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NJ MS Patient Loses Appeal, Facing Five Years [FEATURE]

New Jersey passed a medical marijuana law in January 2010 and, after delays, a series of alternative treatment centers (dispensaries) are set to open soon, but none of that has proven any help to multiple sclerosis sufferer and medical marijuana patient John Ray Wilson.

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2009 courthouse demonstration
Wilson was convicted of growing 17 pot plants in 2009 after Superior Court Judge Robert Reed ruled that he could not mention his disease or that he used marijuana to control the symptoms of his disease in his defense. Left with no effective defense to offer, the unemployed, uninsured Wilson was convicted of the charge and sentenced to serve five years in state prison.

Wilson then appealed his sentence to the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division. Late last month, he was turned down, with the appeals court ruling that it would not allow a medical use exemption to the charge of manufacturing marijuana.

Now, Wilson could be jailed any day. A judge is considering his request for bail to be granted while he pursues a final appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Wilson supporters and advocates are furious with a legal system that is rigorous about the letter of the law but heedless of humanity or the spirit of the law. They are especially embittered because Wilson's original trial, where medical doctors were prepared to testify to the medical benefits of marijuana for MS sufferers, took place at the same time as the public and legislative debates over medical marijuana, yet he was not allowed to raise the issue in his defense.

"To know that a safe and inexpensive herb like marijuana is able to relieve the pain and spasticity of MS and to actually arrest the progression of this incurable disease is a compelling reason to use it therapeutically," said Ken Wolski, RN, of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey (CMMNJ). "It is an outrage that Wilson will spend many years in the prison system for this, especially since the law in New Jersey now specifically protects MS patients who use medical marijuana."

Under the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, patients with an ID card provided by the state Health Department are allowed to use marijuana with a physicians' recommendation. The law specifies a number of covered medical conditions, including multiple sclerosis.

As New Jersey and Pennsylvania marijuana activist Chris Goldstein noted at Freedom Is Green, medical marijuana supporters and state Sens. Raymond Lesniak and Nick Scutari jointly called on then-Gov. Jon Corzine (D) to pardon Wilson last year, to no avail. They are planning a similar appeal to Gov. Chris Christie (R).
"They want to put a sick person away. It's not fair. It's sad," said Ray Wilson, John's father.

While Wilson awaits word on if and when he will be sent to prison, the operators of the six Alternative Treatment Centers have been given the go-ahead by Gov. Christie to expedite their startups. They will soon be producing hundreds or even thousands of plants for New Jersey patients.

It's been a long time coming. After the bill became law in January 2010, it faced a new governor, Christie, who was much less favorably disposed toward medical marijuana. Christie's administration spent months drafting restrictive regulations, then months more fighting with the legislature and advocates over making them more patient-friendly. Earlier this year, Christie again put the program on hold, citing the potential threat of federal action against state employees, but in recent weeks, he gave the signal to proceed.

None of this has so far made any difference to the New Jersey courts when it comes to Wilson's case. Now, only the state Supreme Court is left, and barring a favorably decision there, a pardon from Gov. Christie. And that compounds the anger of Wilson's supporters.

"Our system diligently and punctiliously adheres to the fine points of the law while rejecting any sense of compassion, no less actual justice," said attorney Ed Hannaman, a CMMNJ board member.

NJ
United States

Chronicle Book Review: BONG HiTS 4 JESUS

BONG HiTS 4 JESUS: A Perfect Constitutional Storm in Alaska's Capital by James Foster (2011, University of Alaska Press, 373 pp., $29.95 PB)

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In January 2002, as Olympic torchbearers making their way to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City jogged through the streets of Juneau, Alaska, past the local high school, a troublemaking prankster of a high school student and some of his friends held up a 14-foot banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS." The school principal, Deborah Morse, rushed over to the students, tore down the banner, and subsequently suspended the prankster, Joseph Frederick. Little did anyone imagine at the time that the far-off brouhaha would roil the community for years and that the controversy would end up at the US Supreme Court.

Oregon State University professor and student of judicial politics James Foster tells the tale of a case that has helped shape First Amendment jurisprudence in the exceptionally sticky milieu of student free speech rights and schools' rights to accomplish their educational missions. And while there is a plenty of fine-toothed examination of the high court's legal reasoning in Morse v. Frederick, as the case came to be known, as well as related cases, there is a lot more to BONG HiTS 4 JESUS than dry textual analysis.

When, on the first page of the first chapter of the book, the author references Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa's classic 1950 film Rashomon, the reader begins to get an inkling that this is going to be something of a ride. And so it is.

Foster sets up a story of conflicting narratives in a conflicted town in a conflicted time. Juneau, Alaska's capital city, is an isolated town in an isolated state, a liberal island of blue in a sea of red, a small town where the protagonists in local conflicts are likely to run into each other at the grocery store. That social and political context, and the hostilities it engendered, helped turn what began as a local imbroglio into a problem that could only be decided by the Supreme Court.

If Joseph Frederick had been less of an authority-challenged troublemaker, or if Principal Morse had had a better administrative style, the whole affair could have been handled as little more than a tempest in a teapot. Foster excels at explaining why that wasn't to be and how a disciplinary interaction between an educator and a student ends up as constitutional question before the highest court in the land.

Aside from the interpersonal and community context of the conflict and the case, Foster also excels at explaining the legal context, discussing at some length a line of cases about student rights running back to the seminal 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines School Board, in which the court famously held, in Justice Abe Fortas' words, that "Students… do not leave their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate." That case involved students wearing black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War.

But, as Foster makes abundantly clear, Fortas' stirring -- and oft-cited -- proclamation was actually stronger than the court's own ruling in Tinker, where it held that political ("symbolic") speech could not be constrained as long as it did not interfere with the educational mission of the school. And as his examination of the handful of key post-Tinker cases relating to student rights demonstrates, the bright and shining rule of Fortas' formulation has been quickly and relentlessly chipped away at by less friendly Supreme Courts.

Some of those cases were not First Amendment cases, but Fourth Amendment ones. The elements they had in common with Morse were the scope of students' rights and adults' fears about drugs. In those two cases, conservative courts approved the use of warrantless, suspicionless random drug testing, first of athletes and then of any students involved in extracurricular activities. As in other realms of law, the Supreme Court in those cases created a drug war-based exception to the Fourth Amendment when it comes to students, or, as Foster puts it, a "Fourth Amendment-Lite."

Through close examination of oral arguments and the different written opinions in Morse, Foster shows that the same concerns about student drug use weighed heavily on the minds of the justices, so much so that they were moved to decide against Frederick's free speech rights. The Roberts court was more afraid of a nonsense message that could -- with some contortions -- be construed as "pro-drug," than it was of eroding the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

BONG HiTS 4 JESUS is not a book about drug policy, but it is one more demonstration of the way our totalizing, all-encompassing war on drugs has deleterious effects far beyond those of which one commonly thinks. Really? We're going to trash the First Amendment because some kid wrote "bong hits" on a sign? Apparently, we are. We did.

There are some dense thickets of legal exegesis in BONG HiTS 4 JESUS, and the book is likely to be of interest mainly to legal scholars, but Foster brings much more to bear here than mere eye-watering analysis. For those concerned with the way the war on drugs warps our lives and our laws, this book has much to offer.

Federal Judge Throws Out Florida's Drug Law

A federal judge ruled July 27 that Florida's drug law was unconstitutional, leaving thousands of criminal cases up in the air. US District Court Judge Mary Scriven of Orlando threw out the Florida Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law on the grounds that it violates due process because it does not require prosecutors to prove a person knew he or she possessed illegal drugs.

The federal courthouse in Orlando, where a judge threw out Florida's drug law. (image via Wikimedia)
In 2002, Florida legislators amended the state's drug law, eliminating the requirement that prosecutors prove mens rea, or criminal intent, as part of obtaining a conviction. Florida was the only state in the nation to not require mens rea as part of a drug conviction.

"Not surprisingly, Florida stands alone in its express elimination of mens rea as an element of a drug offense," Scriven wrote in her order. "Other states have rejected such a draconian and unreasonable construction of the law that would criminalize the 'unknowing' possession of a controlled substance."

The ruling came in the case of Mackle Vincent Shelton, 33, who was convicted in 2005 of drug charges in Osceola County. Shelton, who is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence for cocaine delivery and other charges, appealed his conviction on the grounds that the jury wasn't required to consider intent in order to convict him.

In his instructions to the jury in Shelton's case, the trial judge told jurors that "to prove the crime of delivery of cocaine, the state must prove the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt: that Mackle Vincent Shelton delivered a certain substance; and, that the substance was cocaine." The state did not have to prove that he knew he was carrying or distributing cocaine or any controlled substance at all.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, pointed out that without the criminal intent requirement, "a Federal Express delivery person who unknowingly delivers a parcel containing a controlled substance, would be presumed a felon under Florida’s drug law." Joining the NACDL in filing the brief, which was favorably cited by the court, were the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ACLU of Florida, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, and 38 professors of law.

Florida defense attorneys applauded the ruling, saying the impact could be huge. Several told the St. Petersburg Times they intended to file motions seeking dismissal of pending drug cases, citing the judge's order.

"It has one of the largest potential effects on criminal law in the past decade," said St. Petersburg lawyer Jeff Brown. "We're talking hundreds of thousands of drug cases."

"In declaring the statute unconstitutional on its face, it appears that all drug prosecutions in the state are at risk," said Tampa defense lawyer Eddie Suarez.

That's tough, said Tampa attorney James Felman, who represented Shelton. Legislators should not have written an unconstitutional law removing mens rea, he said. "It takes the presumption of innocence and throws it in the garbage can," Felman said. "I think the legislature must immediately fix the statute," he said. "This is not a close call. No state has ever done this before. Legally, it's beyond the pale."

"This is a victory for the most fundamental notions of fairness and justice in our system -- the idea that no one should suffer a conviction unless the state proves criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt," said NACDL executive director Norman Reimer. "As I previously said about this case, the country has been drifting away from the moral anchor of a clearly defined mens rea requirement in its criminal laws. Laws like these would run it aground."

Orlando, FL
United States

Federal Judge Rejects Ecstasy Sentencing Guidelines

A US District Court judge in New York last Friday refused to sentence an Ecstasy defendant according to federal sentencing guidelines, saying they punish such offenses more harshly than scientifically justified and are based on "selective and incomplete" evidence.

Ecstasy tablets. A federal judge has ruled that Ecstasy offenses are punished too harshly. (Image: Wikimedia.org)
The ruling came in the case of Sean McCarthy, who faced 63 to 78 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to possess and distribute Ecstasy. But in the first federal court opinion rejecting the Ecstasy sentencing guidelines, District Court Judge William Pauley III instead sentenced him to only 26 months.

The case was the subject of a legal intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union  (ACLU), with assistance from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project challenged the judge in this case to review the sentencing guidelines and assess whether there was any rational basis for them, and relied on MAPS for a scientific review of the literature on the effects of Ecstasy.

MAPS executive director Rick Doblin had testified to the relative safety of Ecstasy before the US Sentencing Commission when it was setting the guidelines in 2001, but the commission ignored his and other expert testimony in setting guidelines that treated one gram of Ecstasy the same as 500 grams of marijuana when it came to sentencing.

In a December hearing, the ACLU presented the court with scientific evidence from expert witnesses to argue that the Ecstasy guidelines were flawed. Among those testifying was Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern, MD, who had parlayed a MAPS $15,000 grant for a pilot study of the drug's neurocognitive effects into a $1.8 million, five-year National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that found long-term recreational Ecstasy use did not cause clinically significant cognitive damage.

In his written opinion, issued in May in anticipation of Friday's sentencing, Pauley found that sentencing McCarthy under the guidelines would "give rise to a sentence that is greater than necessary to serve the objectives of sentencing." Judge Pauley also lambasted the Sentencing Commission for "opportunistic rummaging" through the scientific evidence at the time of the 2001 hearing.

That hearing and the resulting guidelines grew out of the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, passed in the midst of a drug panic over spreading recreational use of the drug. That law directed the Sentencing Commission to review and increase the penalties for any Ecstasy trafficking or distribution offense.

"The harshness of the Ecstasy guideline affects hundreds of defendants each year in the federal system," said ACLU Drug Law Policy Project staff attorney Scott Michelman. "We are gratified that courageous and thoughtful jurists are addressing this problem, and we hope today’s decision will encourage more judges to take a hard look at this issue. This ruling demonstrates the importance of thoroughly reviewing the empirical basis underlying each of the US sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, to make sure the Guidelines reflect the current state of scientific knowledge."

As for McCarthy, he did 14 months in federal prison before being released in December while awaiting sentencing. He now lives in San Diego, where he works as a home health care nurse, volunteers with the homeless, and cares for his ailing father.

Montana Judge Blocks Restrictive Medical Marijuana Provisions

A state judge has blocked some of the most onerous provisions of a new law designed to rein in Montana's medical marijuana industry from taking effect. But other provisions of the law, which will make life more difficult for patients and providers, are now in effect.

medical marijuana containers and vaporizer (image via wikimedia)
District Court Judge James Reynolds issued a preliminary injunction late Thursday to block those portions of the law from going into effect hours later. But the rest of the repressive "reform" is in effect as of July 1.

Reynolds ruled that lawmakers went too far in trying to clamp down. He blocked a provision of the new law that outlawed anyone making money in the business, including growers being compensated for their efforts. He blocked the law's ban on advertising and promotion of medical marijuana. And he threw out the new law's provision limiting providers to growing for no more than three patients.

"The court is unaware of and has not been shown where any person in any other licensed and lawful industry in Montana -- be he a barber, an accountant, a lawyer or a doctor -- who, providing a legal product or service, is denied the right to charge for that service or is limited in the number of people he or she can serve," Reynolds wrote.

Those provisions in the law "will certainly limit the number of willing providers and will thereby deny the access of Montanans otherwise eligible for medical marijuana to this legal product and thereby deny these persons this fundamental right of seeking their health in a lawful manner," Reynolds continued.

The lawsuit against the new law was brought by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which is also organizing a referendum effort to block the law from going into effect until it can go before the voters in November 2012. Montana voters approved the old, less restrictive, medical marijuana law in 2004 with 62% of the vote.

The association called the ruling "a partial victory," noting that "caregivers" have been eliminated and must now become registered "providers." "This, of course, temporarily breaks down the entire system, Yet, it was clearly the judge's intention to allow commercial activity," the group noted.

For a more detailed look at the new law and how the judge's order modified it, visit this Montana NORML web page.

Helena, MT
United States

India Court Nixes Mandatory Death Penalty for Drug Offenses

In a decision handed down last Thursday, the Bombay High Court struck down the mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses as unconstitutional. It becomes the first court anywhere in the world to do so, according to the Indian Harm Reduction Network (IHRN), which petitioned the court for the ruling.

The Bombay High Court in Mumbai (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The Bombay High Court is one of 22 regional high courts and has jurisdiction over the states of Maharashtra and Goa. It the equivalent of a US federal court of appeals.

Section 31A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act imposed a mandatory death sentence for a second offense of drug trafficking or possession of more than a specified amount of drugs. Now, courts in Maharastra and Goa can still impose the death penalty for those drug offenses, but they are not required to.

The decision came in the case of Ghulam Mohammed Malik, a Kashmiri man sentenced to death by the Special NDPS Court in Mumbai in February. He had been convicted of a second offense of smuggling charas (cannabis resin).

THE IHRN intervened in the case, arguing that the mandatory death sentence did not allow the court to take into consideration individual circumstances or mitigating factors. The IHRN told the high court the mandatory death penalty was arbitrary, excessive and disproportionate to the crime of dealing in drugs.

"The order marks an important advance in drug policy and anti-death penalty campaigns," said Anand Grover, director of the Lawyers Collective, who argued the case for IHRN. "We will examine the decision fully to assess whether striking down the death penalty, as was done by the Supreme Court for Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code, would have been more appropriate."

Across the world, 32 countries impose capital punishment for offenses involving narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Of these, 13 countries (including India until today) prescribe mandatory death sentences for drug crimes. In countries like Iran and China that actually carry out executions, drug offenders constitute the vast majority of those executed. In May last year, the Court of Appeal in Singapore upheld the mandatory death sentence imposed upon a young Malaysian for possession of heroin.

"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said IHRN head Luke Samson.

"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law"India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."

For more information about the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses and efforts to combat it, visit Harm Reduction International's Death Penalty Project.

Mumbai
India

Brazil Supreme Court Rules Pro-Marijuana Marches Are Legal

The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled June 15 that marches in favor of marijuana legalization can take place. The decision overturns various lower-court decisions that had banned them as "apology for drug use" and "support of drug trafficking."

Sao Paulo (image via Wikimedia)
The ruling came on a unanimous 8-0 vote. The court held that the marches must be allowed if authorities were to respect the rights of freedom of expression and the right to assemble. The marches are a way for citizens to exercise their rights, Justice Celso de Mello said.

"Nothing proves more harmful and dangerous than the desire of the state to repress freedom of expression, especially of ideas that the majority repudiate. Thought should always be free," De Mello said.

In 1997 police arrested members of the band Planet Hemp, immediately following a Sao Paulo show they had recorded for evidence. Police charged the band members with lyrics supporting the use of maconha (marijuana).

Pro-pot legalization marches associated with the Global Marijuana March the first weekend in May each year began in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and have since popped up in other cities across the country. Beginning in 2008, local courts began banning them, arguing that they were a justification for drug use.

Just a month before this ruling, riot police in Sao Paulo attacked with tear gas and batons more than 1,000 marchers who had gathered despite a ban on the march. Next year, they won't have the excuse of illegality to repress the pot parade.

Brazilians didn't wait until next year to exercise their newfound freedoms. Demonstrators marched in 40 cities last weekend to demand marijuana legalization.

Brasilia
Brazil

Supreme Court Holds Crack Penalties Apply to "Cocaine Base"

In a unanimous ruling Thursday, the US Supreme Court upheld a 10-year federal prison sentence for possession of cocaine base, rejecting an appeal that harsher penalties for crack cocaine did not apply to "cocaine base." The case was DePierre v. US, and it concerned the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed at the height of mid-1980s crack hysteria.

The Supreme Court says "cocaine base" means more than just crack. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
Under that law, possession of 50 grams of "cocaine base" was punishable by a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, while it took five kilograms of powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride or "cocaine salts") to garner the same sentence. While those penalties have been imposed almost exclusively on crack cocaine offenders, the words "crack cocaine" do not appear in the law. Instead the harsher penalties are imposed on those who possess substances or mixtures containing "cocaine base."

Frantz DePierre got busted for selling more than 50 grams of "cocaine base" to an undercover agent in Massachuseets in 2005. At trial, a federal judge rejected his request to instruct the jury that "cocaine base" meant only crack cocaine, and a federal appeals court in Boston agreed with the trial judge. And now the US Supreme Court has endorsed those lower court rulings.

"Cocaine base," as used in the 1986 law, "means not just 'crack cocaine,' but cocaine in its chemically basic form," Justice Sotomayor held, as the court upheld DePierre's conviction and 10-year prison sentence. That basic form includes "the molecule found in crack cocaine, freebase, and coca paste," she continued. "On its plain terms then, 'cocaine base' reaches more broadly than just crack cocaine.

While Congress last year voted to substantially reduce -- although not eliminate -- the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, crack still earns you substantially more time than powder. And this ruling clarifies that those stiffer penalties apply to freebase and coca paste, as well as crack.

Washington, DC
United States

No Job Protection for WA Medical Marijuana Patients, Court Rules

Employers in Washington state can fire employees who fail a drug test, even if they have a valid recommendation to use medical marijuana, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The ruling came in the case of a Bremerton woman who was fired from her job after testing positive for pot, although she had a recommendation to use marijuana for migraine headaches.

Taking prescribed Adderall, Oxycontin, or Vicodin? No problem. But medical marijuana can get you fired. (Image via Wikimedia.org
In the case, Jane Roe v. TeleTech Customer Care Management, the anonymous plaintiff was pulled out of a training class and fired in October 2006 because she failed a pre-employment drug test. Her attorney argued that the Washington state medical marijuana law implicitly required employers to accommodate medical marijuana use outside the workplace.

But in an 8-1 decision, the state Supreme Court disagreed. The majority noted that the state law explicitly allows employers to forbid on-the-job medical marijuana use, but says nothing about medical marijuana use outside the workplace.

"We hold that [the Washington Medical Use of Marijuana Act] does not provide a private cause of action for discharge of an employee who uses medical marijuana, either expressly or impliedly, nor does MUMA create a clear public policy that would support a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of such a policy," wrote Justice Charles Wiggins for the majority.

But in his dissent, Justice Tom Roberts noted that under the medical marijuana law, qualified patients "shall not be penalized in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, for such actions." Roberts added that, "Roe seems to be exactly the sort of person the people intended to protect... Neither I nor the law would require employers to employ drug impaired workers. The law is intended to treat marijuana like any other medication."

If the state high court will not protect the rights of Roe, Roberts wrote, the legislature should step up and do so. "To that end, I urge the legislature to thoughtfully review and improve the act."

But that's no easy process. In California, which has seen a similar state court ruling gutting the employment rights of medical marijuana users, a legislative effort to provide a fix died in Sacramento last week.

Olympia, WA
United States

Supreme Court Upholds Order for California To Cut Prison Population

A closely divided US Supreme Court Monday upheld a court order requiring California to cut its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates because the state has proven unwilling or unable to provide adequate health care in its overcrowded prisons. The decision came in Plata v. Brown, a case originally filed in 2001.

Overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (Image courtesy CDCR)
In the 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, saying the reduction in the number of prisoners was "required by the Constitution" to correct longstanding abuses of prisoners' rights. "The violations persisted for years. They remain uncorrected," he wrote.

He was joined by the high court's four Democratic appointees. The four Republican appointees all opposed the majority.

In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court order is "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." It would require the release of "the staggering number of 46,000 felons," Scalia complained.

The state of California could make substantial progress toward that goal simply by releasing the more than 28,000 persons imprisoned for violating the drug laws, including 10,000 doing time for simple drug possession and more than 1,500 doing time for marijuana offenses. Those year's end 2009 figures are the most recent available from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The court order is the culmination of more than a decade of litigation by prisoners' advocates, who successfully charged that mental and physical health in the state prison system was inadequate. In 2009, there was nearly a prisoner death a week that could have been prevented or delayed with better care.

The state's 33 adult prisons were designed to hold 80,000 inmates, but held more than 142,000 at latest count. The court order should bring that number down to slightly more than 100,000 within two years, although the figure could stay higher if Gov. Jerry Brown (D) moves ahead with plans to build more prison cells.

"The US Supreme Court was right to uphold the order to reduce California's prison population. Tough on crime policies have crowded prisons so severely with people convicted of nonviolent offenses, including drug possession, that they are not only unsafe and overly costly, but also a net negative for public safety," said Theshia Naidoo, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "To end prison overcrowding, California must reserve prison for serious offenses and that requires sentencing reform. Even minor changes to sentencing laws could reap major rewards. By reducing the penalty for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, for example, the state would save $450 million a year and reduce the prison population by over 9,000. We urge California to take the logical step of ending incarceration as a response to drug possession, while expanding opportunities for drug treatment in the community," continued Naidoo.

“This landmark decision opens an important new chapter in California's long struggle over whether to expand or contract our bloated prison system,” says Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a broad statewide coalition working to reduce the number of people in California's prison system. "This is an important moment for California to push forward much needed parole and sentencing reforms to reduce California’s prison population, including for example amending or repealing three strikes, releasing terminally ill and permanently medically incapacitated prisoners, eliminating return to custody as a sanction for administrative and technical parole violations, reforming drug sentencing laws, and many other reforms that have been proven to reduce incarceration rates and corrections costs while improving public safety," continued Harris.

Gov. Brown has also talked about a "realignment" of the criminal justice system that would shift control of nonviolent, low-level offenders from the state prison system to county and municipal lock-ups. That's not a real solution, said Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag, which charts the dramatic rise of the carceral state in California. State spending on prisons as risen from 2% of the budget in 1980 to 10% now.

"County jail expansion does not solve the underlying problems," said Gilmore. "We know that public safety is a direct outcome of public education, affordable housing, and living-wage jobs. These are goals we can achieve now if we take this opportunity to shrink prisons and jails. Building bigger jails to ease prison numbers is the same as rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic: wasting the same dollars in different jurisdictions.  The US Supreme Court decision is a long-awaited cue for California's elected officials to stop messing around with superficial changes and start saving lives with real social investment, especially in communities where it makes the biggest difference."

CA
United States

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