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Cut Funding for Failed Drug Policies (Action Alert)

We Are the Drug Policy Alliance.

Tell Congress to cut funding for the drug war!

Take Action!

Email Your Representative

Dear Friends,

I need your help to talk some sense into Congress. While they preach fiscal responsibility, they want to keep giving piles of money to state and local governments to prioritize low-level drug arrests – especially for marijuana possession. Even worse, they want to put the cost on the nation's credit card. You and I will be paying off this foolishness for decades to come if we don't act now.

Tell Congress: No more money for failed drug policies.

As I write this, Congress is working on a new federal budget. Right now we have a unique opportunity to cut the funding that helps keep the drug war alive at the local level. If we can get enough people to email Congress, I'm hopeful that we can cut spending, reduce marijuana arrests, and push states to embrace drug policy reform. It would be a three-for-one victory.

Please take a minute to write Congress and tell them to stop spending your tax money on the failed war on drugs.

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance

Hearing on Indiana Marijuana Study Bill Today (Press Release)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE            February 15, 2011

Hearing on Indiana Marijuana Study Bill Today

CONTACT: Morgan Fox, communications manager………………………(202) 905-2031 or mfox@mpp.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The first hearing on S.B. 192 took place today to discuss the need to study the marijuana laws in Indiana and find alternatives to arrest and incarceration. S.B. 192 would create a mandate requiring lawmakers to investigate other options to the marijuana laws that put non-violent Hoosiers behind bars and tie up scarce resources that the public would rather see spent on infrastructure. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Dist. 4).

            “It has become painfully obvious that our current marijuana laws are not effective,” Sen. Tallian said. “We spend a sizable amount of money every year going after marijuana users and locking them up for a non-violent crime, while more important programs that desperately need funds go wanting. I think we need to take a very close look at the laws we have, determine what is working and what isn’t, and explore every possible alternative. This bill will make sure that we, as lawmakers, commit to this course.”

            Over a dozen people testified at the hearings, including policy experts, former law enforcement officers, and medical marijuana patients that suffer from the threat of arrest under the present system. One speaker, C.J. Parker, said, “I am a Gulf War Era Veteran and former police officer who suffers from over 20 diagnosed illnesses, including PTSD, and have been 100% unemployable since 2004 due to the combined effects of my illnesses. I have had no success with the over 30 pharmaceutical medications that have been prescribed to me over the last 9 years, but have found great relief from treating my illnesses with marijuana. It is time my elected leaders take a look at how to allow people like me to live without the fear of arrest.”

            A local leader in the marijuana reform community, Joh Padgett, said, “I have been a cannabis [marijuana] therapy patient for many years treating diabetic neuropathy, and pain associated with chronic venous stasis, edema, and a blood clotting disorder that has reduced circulation in my legs by 80%. I co-founded ReLegalize Indiana with our Chairman, Bill Levin, in January 2010 to give a voice to patients in Indiana like me who can benefit greatly from medical cannabis. Proper medical research is something we do well in Indiana and it is time we allowed our world-class researchers and our most vulnerable citizens to study and access a therapy allowed in 15 states and the District of Columbia.”           

            With more than 124,000 members and supporters nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. For more information, please visit www.mpp.org.

####

Location: 
IN
United States

Bills Aim to Improve Drug Treatment, Cut Prison Costs Through Alternatives to Incarceration

Location: 
KY
United States
After months of study, Kentucky's General Assembly will begin considering proposals next week aimed at reducing the state's soaring prison population and thereby curbing costs through such things as better drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration. Two identical 135-page bills were filed in the Senate and House, the work product of a task force that examined a wide range of corrections issues.
Publication/Source: 
The Courier-Journal (KY)
URL: 
http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20110211/NEWS01/302110086/1037/SPORTS08/Bills-aim-cut-prison-costs-improve-drug-treatment?odyssey=nav|head

The Addled Piorities of US Drug Policy: As Cities Like Camden, New Jersey Are Forced to Cut Policing, It Is Nonsensical for Law Enforcement to Pursue Prohibition (Opinion)

Jennifer Abel opines on policing priorities given that the state of the economy is forcing cutbacks in law enforcement.
Publication/Source: 
The Guardian (UK)
URL: 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/feb/10/new-jersey-police

The Prospects for Drug Reform: California [FEATURE]

[Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of reports on the prospects for drug reform in a handful of states where the chances of legalizing marijuana are the strongest. But these reports will also look at medical marijuana, harm reduction, and sentencing reform prospects. They are a work in progress and will be revised. Look for reports on Colorado, Oregon, and Washington in coming weeks.]

California, viewed from space
The West Coast is a different world when it comes to progress on drug policy reform. Three of the four states most likely to see strong pushes for marijuana legalization in the next couple of years are on the West Coast (the other being Colorado). And medical marijuana is a fact of life from San Diego to Seattle, even if many bruising battles remain, and is certain to be an area of contention in coming years.

But it's not just pot politics that makes the West Coast different. The region has also been a pioneer in sentencing reform and harm reduction practices, even if countervailing forces remain strong and both policy areas remain contested terrain.

And the fact that all three states are initiative and referendum states adds another dimension to the politics of drug reform. In all three states, the initiative process has been an important vehicle for drug reform, although it has also been used for anti-reform efforts, most notably with Oregon sentencing initiatives.

Will the West Coast continue to be the drug reform vanguard? Here, we look at the prospects for reform in four broad areas -- medical marijuana, marijuana legalization or decriminalization, drug sentencing reform, and the enactment of harm reduction practices -- and assess where the reform movement can most productively apply its energies. We also attempt to identify areas and issues around which larger coalitions can be formed to advance drug policy and criminal justice reform objectives.

We begin with California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana and that state where advocates last year came within a handful of percentage points of winning voter approval for pot legalization. California is the nation's most populous state and has long been at the cutting edge of social change, but now it is also faced with a monstrous $25 billion budget deficit. How social change and fiscal crisis interact in the realm of drug reform policy-making will be a key issue for advocates as they attempt to deepen existing drug reforms and introduce new ones.

Marijuana Legalization

Last year saw efforts to legalize pot both in Sacramento and at the ballot box in November. Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) made history when his legalization bill was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee, but that bill later died. Ammiano is back at it again this year, but getting a legalization bill through the legislature will be a tough fight.

The tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative led by Oaksterdam's Richard Lee managed to put together an impressive coalition of labor, civil rights, and other groups in the run-up to the November election, but that wasn't enough to get the measure over the top. Proposition 19 scored 46.5% of the vote. Legalization advocates are already laying the groundwork for another initiative; several hundred people gathered at a sold-out California NORML (CANORML) conference in Berkeley late last month in a bid to take the first steps toward consensus among the state's complex, variegated, and often fractious marijuana community.

While Prop 19 failed to win a majority, reformers see the coalition-building that took place around it as a basic building block toward eventual victory. For the first time, pot legalization enjoyed organized support from outside the marijuana community.

"Prop 19 has opened up everything and moved marijuana legalization into the mainstream of American politics, particularly in the Western states," said Steve Gutwillig, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Its defeat was at most a speed bump, and the Prop 19 campaign process itself accelerated the marijuana reform movement. It created unprecedented mainstream media coverage, educated millions of voters, and forged a new coalition that is poised to be recreated and expanded on in California and other states in 2012," he said.

Winning a legalization vote in California means continuing to mobilize labor and civil rights groups, he said. And the stars are aligning.

"Organized labor has to be at the table of what is clearly a burgeoning industry with thousands of viable jobs from agriculture to retail. For mainstream civil rights organizations, the racial profiling that is at the center of marijuana enforcement is an issue that intersects with groups with whom they are naturally allied on other issues. We're seeing a confluence of economic and racial justice issues at a time when mainstream voters are expressing a fatigue with the drug war in general and a contempt for marijuana prohibition in particular," Gutwillig argued.

"The SEIU's endorsement of Prop 19 in California opened the door to a serious conversation with the service employee unions all across the country, said Gutwillig. "The SEIU also took a long look at the Washington initiative, but didn't think the numbers were there. But even that examination was significant. The SEIU thought the timing wasn't right last year, but all of this will be in play again and all of this represents real progress in coalition building. This conversation is taking place in a way that was unimaginable five years ago."

Gutwillig identified one more constituency reformers will be working to draw closer: the Democratic Party and its voters.

"The California Democratic Party took a neutral position, but a majority of county Democratic committees endorsed Prop 19," he noted. "That signals that there will be real conversations about what role marijuana legalization will play in terms of turnout among traditional Democratic voters."

Long-time CANORML head and veteran scene-watcher Dale Gieringer doesn't think winning outright marijuana legalization is going to be easy despite the coalition-building. Instead, he is talking about getting to the Promised Land through small steps and by broadening the existing medical marijuana system with its population of legally sanctioned adult users and providers.

Gieringer wants to down-grade minor marijuana distribution and cultivation offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, legalize private adult use, and establish a legally-regulated production system that includes manufacturing, processing, delivery, and legal sales to legally authorized users, namely anyone who has a medical marijuana recommendation.

"That would leave room for local governments to expand the universe of authorized users" without explicitly legalizing non-medicinal sale to adults, Gieringer said. "Taking on adult sales at this moment is premature, but we can write a law that opens the door to adult sales without explicitly doing it immediately."

Medical Marijuana

Using California's existing medical marijuana program as a segue to adult legalization, however, requires something the state still lacks: clarity about what is and is not allowed by Proposition 215 and the legislature's attempt to clarify it, SB 420. Some state prosecutors insist that no medical marijuana sales are legal, and the courts have yet to provide rigorous guidance. Cases have been and are being prosecuted in those counties, meaning that access to medical marijuana depends to a great extent on where one lives within California.

"Fixing the medical marijuana system has to be integral and a number one priority," said Gieringer. "We have to make changes to the medical marijuana system. The public is not happy with the current situation and would like something that is better regulated. A lot of operators feel the same way, but have differing opinions about what would be nice."

While a fix could come through the legislature, Gieringer was leery. "I can't see the legislature passing anything we would like," he said. "Given the level of support we have in Sacramento, we could probably get a bill to clearly allow medical marijuana sales, but it would also likely be loaded down with things we would find unacceptable, like 1000-foot provisions, no on-site smoking, no sale of edibles and the like," he predicted.

"They dickered around with it last year, but it was mainly about extracting money from everybody," Gieringer continued. "What's really needed is to clarify what's legal and what isn't."

Gieringer suggested that the people working on marijuana legalization initiatives include clarifying medical marijuana sales. "I think we could get something better through a vote of the people," he said. "I am hoping that medical marijuana reform will be part of the next legalization effort if there is one."

Such a strategy also has the potential of blunting opposition to a legalization initiative within the medical marijuana community. Some dispensary operators and medical marijuana patients were among the harshest critics of Prop 19.

Job protection for medical marijuana users is another area with the potential for coalition-building. State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill to prevent most employers from firing medical marijuana users who test positive for the drug. Perhaps unions, who, after all, represent workers, would be amenable to working on the issue.

Sentencing Reform

California's bloated prison system, with its insatiable, dollar-gobbling budgetary demands has seen some sentencing reform, most notably the passage by initiative of the "treatment not jail" Proposition 36. But the prisons remain full, and with no state money for the treatment end of Prop 36, it's only the law enforcement side of the equation that is fully functioning.

In announcing his budget proposal last month, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) including diverting people convicted "nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex offenses, and without any previous convictions for such offenses" to county jails instead of the state prison system. That includes first-time drug offenders. 

"Governor Brown set an important tone and made it clear that our expensive state prisons should be reserved for people convicted of serious offenses, not for everyone who's ever made a mistake,"  said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, DPA deputy state director for Southern California. "California is expected to save $500 million a year by handling more petty offenses, including low-level drug possession, at the county level. We think the savings would be even greater if drug treatment were made more available in the community. Under the plan, counties would have that option."

An opportunity to save big bucks and reduce the yawning budget gap could appeal to fiscal conservatives, but in California, conservatives have a long tradition of using tough on crime politics to fill the prisons. Whether they could swallow a measure that to some degree empties them remains to be seen.

"The challenge is finding fiscally conservative Republicans who are willing to publicly challenge the drug war orthodoxy that has long been a mainstay of the Republican Party," said Gutwillig. "There are plenty of Republicans who are willing to say privately they know the mass arrests and incarceration of low-level drug offenders is not a good use of scarce resources, but they have a hard time breaking ranks with a GOP leadership that still needs inflexible tough on crime rhetoric to beat up on the substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature. It's one of their main tools to undermine the Democratic reform instinct.

Still, the continuing budget crisis may allow reformers to peel off a conservative or two, Gutwillig said. "The economics of the state are in such open-ended crisis that no one can deny the reality that we can no longer afford the blank check we perpetually give to law enforcement and the corrections system."

A 2008 sentencing reform initiative, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA) would have deepened and vastly broadened the Prop 36 reforms, but was defeated thanks to last minute attacks by prison guards and politicians. The time could be approaching for another effort on that front, either in the legislature or via the initiative process. 

Harm Reduction

Access to clean needles, preventing not only heroin, but, increasingly, prescription opioid overdose deaths, and opening a safe injection site in San Francisco are some of the issues facing California's harm reduction community. As in other reform areas, the perpetual budget crisis means if anything is going to happen, it better be inexpensive.

"We can't do anything this year that costs money, so we have to be about erasing some of the rules and barriers that exist," said Hilary McQuie, Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Jerry Brown is pretty good on these issues, and we have a solidly Democratic government, so we should be able to get some of these things through as long as there is no fiscal impact."

Brown's predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), wasn't so good on harm reduction issues. Last year, he failed to sign two bills that would have eased access to syringes. One expanded a pilot pharmacy syringe sales program statewide; the other expanded access to needle exchanges statewide.

"It looks like those bills will be reintroduced this year," said McQuie.

Overdose prevention continues to be a key harm reduction issue. Last year, a bill extending liability protection for the opioid antagonist naloxone to peer providers passed, but it only applies in a limited number of counties.

"We would like to see Naloxone made more easily available to people," said McQuie. "Maybe pharmacists could prescribe it along with opiates."

McQuie mentioned prescription opiates because that's where the action is now. And that means harm reductionists have to adapt their tactics to new clienteles. With prescription drug overdoses rising dramatically, programs aimed mainly at injection heroin users must now broaden their focus.

"Most of our overdose education happens through needle exchanges and other sites that reach injection drug users, but the trend in overdoses is toward prescription drugs," said McQuie. "We hope we can build coalitions with pharmacists, drug treatment people, and medical associations around peer intervention for overdose prevention among prescription drug users."

But coalition-building with drug and alcohol treatment providers means harm reductionists come up against abstinence-based advocates. "It is a long-term project for us to get them to recognize that they are serving people who are currently using rather than just addressing needs of people in treatment," McQuie sighed. "That will be really important for us. We need a bigger coalition in place."

And then there's the San Francisco safe injection site. At this point, it's little more than a gleam in the eye of harm reductionists, although the creation of such a site has been recommended first by the San Francisco HIV planning council and just last month by the mayor's Hepatitis C Task Force.

But given budgetary constraints, as well as morality-based opposition certain to emerge, if a safe injection site is going to happen, it's most likely to happen from the ground up. Vancouver, where drug users organized themselves and started their own safe injection site, could be a possible model, said McQuie.

"It's out on the horizon, and we're going to try," she said. "But nobody has the staff, resources, and willingness to risk their program sites and funding for this project. The way this could happen is if one of the agencies or drug user groups just starts doing it. It seems unlikely they would get prior permission."

Given the strain that existing harm reduction programs are under, maybe a new, expensive safe injection site program isn't the highest priority right now, McQuie. "But what this proposal does is open up a bigger conversation about harm reduction. Still, we need to set the stage for when the economy rebounds, and also to be prepared to step up and support whoever starts doing it."

California is fertile terrain for drug policy reform. It is also fiercely contested terrain. The coming years will tell whether the forces of reform can forge the alliances they need to emerge victorious on any number of fronts.

CA
United States

Beyond Prohibition Foundation Commends Liberal Party of Canada for Opposing Bill S-10 (Press Release)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 9, 2011

CONTACT: Jacob Hunter at 604.803.4085 or jacob@jacobhunter.org, or Kirk Tousaw at kirktousaw@gmail.com

Beyond Prohibition Foundation Commends Liberal Party of Canada for Opposing Bill S-10

Today the Liberal Party of Canada announced that it would vote down Bill S-10, a cornerstone of the Harper Conservative’s incarceration agenda, which would have imposed mandatory jail sentences on non-violent minor drug offenders. The Beyond Prohibition Foundation commends the Liberal Party for standing up to Mr. Harper’s false “soft on crime” slurs and defeating this dangerous, enormously expensive and ideologically-driven legislation.

“We are extremely pleased that the Liberal Party has made its decision on the basis of evidence,” noted Kirk Tousaw, Executive Director of the Foundation, “This punishment plan would not have reduced crime, nor would it have made Canadian safer from the influence of gangs. In fact, the Foundation has long argued that the evidence is clear that ramping up a war on drugs has the perverse effect of making drugs more available, cheaper and more potent while simultaneously increasing the profitability and violent tendencies of organized criminals. Today the Liberal Party of Canada decided to be smart on crime.”

The legislation had previously been the subject of intense criticism during two rounds of testimony before committees of the Senate and House of Commons. Experts from Canada, the United States and abroad testified that other jurisdictions using mandatory jail terms have worse crime and drug problems than Canada, and that these experiments have been expensive failures. Despite this, the Harper Conservatives have been pushing for the legislation for years.

“The Foundation knew that the Conservatives would not listen to expert advice and, therefore, we made a strategic decision early on to appeal to the Liberal Party,” explained Jacob Hunter, the Foundation’s Policy Director. “We believed that the Liberals would understand that making economically and socially smart decisions with Canadian’s tax dollars would be a political benefit, not a liability. Everyone knew that Mr. Harper would attempt to fool Canadians with ‘soft on crime’ rhetoric but the Foundation believes that our citizens are smarter than that. We are very pleased the Liberal Party agrees.”

Earlier this week, the government refused to tell the House how much its incarceration agenda would cost Canadians. “Mr. Harper tried to use fear to sell Canadians on a multi-billion dollar legislative boondoggle by hiding the costs and falsely describing it as targeting only major criminals.

Instead, it would have almost exclusively punished non-violent small time drug offenders. Now that the legislation appears doomed, we urge all Parliamentarians to conduct a comprehensive cost/benefit analysis of drug prohibition. Its time to reject the failed approaches of the past and, instead, to work toward putting criminals out of business by ending the war on drugs,” Tousaw continued.

Location: 
Canada

Rethinking Drug-Free School Zones: Massachusetts Gov. Patrick Proposes Changing a Policy Critics Say Is Unfair and Ineffective

Location: 
MA
United States
For years, advocates of criminal justice reform in Massachusetts have been critical of the school zone law, which carries mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes that take place within 1,000 feet of school property. While the law was passed in the name of public safety and the protection of children, critics say it's so broadly drawn that it's ineffective, and that it unfairly penalizes certain defendants on the basis of where they live. Now reformers have found an ally in the Statehouse's corner office. Gov. Patrick announced a proposal to dramatically reduce the size of the school zones, from 1,000 to 100 feet, as part of a plan to address a staggering projected state budget gap of $1.2 billion. The plan also includes proposals to close two state prisons and to ease sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders, all moves the governor contends would save much-needed money.
Publication/Source: 
Valley Advocate (MA)
URL: 
http://www.valleyadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=13128

Marijuana Backers to GOPers: Why Not Cut the DEA Budget?

With Republicans in the House looking to cut down on spending in the next fiscal year, supporters of legalizing marijuana have a suggestion for where they should start -- the Drug Enforcement Agency's budget. "In the grand scheme of things, the entire federal budget dedicated to keeping marijuana illegal and carrying out all the enforcement measures to do so is really something that is long past its prime," the Marijuana Policy Project's Steve Fox said. "I'm not naive enough to think there would be such a major step, but you can just pick it apart and look at the marijuana seizures -- the amount of time and energy put into those seizures -- is really doing essentially nothing except maybe having a marginal effect on the price of marijuana," Fox said. "So all they're really doing is giving those involved in illegal marijuana dealing a little bit of price support."
Publication/Source: 
Talking Points Memo (NY)
URL: 
http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/02/marijuana_backers_to_gopers_why_not_cut_the_dea_budget.php

Conservatives Board Sentencing Reform Bandwagon [FEATURE]

Struggling with chronic budget crises, lawmakers in more and more states are embracing sentencing and other reforms in a bid to hold down corrections costs. But while sentencing reform has long been the domain of "bleeding heart" liberals, now conservatives are driving those efforts in some states.

Indiana's Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels wants sentencing reforms...(Image via Wikipedia)
It's not just about dollars. Although fiscal concerns are a driving force among conservatives, there are also signs they are recognizing and confronting the failures of our drug and criminal justice policies. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, none other than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote of "more humane, effective alternatives" to the national imprisonment binge.

Still, as their states bleed red ink, some of them are shifting from "tough on crime" to "smart on crime." Leading the charge is a newly formed advocacy group, Right On Crime, endorsed by big conservative names including Gingrich, taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and former drug czar William Bennett.

Based in Texas, Right On Crime is touting the success the Lone Star State has had with sentencing reform to make such reforms more palatable to conservatives. In 2003, the state passed legislation ordering that small-time drug offenders be given probation instead of prison time, and in 2007, the state rejected prison-building in favor of spending $241 million on treatment programs for offenders.

Crime rates declined at the same time the incarceration rate did. And the state has saved about $2 billion by not building an additional 17,000 prison beds it once thought it needed.

Now, conservatives in other states are pushing similar reforms -- Right on Crime identifies 21 states it says are engaged in "conservative" sentencing and corrections reforms.

"The fiscal argument is resonating with conservatives and liberals alike these days," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "Prison and corrections spending is the big elephant in the room right now; it is ripe for cuts."

But it's not just the fiscal argument, said Mauer. "Some of this is in keeping with conservative philosophy, and much of their concern about incarceration has focused on drug policy. The drug war encompasses the whole country, but the federal system is an enormous part of it. Conservatives view it as taking over areas of policy that should best be left to the states," he said. "And then there are sort of libertarian conservatives who don't think the government should be telling us what is appropriate behavior."

It is also the result of years of effort by key advocates, said Mauer. "People like Pat Nolan at the Justice Fellowship have been working with that community for over a decade now about why this should be a conservative issue also," he pointed out.

Mauer welcomed the emergence of conservatives interested in sentencing reform. "We need to broaden the range of voices that are being heard on these issues," he said. "They can be helpful in a couple of ways, most importantly in communicating that these are not necessarily liberal or conservative issues, but good public policy perspectives. It's kind of ironic that the one area where there seems to be real bipartisan cooperation happening is in criminal justice policy."

"I think it's a good thing," said Traci Velasquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). "The work that JPI and a lot of others have done over the years points out financial and social reasons why existing drug and other criminal justice policies have been ineffective, and some of those reasons are conservative: It doesn't work and it costs too much. I'm glad to see voices across the political spectrum are speaking out on this."

The years of laying the groundwork are starting to pay off now, said Velasquez, who also pointed to the efforts of the Justice Fellowship. "There has been a lot of receptivity this year," she said. "When governors gave their inaugural speeches this year, I think there were ten of them that included things about criminal justice reform, locking up fewer people, and helping ex-prisoners be more successful in the community."

Sentencing and other criminal justice reforms are also benefiting from a sort of benign neglect, Velasquez said. "Because the media is focused on a lot of other issues, there is a little more space to talk about these issues," she said. "Between the Middle East, the overall economic crisis, and two wars, the media doesn't have a lot of time to push a hysterical criminal justice narrative as it did in the past. Now, policymakers can worry less about commentators ripping them apart as soft on crime."

Whether or not conservatives actually accomplish sentencing reform, the fact that they are now addressing it is a positive step, said Mauer. "If nothing else, just the symbolism of these leading conservatives coming out helps shift the political climate under which these issues are being addressed," he said. "It makes it a little more comfortable to talk about it."

The fact that the states are now collectively spending $50 billion a year on corrections, making it their second-fastest growing spending category behind Medicaid, according to the Pew Center on the States, is impelling efforts at change in places not previously known as bastions of reform:

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has made a massive criminal justice system overhaul one of his top legislative priorities this year. Based on a report from the bipartisan Indiana Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, the package includes recommendations to cut sentences for possession and sale of cocaine and methamphetamine.

In the past decade, even though crime rates fell in Indiana, the prison population increased by 40%. Corrections spending also increased, although not as much, and now swallows up $616 million a year. More than half of Indiana prisoners are drug or property offenders. If current trends continue unabated, the report found, the prison population will increase by another 21% by 2017, and the state will have to spend an additional $1.2 billion on top of current corrections spending just to make room to house them.

While the reforms have broad support, not everybody is on board. The Association of Indiana Prosecuting Attorney has voted to oppose the recommendation to cut drug sentences.

"There are all kinds of proposals on the table that reduce and reassign sentencing levels," the group's 2010 president, Shelby County Prosecutor Kent Apsley told the Indianapolis Star last month. "Some of them in my view are pretty extreme changes in the law and probably go too far. The question is: Where is the breaking point where you're saving money to the point that it may seriously impact public safety?"
 

In Pennsylvania, Democratic state Auditor General Jack Wagner last week endorsed Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf's SB 100, the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which seeks to reduce corrections costs by allowing the state to more quickly transfer nonviolent offenders to community corrections centers and allowing more nonviolent offenders to be eligible for the community centers.

"With Pennsylvania facing its greatest budget crisis since the Great Depression, we must look for sustainable savings in every nook and cranny of state government, and that includes the criminal justice system, which is one of the three biggest drivers of increased spending over the past decade," Wagner said.

Pennsylvania's prison population has increased five-fold since 1980, to more than 51,000 last year, and was the fastest growing in the country last year. According to Wagner, that increase is "due in part to tougher sentencing guidelines, particularly with drug-related offenses."

The alternative sentencing proposals in SB 100 could save the state $50 million in the coming fiscal year and $350 million over the next four years, Wagner said in a statement as he released a report on corrections spending whose recommendations largely dove-tailed with the bill. But the title of the statement, Auditor General Jack Wagner Says PA Needs Sentencing Reform, Construction Freeze to Shrink Corrections Cost, pretty well summed it up.

The state is already committed to spending $860 million to build four new prisons and four new housing units to hold another 9,000 inmates, but those will be full as soon as they are built. Wagner is saying no more prison-building.

"While most economic sectors in the commonwealth remain mired in recession, prisons remain Pennsylvania's largest growth industry," he said.

Serious conservative reform efforts are also underway in Kentucky and Louisiana, among others, but while conservative support for sentencing reforms is making waves, liberals are not shirking, either. Reform measures are afoot in a number of states. Here are two examples:

...and so does California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown (Image via Wikipedia)
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last month outlined plans to save half a billion dollars  a year by keeping "nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex offense" first-time offenders out of state prison. Those convicts would instead be housed in county jails. It is not sentencing reform, but it will take some of the pressure off the state prison system.

Drug offenders are among those who could be affected. Currently, there are some 10,000 people serving time in California for drug possession, as well as several thousand serving time for marijuana manufacture or distribution offenses.

The measure has the support of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which also called for a greater investment in drug treatment. "Governor Brown set an important tone and made it clear that our expensive state prisons should be reserved for people convicted of serious offenses, not for everyone who's ever made a mistake," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, DPA deputy state director for Southern California.  "California is expected to save $500 million a year by handling more petty offenses, including low-level drug possession, at the county level. We think the savings would be even greater if drug treatment were made more available in the community. Under the plan, counties would have that option."

In Massachusetts, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick is calling for the repeal of many of the state's mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses as part of a criminal justice reform package he unveiled last month. Patrick's proposal would also allow nonviolent drug offenders to become eligible for parole, work release, and earned "good time" credits, and it would reduce the size of school "drug-free" zones from 1,000 feet to 100 feet.

The governor's proposal was "a bold move," but also "just basic common sense," said Barbara Dougan of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "The governor’s bill would simply realign our current drug sentencing policies so that they are in sync with what we know about who is being sentenced to mandatory prison terms and what those people need to stay out of trouble when they leave prison," she continued. "Nearly two-thirds of those sentenced to mandatory prison terms fall into the two lowest level 'criminal history' groups -- no prior record or few lower level offenses. Yet too often they serve disproportionately harsh sentences, sometimes longer than those who commit violent crimes. As a result, the public pays for lengthier sentences than are warranted."

But, as in Indiana, prosecutors and law enforcement officials are coming out in opposition to at least part of the proposal. According to the Boston Globe, they are objecting to shrinking the school "drug-free" zone because doing so "would allow dealers to sell drugs very close to schools and would weaken strong drug laws passed during the 1980s crack cocaine scourge."

Conservatives are now joining liberals in trying to bring some common sense and fiscal sanity to the nation's drug and sentencing policies. But as police and prosecutor organizations have shown, reform threatens some powerful groups' turfs -- one man's cost is another's benefit. The sentencing reform battle is far from won, but the battle is joined, and we have reinforcements.

Arizona Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Introduced by GOP State Rep John Fillmore

Location: 
AZ
United States
Under a bill introduced by Representative John Fillmore possession of two ounces or less of marijuana -- by anyone -- would become a petty offense and carry a fine of only $100. Fillmore says that marijuana isn't a gateway drug, as critics unscientifically claim, and all the money and time wasted by law enforcement on marijuana prohibition enforcement would be better spent elsewhere.
Publication/Source: 
Phoenix New Times (AZ)
URL: 
http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/valleyfever/2011/02/marijuana_decriminalization_bi.php

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