder cocaine offenders; blacks and other minorities are disproportionately targeted in traffic stop and stop-and-frisks despite being less likely than whites to be carrying drugs, and so on.

People who have been spent careers working in the drug reform movement didn't need the publication of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow to understand the corrosive and screamingly unfair impact of drug war racism on black communities, but the 2010 broadside helped open eyes outside the movement and deepened the visceral impact of drug war racism for those already in the trenches. The book continues to reverberate. And now, Black Lives Matter is bringing a whole new sense of energy and urgency to the issue.

Despite efforts by leading drug reform groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, the world of drug reform remains overwhelmingly white. With marijuana legalization proceeding at a rapid pace and business opportunities emerging, the unbearable whiteness of the marijuana industry is becoming an increasingly high-profile issue.

Last month, Black Lives Matter activists released Campaign Zero, a comprehensive platform for curbing police violence and reforming the criminal justice system in the US. The platform does not explicitly call for ending the war on drugs, but drug war policies and policing techniques are inextricably intertwined with the policing problems (and solutions) it identifies. Campaign Zero calls for decriminalizing marijuana within the context of a broader call for moving away from "broken windows" policing, as well as demanding an end to mass stop-and-frisk and racial profiling policies, both impelled in large part by the drug war. It also calls for an end to "policing for profit," whether through issuing tickets for revenue-raising purposes or through another drug war creation, the use of civil asset forfeiture to seize cash and goods from people without convicting them of a crime (sometimes without even arresting them).

Most of the other Campaign Zero policy proposals regarding police use of force, militarization and community control don't directly address the war on drugs, but because the drug war is so pervasive, it is implicated with them as well. According to the FBI, drug offenses were the single largest category of arrests made, constituting 1.5 million of the 11 million arrests nationwide last year.

How does a mostly white drug reform movement that is already intellectually aware of drug war racism, and that has used it to its advantage in efforts like the Washington, DC marijuana legalization fight and the struggle to roll back harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, deal with Black Lives Matter? To its credit, the Drug Policy Alliance took a big whack at it during last month's International Drug Policy Reform Conference in suburban Washington. While race and the drug war were an issue at numerous sessions during the conference, a Live National Town Hall on "Connecting the Dots: Where the Drug Policy Reform Movement and the #BlackLivesMatter Intersect" brought a laser-like focus to the topic. And it was a hot topic -- event organizers had to move the event to a larger room at the last minute when it became evident that hundreds of people were determined to be there.

They came to hear from a panel that included BLM co-founder Patrice Cullors, Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs founder and executive director Deborah Peterson-Small, NAACP Legal Defense Fund senior organizer Lumumba Bandele, DPA policy manager Kassandra Frederique, and St. Louis hip-hop artist T-Dubb-O. DPA program director Asha Bandele was the moderator.

People have to open their minds to new paradigms, the panelists warned. "People are so wedded to the institution of policing they can't even imagine something different, something radical," said Cullors. "We have to transform the way our communities have been completely devastated by the war on drugs."

"We are at a historic moment right now, a moment where freedom looks different to people than how it looked before," said Peterson-Small. "Harriet Tubman famously said she could have freed more slaves if the people only knew they were slaves -- that's the psychology of enslavement. What we need now is a conversation about white people who believe they're free when they're not," she said.

"We black people already know we're not free," Small continued. "I worry about the people who believe they're free, the people who think the police are your friends, that they're here to serve and protect you. You have a lot of illusions about the role of police in your lives."

The legacy of slavery lives on all too vividly in the modern criminal justice system, she said.

"Policing is the way white America continues to replicate the cycle of enslavement, the power dynamic on which this society is based. Every time a black man is arrested, it's a reenactment of that dynamic," Peterson-Small said.

"We believe in two incompatible things," she told the audience. "We believe that we live in a free and democratic country where anyone who works hard can succeed, but we also know we live in a country established by and for the benefit of white men. White folks are in denial about that incompatibility, but it's no longer possible to pretend something that's been going on for 200 years hasn't been happening."

Removing the blinders from white people's eyes is part of the struggle, she said. "Our fight for freedom is your fight for freedom. Oppressed people have to be the agent and catalyst of freedom for their oppressors," she told a rapt crowd.

DPA's Frederique talked about the imperative she felt to make the connection between her work as a drug reformer and the broader issue of racism in America in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.

"We can't wait to make the connection, I needed to understand how to make the connection," she said, "but I was without words. Now, I locate the work I do as racial justice. If we're going to continue to say that the war on drugs is war on people of color, if we continue to get nontraditional allies and say marijuana legalization is a civil rights issue and how we are winning, I find it hard to believe the idea that we can win the war on drugs without winning the war on people of color. If we think that, we're doing something wrong."

"Drug policy reform needs to systematically disrupt and destroy institutional racism," she said. "If we don't, we can't ask black people to sit at the table."

But as moderator Asha Bandele noted, it's not just white racism that's holding down black people when it comes to drug policy. "Respectable" black people have been a bulwark of the drug war, too. If you just obey the law, you won't get in trouble, they say, looking down their noses at their troublesome brethren.

That's wrongheaded, said Peterson-Small. "If we were having this conversation 135 years ago, people would have said the same thing about the pig laws as we say now about the crack laws," she said. "We've always been in a war for our survival in this country. The only reason we are here is to be a source of economic profit for other people."

Alluding to Poland's WWII-era Lodz Ghetto, Peterson-Small warned that meekly complying with harsh and arbitrary authority to ensure the survival of the community can end up with the elimination of the community.

"We've got to stop drinking that Kool-Aid," she said. "When we as a community are willing to stand up for the brother with a blunt and a 40 the way we did with Trayvon, they won't be able to keep us down."

"Just look at me," said hip-hop attired T-Dubb-O. "I have a dream, too. I don't want to be a hashtag, I don't want to sell drugs, to kill somebody who looks like me. It's the system of white supremacy that puts me in that mind state. When you talk about the war on drugs, that school-to-prison pipeline, that's what gives them that mind-state," he said.

"We don't own no poppy farms, but now we have a heroin epidemic," he said. "The murders you see in Chicago, those killings in St. Louis, that's heroin."

T-Dubb-O took drug war solidarity to the next level, mentioning the case of the 43 missing Mexican student teachers presumably killed by drug gangs working in cahoots with corrupt local politicians.

"We have to have an international vision of the people who are repressed," he said.

In response to an audience question, Peterson-Small got down to nuts and bolts. If we want to dismantle racism, drug policy provides a space to apply harm reduction to the problem.

"The work that really needs to be done is for people to understand that we're not the ones who need fixing," she said. "All of us have been infected by this thing. If we apply harm-reduction principles, we would focus on what is the intervention, not who is the racist. It's a course of treatment, not a weekend of racial sensitivity training."

The National Town Hall is just a beginning. We still have a long way to go.

Release: Major Groups Call for UN to Respect Countries That Legalize Marijuana or Other Drugs (5/5/15)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 5, 2015

CONTACT: David Borden, borden@drcnet.org

Major Groups Call for UN to Respect Countries That Legalize Marijuana or Other Drugs

Human Rights Should Take Priority Over Drug Enforcement, New Letter Says

NEW YORK, NY – As the United Nations prepares for the first comprehensive review of global responses to drug problems in nearly two decades, a broad coalition of more than 100 organizations is pushing for the international body to respect countries that move away from prohibition.

"Existing US and global drug control policies that heavily emphasize criminalization of drug use, possession, production and distribution are inconsistent with international human rights standards and have contributed to serious human rights violations," the groups write in a new letter being released today.

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Global Exchange, Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights are among the signatories. Also notable are a number of organizations devoted to health policy and AIDS services.

The letter's release is timed to a United Nations "High-Level Thematic Debate on the World Drug Problem" taking place in New York on Thursday, May 7, in preparation for a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) scheduled for April 2016. Advocates believe that countries should take the UNGASS as an opportunity to pursue a range of reforms to global drug policy, including revising provisions of the UN Drug Conventions that threaten to stand in the way of reform. The Obama administration has taken the stance that countries should be free to pursue different kinds of systems under the treaties – including legalization – but has also opposed treaty reform, a stance which advocates have questioned.

"The administration's call to respect countries' right to try regulation rather than prohibition is a positive step for drug policy, as are other reforms the US has sought internationally," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who coordinated the sign-on letter. "But it doesn't make sense to oppose having a discussion within the UN about modernizing the treaties to reflect that."

The coalition has called for the UN to appoint a "Committee of Experts" to study treaty reform, a common UN procedure for addressing issues of interest.

To date, four US states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis, as has the nation of Uruguay. Many other countries have decriminalized possession of certain drugs or have implemented harm reduction measures like syringe exchange programs. While the UN's drug enforcement body has warned that some of these policies may violate the treaties, the push for reform doesn't appear to be slowing anytime soon.

The new letter calls for revising the treaties, and says that in the meanwhile "in case of irreconcilable conflict, human rights principles, which lie at the core of the United Nations charter, should take priority over provisions of the drug conventions."  Human rights concerns may require shifting to drug control systems that aren't based on prohibition, the statement suggests. "Accommodating… experiments… with legalization and regulation of internationally controlled substances may require that the UN drug conventions are interpreted in light of countries' international human rights and other obligations."

Although marijuana legalization is a major factor driving the international drug debate, another is the impact the illicit drug trade has in Latin America, where violence and related criminal problems associated with the trade exceed that suffered in other regions.

John Walsh, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said, "Some Latin American leaders are now openly questioning the global drug prohibition regime, because of the destruction caused by criminal organizations fueled by enormous drug trade profits. Meanwhile, the US is undergoing important shifts in its own domestic policy, with the Obama administration wisely accommodating states that are legalizing and regulating cannabis. This expands the political space for other countries as well." Walsh is the coauthor of "Marijuana Legalization is an Opportunity to Modernize International Drug Treaties," co-published by WOLA and The Brookings Institution.

Advocates also warn that flexibility, as called for by the State Department, shouldn't be used to justify human rights violations in any country, such as the death penalty for nonviolent offenses or the banning of life-saving public health interventions like syringe exchange or opioid substitution therapy. "Prohibition has been a public health and human rights disaster," said Charles King, CEO of the US's largest community-based AIDS service organization, Housing Works. "That's why citizens around the world are calling for – and in some cases enacting – forward-thinking reforms that move away from criminalization and toward regulation and control. US and UN agencies should stop trying to cut off the treaty reform discussion and encourage a truly open debate instead."

The full text of the letter and list of signatories are online at http://stopthedrugwar.org/un.

StoptheDrugWar.org works for an end to drug prohibition worldwide, and an end to the "drug war" in its current form. We believe that much of the harm commonly attributed to "drugs" is really the result of placing drugs in a criminal environment. We believe the global drug war has fueled violence, civil instability and public health crises; and that the currently prevalent arrest- and punishment-based policies toward drugs are unjust.

# # #

Louisiana Man Gets 13 Years for Two Joints, Commutation Campaign Underway [FEATURE]

This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.

Bernard Noble has already spent nearly four years in a Louisiana prison for being caught with two marijuana cigarettes -- and he's still less than a third of the way through a 13-year sentence with no shot at parole. The sentence is outrageous, but hardly unique in a state with one of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.

Under Louisiana law, possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds is punishable by six months in jail on a first offense, up to five years in prison for a second offense, and up to 20 years in prison for a third offense. While first- and second-time offenders are eligible for probation, third-time offenders are not. Distributing any amount of pot, even a joint or two, garners a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, and that includes possession with intent to distribute.

Add in the gross racial disparities in marijuana possession busts -- African-Americans in the state are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for than whites and account for nearly two-thirds of all pot arrests while making up less than one-third of the population -- and you have a pipeline to prison for black Louisianans.

In Bernard Noble's case, getting caught with a couple of joints morphed into more than 13 years behind bars because of the way the state's harsh marijuana laws intersect with its harsh habitual offender law (known colloquially as "the bitch.") Because Noble had two previous drug possession offenses, one 12 years old and one 24 years old, he fell under the purview of the habitual offender law.

Even though his current offense was trivial (marijuana is decriminalized in nearly 20 states and possession is legalized in four others and DC) and even though his previous offenses were low-level and nonviolent, the statute called for the 13 years, without parole.

Taking into account Noble's minor criminal history, his work record, and his role as the breadwinner for a family with seven children, and making special note of his overpayment of child support to children not living with him, his sentencing judge departed from the statute and sentenced him to only five years. Orleans Parish prosecutors appealed the lower sentence to the state Supreme Court and got the 13-year sentence reinstated last year.

"Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and a lead author of a brief to the state Supreme Court in the case. "The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can't call it 'punishment' -- it is more like torture."

It has also shattered Noble's family and destroyed his fledgling business, a restaurant in Kansas City. Noble had relocated there after Hurricane Katrina and has just returned to New Orleans for a family visit. He left his grandmother's house on a bike ride four years ago and never made it back. He's been locked up ever since.

Bobby Jindal has a chance to do the right thing. (gov.state.la.us)
But there's renewed hope for the black, 48-year-old New Orleans family man, even if it's a longshot. Lawyers working on his case are preparing to formally seek a commutation for him from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) within the next few days, and they, supporters, and advocates are hoping to light a fire under the governor hot enough to make him act. A rally is set for Sunday to draw attention to his case.

If Jindal's record is any indication, though, it will have to be quite a fire: During his time as governor, Jindal has granted only 40 of 390 commutations requested.

"This is one of the most egregious cases, a real heart breaker," said Yolanda Cadore, director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance. "He's been in there 44 months, and he's not even close to finishing his sentence. He's just passing time. The only rehab available is drug treatment."

Noble's sentence also plays into another ugly dynamic in Louisiana: imprisonment for profit. Back in the 1990s, during another overcrowding crisis, parish sheriffs were offered a cut of future profits if they covered the cost of building prisons in their counties. Now, more than half of state prisoners are held in parish jail administered by sheriffs.

The state pays them $24.39 a day per prisoner, much less than the $55 a day if would cost to house them in state prisons. If a sheriff can keep jails full, he can pull in as much as $200,000 per jail per year, all the while keeping expenses -- staffing and inmate care and programs -- as low as possible. Other sheriffs lease their prisons to for-profit prison companies in return for guaranteed annual payments.

Sheriffs have a direct financial incentive to keep their jails full, and they know it. Sentencing reforms would hurt their bottom line, and they have organized to make sure that doesn't happen. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association consistently lobbies against sentencing reforms, and its political action committee uses its financial clout to help elect politicians who agree with them.

Orleans Parish, the most populous in the state, acts as a conveyor belt for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to fill the cells and the coffers for other parishes.

"Orleans Parish is the parish that is fueling the prison system in other parts of the state, and it's mostly black men fed into the prison system from there," said Cadore. "Look at Bernard Noble, look at Victor White, who was stopped, frisked, questioned, and ended up dead in the back of a police car after they found marijuana on him."

Case after case after case of black men being sent away for years for relatively trivial offenses is starting to have a cumulative effect on public opinion.

"What's rising to the surface is the impact these current laws have on a particular community -- the black community," Dore pointed out. "We are noticing that the drug war has a color, and that's black, and it has a gender, and that's mostly male, and it has a location, mainly urban, where the young black men are. In all of that, Louisiana is no outlier."

Winning a commutation for Bernard Noble would be a step in the direction of social and racial justice. But he's just one prisoner. The state has 40,000 more, many of them also nonviolent drug offenders.

"If we are ever going to make a dent in reducing the incarceration rate and having a serious conversation about policy reform, we have to look at the impact of these draconian, regressive policies that are fueling the incarceration problem in the state," said Cadore.

"We also have to point out where lawmakers are making policy not based on evidence, but on tradition or notions of morality. We're in an age where evidence-based policy-making is not only the right thing, but the fiscally and socially responsible thing to do," she continued. "Louisiana has been casting a blind eye to evidence. Is it that they're not paying attention or that they're not paying attention to things that are profit-generating?"

Chronicle AM: Holder on Pot, Big $$$ for OR Init, Cairo Student Drug Tests, More (10/21/14)

Holder talks pot, more big bucks flow to Oregon initiative, federal judge to ponder whether marijuana belongs in Schedule I, the right attacks Vanita Gupta, Canada's NDP calls for decriminalization, and more. Let's get to it:

US Attorney General Eric Holder (justice.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Attorney General Holder "Cautiously Optimistic" on Marijuana Legalization. In a Monday interview with CNN, Attorney General Eric Holder said he is "cautiously optimistic" about marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. He said that the Justice Department was focused on eight "priority areas" when it came to legal weed, including prevention of distribution to minors, drug trafficking across state lines, and drug-related violence. "What I've told the governors of those states is that if we're not satisfied with their regulatory scheme that we reserve the right to come in and to sue them. So we'll see," Holder said.

Oregon Initiative Reports More Big Bucks Donations. The campaign committee for Measure 91 has reported receiving $800,000 in a pair of high-denomination donations. The Drug Policy Action Network, the campaign and lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, kicked in half a million bucks, while the New Approach PAC, tied to the family of the late Progressive Insurance magnate Peter Lewis, gave $300,000. Over all, Drug Policy Action Network has contributed $1.85 million and the Lewis group has given $1.25 million. The initiative campaign has spent more than $1.1 million on TV and radio ads.

Federal Judge to Consider Whether Marijuana Should Be Schedule I. A US district court judge in Sacramento will hold a hearing next Monday on whether marijuana is appropriately classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The hearing comes in the case of United States v. Pickard, et.al. Expert witnesses, including Columbia University psychology professor Dr. Carl Hart, will testify that classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug is not consistent with accepted scientific evidence. This is the first time in recent memory that a federal judge has granted a hearing on the issue.

Decriminalization Fails By One Vote in Columbia, MO, City Council. A move to decriminalize marijuana in Columbia failed on a 4-3 vote Monday night after hours of intense debate. City staff opposed the measure, saying it would put the city in conflict with state law, and local police also opposed it, saying it would put officers in an awkward position, especially when doing joint counter-drug operations with other state or local law enforcement agencies.

Medical Marijuana

Missouri to Begin Taking Applications for Low-THC, High-CBD Medical Marijuana. People who want to grow high-CBD, low-THC marijuana for medical purposes under a new state law can begin submitting applications to the state Department of Health beginning November 3. The state will license two growers, and the window for applications is 30 days. The growers must operate as nonprofits and must produce marijuana that is less than 0.3% THC.

Law Enforcement

Conservative Attacks on DOJ Civil Rights Nominee Gupta Get Underway. Heritage Foundation resident expert Cully Stimson has penned an opinion piece that lays out one line of attack on Vanita Gupta, the ACLU attorney just named acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights division and who is nominated to permanently fill the post. "The New Civil Rights Division Head Wants to Decriminalize Possession of All Drugs," is his headline -- and the gist of his argument. Click on the link to read his piece.

International

Canada's NDP Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization and Study. The New Democratic Party (NDP) will this week officially call for immediate marijuana decriminalization, with monitoring of the health and social side effects. The call will come in a supplemental document published alongside a House of Commons health committee report, which is set to be issued today or tomorrow. While the NDP's stand is progressive, it is not as progressive as the position of the Liberals, who are calling for legalization.

Cairo University Begins Mandatory Drug Testing of Students. Any student who wants to reside in school housing at the University of Cairo must undergo mandatory, suspicionless drug testing under a new university policy. Some 4,000 students have already been tested, with 9,000 more waiting their turn. No objections to the policy have been heard.

End the Drug War "For the Kids" Coalition Forms [FEATURE]

In a move precipitated by the child immigration border crisis, but informed by the ongoing damage done to children on both sides of the border by law enforcement-heavy, militarized anti-drug policies, a broad coalition of more than 80 civil rights, immigration, criminal justice, racial justice, human rights, libertarian and religious organizations came together late last week to call for an end to the war on drugs in the name of protecting the kids.

The failures of the war on drugs transcend borders. (wikimedia.org)

"The quality of a society can and should be measured by how its most vulnerable are treated, beginning with our children," said Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance, the organization that coordinated the letter. "Children have every right to expect that we will care for, love and nurture them into maturity. The drug war is among the policies that disrupts our responsibility to that calling."

The groups, as well as prominent individuals such as The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, signed on to a letter of support for new policies aimed at ending the war on drugs.

"In recent weeks," the letter says, "the plight of the 52,000 unaccompanied children apprehended at the US border since last October, many of whom are fleeing drug war violence in Central America, has permeated our national consciousness. The devastating consequences of the drug war have not only been felt in Latin America, they are also having ravaging effects here at home. All too often, children are on the frontlines of this misguided war that knows no borders or color lines."

Organizations signing the letter include a broad range of groups representing different issues and interests, but all are united in seeing the war on drugs as an obstacle to improvement. They include the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Center for Constitutional Rights, the Institute of the Black World, Presente.org, Students for Liberty, United We Dream, the William C. Velasquez Institute, and the Working Families Organization. For a complete list of signatories, click here. [Disclosure: StoptheDrugwar.org, the organization publishing this article, is a signatory.]

In the past few months, more than 50,000 minors fleeing record levels of violence in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have arrived at the US border seeking either to start a new life or to reconnect with family members already in the country. The causes of the violence in Central America are complex and historically-rooted, but one of them is clearly the US war on drugs, heavy-handedly exported to countries throughout the Western Hemisphere in the past several decades.

Those northern Central American countries -- the so-called Northern Triangle -- have been especially hard hit by drug prohibition-related violence since about 2008, when, after the US helped Mexico bulk up its war on the drug cartels via the $2.4 billion Plan Merida assistance package (President Obama wants another $115 million for it next year), the cartels began expanding their operations into the weaker Central American states. Already high crime levels went through the roof.

Honduras's second largest city, San Pedro Sula, now has the dubious distinction of boasting the world's highest murder rate, while the three national capitals, Guatemala City, San Salvador, and Tegucigalpa, are all in the top 10 deadliest cities worldwide. Many of the victims are minors, who are often targeted because of their membership in drug trade-affiliated street gangs (or because they refuse to join the gangs).

Protesting for schools, not prisons in California (Ella Baker Center)
The impact of the war on drugs on kids in the United States is less dramatic, but no less deleterious. Hundreds of thousands of American children have one or both parents behind bars for drug offenses, suffering not only the stigma and emotional trauma of being a prisoner's child, but also the collateral consequences of impoverishment and familial and community instability. Millions more face the prospect of navigating the mean streets of American cities where, despite some recent retreat from the drug war's most serious excesses, the war on drugs continues to make some neighborhoods extremely dangerous places.

"In the face of this spiraling tragedy that continues to disproportionately consume the lives and futures of black and brown children," the letter concludes, "it is imperative to end the nefarious militarization and mass incarceration occurring in the name of the war on drugs. So often, repressive drug policies are touted as measures to protect the welfare of our children, but in reality, they do little more than serve as one great big Child Endangerment Act. On behalf of the children, it is time to rethink the war on drugs."

Although the signatory groups represent diverse interests and constituencies, coming together around the common issue of protecting children could lay the groundwork for a more enduring coalition, said Jeronimo Saldana, a legislative and organizing coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The idea was to get folks together to make a statement. Now, we have to figure out how to move forward. The letter was the first step," he said.

"The groups have been very positive," Saldana continued. "They're glad someone was speaking up and putting it all together. What's going on in Central American and Mexico is tied into what's happening in our own cities and communities. This crosses partisan lines; it's really obvious that the failed policies of the war on drugs affects people of all walks of life, and the images of the kids really brings it home. We hope to build on this to get some traction. We want folks to continue to make these connections."

Different signatories do have different missions, but a pair of California groups that signed the letter provide examples of how the drug war unites them.

Child refugee in a US border detention facility (presente.org)
"We have a history of working on behalf of youth involved in the criminal justice system and their families," said Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "We see desperate families trying to stay connected, strong, and healthy, but mass incarceration is really making that difficult. We work both with families whos kids are involved in the justice system and with families with one or both parents in prison or who have lost custody of their kids because of their involvement in the criminal justice system," she explained.

"We are working to combat this, and we think the war on drugs overall has had disastrous consequences for families, both here and abroad," Zohrabi continued. "The trillions poured into policing and militarization has just produced more misery. It's time for drugs to be dealt with as a public health issue, not a crime."

"We signed on because the letter is very clear in addressing an important component of the discussion that hasn't really been out there," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of the Latino social justice group Presente.org. "This crisis on the border is not the result of deferring actions against immigrant child arrivals, as many right-wing Republicans have been saying, but is the result of one of the most deadly peaks in crime and violence in the Northern Triangle in recent memory," he argued.

"The violence there is one of the main push factors, and when we talk about this in the US, it's critical that we acknowledge these push factors, many of which are connected to the war on drugs," Carmona continued. "You'll notice that the kids aren't coming from Nicaragua, where we haven't been supporting the war on drugs, but from countries that we've assisted and advised on the drug war, where we've provided weaponry. This is very well-documented."

While Presente.org is very concerned with the immigration issue, said Carmona, there is no escaping the role of the war on drugs in making things worse -- not only in Central America and at the border, but inside the US as well.

"We're very concerned about the chickens coming home to roost for our failed war on drugs policy," he said. "The American public needs to be made very aware of this, and we are starting to see a greater understanding that this is a failed policy -- not only in the way we criminalize our young Latino and African-American kids here in the US, but also in the way this policy affects other countries in our neighborhood. As Nicaragua shows, our lack of involvement there has seen a lower crime rate. Our military involvement through the drug war is an abysmal failure, as the record deaths not only in Central America, but also in Mexico, shows."

California's Latinos Are Ready for Sentencing Reform, Poll Finds [FEATURE]

A bill that would significantly reform California's drug sentencing laws is poised for approval in the state Senate, and a new poll showing strong support for sentencing reform among Latino voters could help push it over the top.

California's prisons are still overcrowded. (supremecourt.gov)
Senate Bill 1010, the Fair Sentencing Act, would equalize the penalties for sale of crack and powder cocaine. Under current California law, crack offenses are treated more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. The bill would also equalize probation requirements and asset forfeiture rules for offenses involving the two forms of the same drug.

Sponsored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), the bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee last month and the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. It now heads for the Senate floor. It needs to pass in its chamber of origin this month or it dies.

The bill is supported by dozens of community, religious, civil liberty, civil rights, drug reform, and other groups. It is opposed by the California Narcotics Officers Association and the California Police Chiefs Association.

Among Latino groups supporting the bill are the National Council of La Raza, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Homies Unidos, the Latino Voters League, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Presente.

The poll results released today by Latino Decisions help explain why these groups are supporting sentencing reform efforts and may even encourage them to redouble their efforts. They show strong support for sentencing reform among California's Latino electorate. The poll only sampled registered voters.

When asked if the state should minimize penalties for drug possession, but continue to hold drug sellers accountable, a whopping 69% said yes. The lowest level of support among any Hispanic demographic was 59% among 40-to-59-year-olds.

When asked if racial disparities in law enforcement were a serious or very serious problem, an even more overwhelming 82% said yes. Even among Latino Republicans, the demographic least likely to be concerned, the figure was at 57%.

A third question asked whether respondents favored penalties for personal drug possession of drug treatment, case by case referrals, or zero tolerance. Again Latino voters overwhelmingly supported treatment or case by case (79% combined) over zero tolerance (16%).

"We're very excited to see the results of this poll," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente, during a teleconference announcing and analyzing the results. "It's very clear that the poll findings reaffirm that Latinos want drug sentencing reform and a fix to our broken justice system. If politicians want to mobilize the Latino vote, they need to support these issues. Over the coming weeks and months, Latinos and allied groups will be working to support common sense reforms like this bill."

That only makes sense, Carmona said.

another drug arrest in California. (wikimedia.org)
"These issues are having a significant impact on our society, our state, and increasingly, the Latino community," he argued. "The US imprisons more people than any nation in the world, mostly due to the war on drugs, and blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized than whites. When you add in the federal detention center population, Latinos now make up the largest federal prison population in the country."

Dr. Adrian Pantoja, a senior analyst with Latino Decisions, emphasized that the poll was of registered Latino voters.

"These are folks who are part of the political process," he said. "These are the Latinos who will be voting and helping to shape our politics. And among them, we have a rejection of war on drugs strategies and incarceration, with large majorities across the board supporting sentencing reform for drug possession and use."

"It's evident that the Latino community is in a state of crisis," said Armando Gudino, a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the community most disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and unprecedented levels of incarceration. Latinos are fully aware of this, and we've begun to shift toward more responsible policies seeking to remove or reduce criminal penalties."

The poll demonstrates that attitudes are changing in the Hispanic community, Gudino said.

"Latinos have traditionally been deemed a conservative group, but we see shifting attitudes, and we could well see support we haven't seen in the past," he noted. "The older generation is more conservative, but the community isn't homogenous, and the same can't be said about other groups within the community, who have already shifted toward favoring issues like decriminalization, medical marijuana, and the efforts around taxing and regulating marijuana. This poll demonstrates that the Latino community is increasingly involved, informed, and willing to make changes."

"Latinos are now a majority in California, we have a seat at the table, and it's critical we're part of this conversation," said Mike De La Rocha, director of strategic partnerships for Californians for Safety and Justice. "Latinos are poised to have a voice in how we address crime and public safety. We understand our approach to crime isn't working, and we're finding our voice in these criminal justice debates."

"The New Jim Crow" Author Michelle Alexander Talks Race and Drug War [FEATURE]

On Thursday, Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling and galvanizing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sat down with poet/activist Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss the book's impact and where we go from here.

Michelle Alexander (wikimedia.org)
The New Jim Crow has been a phenomenon. Spending nearly 80 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, it brought to the forefront a national conversation about why the United States had become the world's largest incarcerator, with 2.2 million in prison or jail and 7.7 million under control of the criminal justice system, and African American boys and men -- and now women -- making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned. Alexander identified failed drug war policies as the primary driver of those numbers, and called for a greater challenge to them by key civil rights leaders.

It's now been nearly four years since The New Jim Crow first appeared. Some things have changed -- federal sentencing reforms, marijuana legalization in two states -- but many others haven't. Alexander and Bandele discuss what has changed, what hasn't, and what needs to, raising serious questions about the path we've been down and providing suggestions about new directions.

Audio of the conversation is online here, and a transcript follows here:

Asha Bandele: The US has 5% of the world's population, but has 25% of the world's incarcerated population, and the biggest policy cause is the failed drug war. How has the landscape changed in the last four years since The New Jim Crow came out?

Michelle Alexander: The landscape absolutely has changed in profound ways. When writing this book, I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the failure of many civil rights organizations and leaders to make the war on drugs a critical priority in their organization and also by the failure of many of my progressive friends and allies to awaken to the magnitude of the harm caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. At the same time, not so long ago, I didn't understand the horror of the drug war myself, I failed to connect the dots and understand the ways these systems of racial and social control are born and reborn.

But over last few years, I couldn't be more pleased with reception. Many people warned me that civil rights organizations could be defensive or angered by criticisms in the book, but they've done nothing but respond with enthusiasm and some real self-reflection.

There is absolutely an awakening taking place. It's important to understand that this didn't start with my book -- Angela Davis coined the term "prison industrial complex" years ago; Mumia Abu-Jamal was writing from prison about mass incarceration and our racialized prison state. Many, many advocates have been doing this work and connecting the dots for far longer than I have. I wanted to lend more credibility and support for the work that so many have been doing for some, but that has been marginalized.

I am optimistic, but at the same time, I see real reasons for concern. There are important victories in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, in Holder speaking out against mandatory minimums and felon disenfranchisement, in politicians across the country raising concerns about the size of the prison state for the first time in 40 years, but much of the dialog is still driven by fiscal concerns rather than genuine concern for the people and communities most impacted, the families destroyed. We haven't yet really had the kind of conversation we must have as a nation if we are going to do more than tinker with the machine and break our habit of creating mass incarceration in America.

Asha Bandele: Obama has his My Brother's Keeper initiative directed at black boys falling behind. A lot of this is driven by having families and communities disrupted by the drug war. Obama nodded at the structural racism that dismembers communities, but he said it was a moral failing. He's addressed race the least of any modern American president. Your thoughts?

Michelle Alexander: I'm glad that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he's right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities. There is a commitment to studying the problem and identifying programs that work to keep black kids in school and out of jail, and there is an aspect that seeks to engage foundations and corporations, but there is nothing in the initiative that offers any kind of policy change from the government or any government funding of any kind to support these desperately needed programs.

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we're waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. The initiative itself reflects this common narrative that suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom -- bad schools, poverty, broken homes. And if we encourage people to stay in school and get and stay married, then the whole problem of mass incarceration will no longer be of any real concern.

But I've come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we've declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them -- and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status.

We've done this in the communities most in need our support and economic investment. Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said "What is wrong with them?" The more pressing question is "What is wrong with us?"

Asha Bandele: During the Great Depression, FDR had the New Deal, but now it seem like there is no social commitment at the highest levels of government. And we see things like Eric Holder and Rand Paul standing together to end mandatory minimums. Is this an unholy alliance?

Michelle Alexander: We have to be very clear that so much of the progress being made on drug policy reflects the fact that we are at a time when politicians are highly motivated to downsize prisons because we can't afford the massive prison state without raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class. This is the first time in 40 years we've been willing to have a serious conversation about prison downsizing.

But I'm deeply concerned about us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is about breaking the habit of forming caste-like systems and creating a new ethic of care and concern for each of us, this idea that each of us has basic human rights. That is the ultimate goal of this movement. The real issue that lies at the core of every caste system ever created is the devaluing of human beings.

If we're going to do this just to save some cash, we haven't woken up to the magnitude of the harm. If we are not willing to have a searching conversation about how we got to this place, how we are able to lock up millions of people, we will find ourselves either still having a slightly downsized mass incarceration system or some new system of racial control because we will have not learned the core lesson our racial history is trying to teach us. We have to learn to care for them, the Other, the ghetto dwellers we demonize.

Temporary, fleeting political alliances with politicians who may have no real interest in communities of color is problematic. We need to stay focused on doing the right things for the right reasons, and not count as victories battles won when the real lessons have not been learned.

Asha Bandele: Portugal decriminalized all drugs and drug use has remained flat, overdoses been cut by a third, HIV cut by two-thirds. What can we learn from taking a public health approach and its fundamental rejection of stigma?

Michelle Alexander: Portugal is an excellent example of how it is possible to reduce addiction and abuse and drug related crime in a non-punitive manner without filling prisons and jails. Supposedly, we criminalize drugs because we are so concerned about the harm they cause people, but we wind up inflicting far more pain and suffering than the substances themselves. What are we doing really when we criminalize drugs is not criminalizing substances, but people.

I support a wholesale shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. How would we treat people abusing if we really cared about them? Would we put them in a cage, saddle them with criminal records that will force them into legal discrimination the rest of their lives? I support the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. If you possess a substance, we should help you get education and support, not demonize, shame, and punish you for the rest of your life.

I'm thrilled that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana and DC has decriminalized it -- these are critically important steps in shifting from a purely punitive approach. But there are warning flags. I flick on the news, and I see images of people using marijuana and trying to run legitimate businesses, and they're almost all white. When we thought of them as black or brown, we had a purely punitive approach. Also, it seems like its exclusively white men being interviewed as wanting to start marijuana businesses and make a lot of money selling marijuana.

I have to say the image doesn't sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for doing the same thing. As we talk about legalization, we have to also be willing to talk about reparations for the war on drugs, as in how do we repair the harm caused.

With regard to Iraq, Colin Powell said "If you break it, you own it," but we haven't learned that basic lesson from our own racial history. We set the slaves free with nothing, and after Reconstruction, a new caste system arose, Jim Crow. A movement arose and we stopped Jim Crow, but we got no reparations after the waging of a brutal war on poor communities of color that decimated families and fanned the violence it was supposed to address.

Do we simply say "We're done now, let's move on" and white men can make money? This time, we have to get it right; we have to tell the whole truth, we have to repair the harm done. It's not enough to just stop. Enormous harm had been done; we have to repair those communities.

The Other Reason Bloomberg's Wrong About Stop and Frisk

The other piece of big news today was a federal judge finding New York Police Department's "stop and frisk" program unconstitutional. Judge Scheindlin used some pretty scathing language in her nearly-200 page opinion. Phil's article is here.

Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to appeal the ruling, claiming that the stop and frisk practice works and makes the city safer. But as I pointed out in a recent post, while there is research suggesting NYC police have done a lot of good innovating, so far at least the research has not borne out stop and frisk as being one of them.

That is to say, there are other things police do in New York, besides stop and frisk, that have produced a larger than average crime drop than other cities. And they also do stop and frisk, which research hasn't found to help with that.

One more note for now is that we have also written, and more extensively, about NYC as the world's marijuana arrest capital. This is different from the stop and frisk practice, but stop and frisk undoubtedly fuels it.

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