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April 13, 2010

Race & Justice News

Feature Story

Facilitating Productive Communications on Racial Justice

The Opportunity Agenda has released a memo entitled "Ten Lessons for Talking About Racial Equity in the Age of Obama" that outlines key principles for facilitating discussions about racial equity. While many Americans have been reluctant to acknowledge the continued existence of racial inequities, especially given the historic election of President Obama, there is substantial evidence that documents the continuing influence of racial bias and injustice. 

Among other recommendations, The Opportunity Agenda suggests leading discussions with a focus on shared values, emphasizing how taking strides to reduce racial inequities is for the common good of all, and linking racial justice solutions with efforts to expand opportunities.  Specifically, the organization asserts that focusing on unequal outcomes often reinforces stereotypes. Instead, it supports documenting the barriers to equal opportunity using evidence and facts as a more effective approach. For example, rather than discussing the income gap between blacks and whites, a more constructive strategy may be to cite a study that found that white applicants with criminal records are more likely to receive a callback from prospective employers than African Americans without a criminal record (Pager, 2003).

Click here to view the full memo.

Spotlight on Research

NYC Blacks Most Likely To Get Stopped, Questioned and Frisked by Police

Researchers at the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice have recently analyzed New York City Police Department (NYPD) data on stop and frisk trends. The findings in "Stop, Question & Frisk Policing Practices In New York City: A Primer" indicate that in 2009 African Americans and Hispanics combined were stopped at a rate that was 9 times higher than whites, with Asians being the least likely to be stopped. Blacks and Hispanics made up nearly 85% of stops in 2009 although they account for only 24% and 27% of the citywide population respectively. This supports findings such as those from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California report that finds that blacks are nearly three times more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. 

The John Jay research also shows that once stopped, 57% of blacks and 56% of Hispanics are frisked compared to 42% of whites. Similarly, only 18% of whites compared to 25% of blacks and 24% of Hispanics endure some type of physical force such as being forced to the ground, having a weapon drawn on them, or subjected to batons and/or pepper spray. Ironically, although whites were less likely to be arrested they were more likely to have contraband, a knife, or other non-firearm weapons than their African-American and Latino counterparts. Click here to access the full report.

Media Attention May Help Reduce Racial Profiling

A recent study on racial profiling finds that public scrutiny from the media contributes to reducing racial profiling practices in routine traffic stops. Researchers have assessed the impact of public attention on changing police officers' patterns when searching black and white drivers.  The results of the study indicate that racial disparities are significantly reduced when media coverage puts pronounced pressure on police organizations and when change in leadership occurs.

Warren, Patricia and Amy Farrell.  2009.  "The Environmental Context of Racial Profiling."  The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.  Vol. 623.

How Many Tickets You Get May Be Determined By  More Than Just Your Driving

Findings from a study focusing on traffic citation practices by the police indicate that neighborhood characteristics may influence how many tickets a person receives if stopped.  Factors such as the neighborhood income level, percentage of the neighborhood that are ethnic minorities, and the neighborhood crime rate increase the likelihood that drivers will receive more than one citation. Specifically, an increased number of citations were likely to be given in poorer neighborhoods with higher percentages of black and Hispanic residents. Moreover, the study indicates that these practices have a spill-over effect that extends to neighboring areas.  

Ingram, Jason.  2010.  "The Effect of Neighborhood Characteristics on Traffic Citation Practices of the Police."  Police Quarterly.  Vol. 10(4): 371-393. 

Featured Book

"Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire" by Robert Perkinson


In this thought-provoking analysis, Perkinson provides a historical account tracing what he describes as Texas' various failed approaches to crime control. He helps us to understand how racism and politics, rather than crime control has been at the heart of governing prisons. Simply put, Perkinson argues that America has moved from "the age of slavery to the age of incarceration," which continues to plague our society today. The state of Texas incarcerates more people than Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. Currently, there are approximately 2.4 million persons incarcerated in the U.S. and our nation spends $212 billion a year on law enforcement, courts and prisons combined. Between 1965 and 2000 the number of prisoners in the U.S. increased over 600 percent; in Texas the increase in incarcerations was twice that. However, despite its level of spending and high incarceration rate, Texans still have a crime rate that is 24% higher than the national average.

According to Perkinson, race and slavery are the forces that shaped the Texas penal system. At its inception, the Texas prison system was reserved for whites and was never intended for free blacks or slaves-their punishment was death. Nevertheless, the abolition of slavery in 1865 left a class of black people who had little more than a fragile sense of freedom and Texas politicians desperate to maintain power over their former slaves. In fact, from 1865 to 1874 Texas led the nation in railroad construction, largely accomplished with convict labor. While most states had penal expenses, Texas made over $300,000 in profits by the 1880s.    

Following the Civil Rights Movement's advances in providing equal protection under the law and desegregation came tougher drug policies, and crackdowns on crime that consciously or not, made African Americans a target. Since that period, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has nearly doubled and remains a problem that plagues us today. Visit www.texastough.com.

The Sentencing Project will participate in a discussion about the book in New York this week. Click here to view invitation or RSVP.

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The Sentencing Project is a national, nonprofit organization engaged in research and advocacy for criminal justice reform.

Feature: Philadelphia to Not Quite Decriminalize Marijuana

People caught with 30 grams (a bit more than an ounce) or less of marijuana in Philadelphia will no longer be charged with criminal misdemeanors, but with summary offenses under a new policy that will go into effect later this month. Fines are expected to be in the $200 to $300 range.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/independencehall.jpg
Independence Hall, Philadelphia
But while pot smokers won't face criminal charges, they will still be arrested, handcuffed, searched, detained, and fingerprinted. Then, their cases will be heard by a special "quality of life" court that is already in use for things like dealing with unruly Eagles fans and public drinking.

"We're not going to stop locking people up," Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, told the Philadelphia Inquirer Monday. Marijuana possession remained illegal, he said. "We're going to stop people for it... Our officers are trained to do that. Whether or not they make it through the charging process, that's up to the DA. We can't control that. Until they legalize it, we're not going to stop."

After the Inquirer ran its story Monday, emphasizing that the policy change would "all but decriminalize" marijuana possession, District Attorney Seth Williams had to issue a statement of clarification:

"We are not decriminalizing marijuana -- any effort like that would be one for the legislature to undertake. The penalty available for these minimal amount offenses remains exactly the same. What we are doing is properly dealing with cases involving minimal amounts of marijuana in the most efficient and cost effective process possible. Those arrested for these offenses will still be restrained, identified and processed by police in police custody. They will still have to answer to the charges, but they will be doing so in a speedier and more efficient process. We want to use valuable court resources in the best way possible and we believe that means giving minor drug offenders the option of getting into diversionary programs, get drug education or enter drug treatment centers. Again we are NOT decriminalizing marijuana, and the penalty for these offenses remains the same."

"It will be charged as a summary offense, but you will still get arrested, booked, and fingerprinted," confirmed Tasha Jamerson, media director for the district attorney's office. "But instead of getting processed as a misdemeanor, it is processed as a summary offense, and you face only one court appearance."

"They are making a policy out of what is the common practice," said Chris Goldstein of Philadelphia NORML, which has been lobbying local officials for reforms. "People arrested for a Class A marijuana possession misdemeanor for less than 30 grams typically pleaded down to disorderly conduct, but it took a court hearing to make that happen. Prosecutors are making a pragmatic choice here; this will save them a lot of time and money."

The policy shift is the result of a collaboration between new District Attorney Seth Williams and a pair of Pennsylvania Supreme Court judges. It is part of an effort to unclog the city's overwhelmed court dockets.

Under Williams' predecessor, former DA Lynne Abraham, police arrested an average of 3,000 people a year for small-time pot possession, about 75% of them black. Last year, the arrest figure jumped to more than 4,700. That figure represents roughly 5% of the city's criminal caseload.

About another 2,000 are arrested for marijuana distribution and 2,500 more are arrested for possession of more than 30 grams. Overall, enforcing drug prohibition has resulted in about 18,000 arrests a year in Philadelphia, or nearly one-third of the entire criminal caseload.

"We have to be smart on crime," Williams told the Inquirer. "We can't declare a war on drugs by going after the kid who's smoking a joint on 55th Street. We have to go after the large traffickers."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, one of the two justices who worked with Williams on the policy shift, said summary prosecution was "appropriate" for such a small-time offense. "It's a minor crime when you're faced with major drug crimes." Removing such cases from the criminal courts, he said, "unclogs the system."

"The marijuana consumers of Philadelphia welcome this," said Goldstein. "This is a very progressive thing to do on the part of the city," Goldstein said of the new policy. "I couldn't be happier about this."

Goldstein was much less enthused by the continued arrests policy. "It is completely absurd," he said. "It's harsh. For minor marijuana possession, it's very harsh treatment."

Nor was he convinced that the policy shift would do anything to reduce racially-biased marijuana law enforcement. "If we're paying attention to pot arrests in Philadelphia, we have to note that most are black. There hasn't been a single month when more than 10 white women have been arrested for less than 30 grams. Just go to a Phillies game parking lot. They could arrest a hundred white women in an hour out there," he said.

"At the same time, about 60 black women and 350 black men are getting arrested for it each month," Goldstein continued. "This points to bias in enforcement, and it costs a lot of money. We actually treat marijuana offenders here more harshly than anywhere else in the state, and it costs money. That's why the DA and the Supreme Court can initiate this change -- they're just bringing Philadelphia in line with the rest of the state and the region."

Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office director Roseanne Scotti, who lives in Philadelphia, had another concern about the policy shift. "My concern is that there could be an incentive to arrest more people, because it will cost the city less to process them," she said. "And the city will make money on fines. We could see net-widening, with even more people getting arrested. If that's the case, are we better off at the end of the day? This will be a time and money saver for the city, but is this really a good thing for people who use marijuana?"

Time will tell.

Marijuana: Philadelphia to Decriminalize Possession of Up to 30 Grams, But Arrests to Continue Anyway

People caught with 30 grams (a bit more than an ounce) or less of marijuana in Philadelphia will no longer be charged with criminal misdemeanors, but with civil summary offenses under a new policy that will go into effect later this month. Fines are expected to be in the $200 to $300 range. But while pot smokers won't face criminal charges, they will still be arrested, handcuffed, searched, detained, and fingerprinted. Then, their cases will be heard by a special "quality of life" court that is already in use for things like dealing with unruly Eagles fans and public drinking. "We're not going stop locking people up," Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, . Marijuana possession remained illegal, he said. "We're going to stop people for it. . . . Our officers are trained to do that. Whether or not they make it through the charging process, that's up to the D We can't control that. Until they legalize it, we're not going to stop." According to the Inquirer, the policy shift is the result of a collaboration between new District Attorney Seth Williams and a pair of Pennsylvania Supreme Court judges. It is part of an effort to unclog the city's overwhelmed court dockets. Under Williams' predecessor, former DA Lynn Abraham, police arrested an average of 3,000 people a year for small-time pot possession, about 75% of them black. That figure represents roughly 5% of the city's criminal caseload. About another 2,000 are arrested for marijuana distribution and 2,500 more are arrested for possession of more than 30 grams. Overall, enforcing drug prohibition has resulted in about 18,000 arrests a year in Philadelphia, or nearly one-third of the entire criminal caseload. "We have to be smart on crime," Williams told the Inquirer. "We can't declare a war on drugs by going after the kid who's smoking a joint on 55th Street. We have to go after the large traffickers." Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, one of the two justices who worked with Williams on the policy shift, said decrim was "appropriate" for such a small-time offense. "It's a minor crime when you're faced with major drug crimes." Removing such cases from the criminal courts, he said, "unclogs the system." Philadelphia NORML has been quietly lobbying city officials for the change. "The marijuana consumers of Philadelphia welcome this," said chapter head Chris Goldstein. "This is a very progressive thing to do on the part of the city," Goldstein said of the new policy. "I couldn't be happier about this." Goldstein was much less enthused by the continued arrests policy. "It is completely absurd," he said. "It's harsh. For minor marijuana possession, it's very harsh treatment." In most states and localities with decriminalization laws or policies, people are merely issued a ticket after police seize their stash. Still, this is a quarter-step forward for Philadelphia.
Location: 
Philadelphia, PA
United States

Congress: Senate Passes Bill to Reduce, But Not Eliminate, Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate approved on a voice vote Wednesday a bill that would reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in sentences handed down to people convicted of crack versus powder cocaine charges. The bill championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), S. 1789, would reduce the current, much maligned, 100:1 ratio to 18:1.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/capitolsenateside.jpg
Senate disappoints
Under current law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. The law has been especially devastating in black communities, which make up about 30% of all crack consumers, but account for more than 80% of all federal crack prosecutions. Under the bill passes by the Senate, it would now take an ounce of crack for the mandatory minimums to kick in.

Durbin's bill originally called for completely eliminating the sentencing disparity, but was stalled until a Senate gym meeting between Durbin and opposition Judiciary Committee heavy-hitters Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). After that informal confab, the bill was amended to 18:1 and passed unanimously last week by the committee.

A bill in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would completely eliminate the disparity by the simple act of eliminating all references to crack in the federal statute, HR 3245, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last July, but has not come to a floor vote. Now that the Senate has approved its bill, pressure will be on the House to just approve the Senate version.

Sen. Durbin told the Associated Press that while he had originally sought to completely eliminate the disparity, the final bill was a good compromise. "If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said.

Durbin added that the harsher treatment of crack offenders combined with federal prosecutors' predilection for disproportionately going after black crack offenders had eroded respect for the law. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community."

But drug reformers and civil rights groups that had pushed for complete elimination of the sentencing disparity had a definitely mixed reaction to the Senate vote. It was progress, but not enough, they said.

"We strongly supported Sen. Durbin's bill, which would have completely eliminated the disparity," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights in a statement Wednesday. Adding that the group was "disappointed" that disparities remain, Henderson said that "this legislation represents progress, but not the end of the fight."

"Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance in a Wednesday statement. "On one hand, we've moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

Senate Passes Bill to Reduce, But Not Eliminate, Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate approved on a voice vote Wednesday a bill that would reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in sentences handed down to people convicted of crack versus powder cocaine charges. The bill championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), SB 1789 would reduce the current, much maligned, 100:1 ratio to 18:1. Under current law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. The law has been especially devastating in black communities, which make up about 30% of all crack consumers, but account for more than 80% of all federal crack prosecutions. Under the bill passes by the Senate, it would now take an ounce of crack for the mandatory minimums to kick in. Durbin's bill originally called for completely eliminating the sentencing disparity, but was stalled until a Senate gym meeting between Durbin and opposition Judiciary Committee heavy-hitters Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). After that informal confab, the bill was amended to 18:1 and passed unanimously last week by the committee. A bill in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would completely eliminate the disparity by the simple act of eliminating all references to crack in the federal statute, HR 3245, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last July, but has not come to a floor vote. Now that the Senate has approved its bill, pressure will be on the House to just approve the Senate version. Sen. Durbin told the Associated Press that while he had originally sought to completely eliminate the disparity, the final bill was a good compromise. "If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said. Durbin added that the harsher treatment of crack offenders combined with federal prosecutors' predilection for disproportionately going after black crack offenders had eroded respect for the law. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community." But drug reformers and civil rights groups that had pushed for complete elimination of the sentencing disparity had a definitely mixed reaction to the Senate vote. It was progress, but not enough, they said. "We strongly supported Sen. Durbin's bill, which would have completely eliminated the disparity," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights in a statement Wednesday. Adding that the group was "disappointed" that disparities remain, Henderson said that "this legislation represents progress, but not the end of the fight." "Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance in a Wednesday statement. "On one hand, we’ve moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Feature: Senate Judiciary Committee Unanimously Passes Bill to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would reduce -- but not eliminate -- the disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under the bill introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), SB 1789, the disparity would have been completely eliminated, but the committee instead approved an amended version that reduces the ratio between crack and powder cocaine quantities from 100:1 to 20:1.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/capitolsenateside.jpg
US Capitol, Senate side
Under current federal law, it takes only five grams of crack to garner a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same prison time. Under the Senate bill, an ounce of crack will get you a five-year prison sentence while it would take more than a pound of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. But even retaining the 20:1 disparity, advocates estimate that some 3,100 cases would be affected each year, with sentences reduced by an average of 30 months.

The amended bill also eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine possession. But it also directs the US Sentencing Commission to increase sentences for aggravating factors such as violence or bribery of a police officer.

"This is an exciting vote, but also disappointing," said Julie Stewart, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "We hoped the committee would go further in making crack penalties the same as powder. There was no scientific basis for the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine created 24 years ago, and there is no scientific basis for today’s vote of 20:1. However, if this imperfect bill becomes law, it will provide some long-overdue relief to thousands of defendants sentenced each year."

Stewart also noted with approval the elimination of the mandatory minimum sentence for simple crack possession. "If enacted, this legislation would repeal a mandatory minimum law for the first time since the Nixon administration," she said.

Stewart's sentiments were echoed by spokespersons for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which, like FAMM, has been lobbying on the Hill for years to undo the draconian and racially disparate impact of the federal crack laws. Although African-Americans make up only 30% of crack consumers, they account for 82% of all federal crack prosecution. Nearly two-thirds of all those convicted under the crack laws were low-level dealers or other minimally involved players.

"Today is a bittersweet day," said DPA's Jasmine Tyler. "On one hand, we've moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate Judiciary Committee, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 20:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

"It's pretty amazing when you think about everything the Republicans and Democrats are fighting over -- health care, budgets, all that -- this is the one thing they can all come together on," said DPA national affairs director Bill Piper, noting the unanimous committee vote.

A similar bill passed the House Judiciary Committee during this same session of Congress last July. Introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), HR 3245 completely eliminates the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses by simply removing all references to crack cocaine from the federal statute.

Now it is up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to get the respective measures to a floor vote. Advocates are urging the White House to support the House bill.

"We're urging people to be very clear to the House, the Senate, and the president that the disparity should be completely eliminated and not just reduced," said DPA's Piper. "The House bill is the one that should ultimately be voted out of Congress. Our challenge is to get the full 1:1 bill approved, not the 20:1. That said, even 20:1 is a step in the right direction," he added, noting the glacial, multi-stage pace of Rockefeller drug law reform in New York state.

"While Democrats and Republicans bicker over healthcare, unemployment, education and other issues, it’s good to see that they unanimously agree that US drug laws are too harsh and need to be reformed," said DPA's Tyler. "While many will benefit from this change, more needs to be done. The disparity must be completely eliminated, and President Obama and Speaker Pelosi will have to stand up firmly on the issue to make that a reality."

Now it is a matter of political will in the White House and among the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate, said Piper. "It is totally up to the House and Senate leadership to decide when and what they will take to the floor, but we have to do it this year, or everything dies, and we have to start over again next year."

The first significant rollback of a federal drug sentencing law in decades is drawing tantalizingly near after almost a quarter-century of hysteria-driven federal crack laws. Will the congressional Democrats have the gumption to push either the House bill or the Senate bill to a floor vote? Stay tuned.

Law Enforcement: Massachusetts Family Sues, Claims Man Beaten to Death by Police after Caught Smoking Joint at Sobriety Checkpoint

The family of a Massachusetts man who died in police custody after being stopped at sobriety checkpoint filed a federal lawsuit January 28 claiming police beat him to death. The federal civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit names dozens of state troopers, local police, and county sheriff's deputies assigned to a North Andover checkpoint the night of November 25.

That was the night Kenneth Howe, a passenger in a vehicle driven by one of his friends, was killed after an altercation at the checkpoint. The official version of events is that Howe assaulted an officer, tried to flee, was taken into custody, and became unresponsive during booking. Police took him to a hospital, where he died.

The family has a different version of events. Citing the driver of the pickup, they say Howe was smoking a joint when the truck suddenly came upon the checkpoint. He attempted to buckle his seat belt and put out the joint when a female trooper came to his window and ordered him out of the truck. Howe held up his hands and tried to explain that the joint was all he was holding.

Then, according to the lawsuit, the trooper "forcefully removed Kenneth from the truck and screamed, 'He assaulted me.' At that point, between approximately 10 and 20 law enforcement officers swarmed on Kenneth." Then Howe was dragged on the ground to a state police cruiser and taken away.

The lawsuit cites more than 40 photographs of the incident taken by a local newspaper photographer who was there covering the checkpoint. They show Howe face down on the ground and surrounded by police officers. The lawsuit says there are additional photos showing Howe's bruised and bloodied body.

The lawsuit also cited a finding by a state medical examiner who ruled Howe's death a homicide. He was killed by "blunt impact of head and torso with compression of chest," family attorney Frances King said at a press conference before filing the suit.

"There is no rationale and no justification for beating this man to death," King said as she stood beside Howe's wife and two of his daughters.

The death is being investigated by the Essex District Attorney's office, but King said the US attorney's office and FBI needed to step in. "It is nothing short of absurd" to have state police within the prosecutor's office investigate other state police, she said.

Congress: Bill to Do Top-to-Bottom Review of Criminal Justice System, Drug War Passes Senate Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday approved Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 on a unanimous voice vote Thursday. The bill would create a commission to conduct a top-to-bottom evaluation of the country's criminal justice system and offer recommendations for reform at every level.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/jimwebb-smaller.jpg
Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Webb has been a harsh critic of national drug policies, and has led at least two hearings on the costs associated with current policies. The bill could create an opportunity to shine a harsh light on the negative consequences of the current policies.

An amendment offered by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) and accepted by the committee stripped out the original bill's lengthy list of negative drug policy "findings" and replaced them with blander language, but left the bill's purpose intact.

Passage out of committee was applauded by sentencing reform advocates. "Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) commends the Senate Judiciary Committee for recognizing that the American criminal justice system needs an overhaul," said Jennifer Seltzer Stitt, FAMM federal legislative affairs director. "Any comprehensive reform of our criminal justice system must include eliminating mandatory minimum laws. One-size-fits-all mandatory drug sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s are responsible for filling prisons with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, wasting millions in taxpayer dollars, and destroying public trust in the criminal justice system. The National Criminal Justice Commission can help right these wrongs by recommending mandatory sentencing reform."

The bill's prospects are uncertain. It faces a crowded calendar in the Senate and has made little progress in the House.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class," by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold (2010, Lynne Reinner Publishers, 197 pp., $49.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/dormroomdrugdealers.jpg
Whom do you picture when you read the phrase "drug dealer"? It's probably not the subjects of this book. They're white, upper-middle class and beyond, upwardly mobile college students blithely enmeshed in a web of criminality -- drug use and sales -- that, for them at least, goes unnoticed, and even when noticed, largely unpunished.

And that really irks Mohamed and Fritsvold, a pair of Southern California sociologists who gained entrée into a network of drug sellers and users centered on a private college in San Diego and then spent six years interviewing and observing them as they partied hearty, gobbled and swapped pills, and peddled dope with reckless abandon. It's not, as the authors make clear, that they wish their student subjects were punished with the same heavy hand awaiting a poor black kid slinging crack in on an inner city street corner.

In fact, Mohamed and Fritsvold make equally clear that they view US drug policies as harsh and counterproductive, in no small part because of the race and class biases they so inarguably exhibit. Healthy chunks of "Dorm Room Dealers" are devoted to delineating in detail just how racially skewed and cleaved by class the application of American drug laws are. That's what really irks the authors.

And that partially answers the questions the authors posed at the beginning of the book. Why do privileged college students -- who have everything to lose and little to gain -- choose to sell drugs? Well, because they can do so with almost total impunity. They are not the target of the drug war. They're the wrong color and the wrong class. They essentially get a free pass -- from police, who ignore them; from college administrators, who don't want to upset their parents; from doctors, who are happy to prescribe them whatever pills they desire... because they are the children of "good people," i.e. white and wealthy people.

Mohamed and Fritsvold show repeatedly the reckless abandon with which their subjects went about their business: Dope deals over the phone with uncoded messages, driving around high with pounds of pot in the car, doing drug transactions visible from the street, selling to strangers, smuggling hundreds of pills across the Mexican border. These campus dealers lacked even the basics of drug dealer security measures, yet they flew under the radar of the drug warriors.

Even when the rare encounter with police occurred, these well-connected students skated. In one instance, a dealer got too wasted and attacked someone's car. He persuaded a police officer to take him home in handcuffs to get cash to pay for the damages. The cop ignored the scales, the pot, the evidence of drug dealing, and happily took a hundred dollar bill for his efforts. In another instance, a beach front dealer was the victim of an armed robbery. He had no qualms about calling the police, who once again couldn't see the evidence of dealing staring them in the face and who managed to catch the robbers. The dealer wisely didn't claim the pounds of pot police recovered and didn't face any consequences.

Even when the rare arrest for drug dealing occurred, these folks emerged relatively unscathed. With daddy's money and daddy's lawyers, serious felony charges evaporate. One dealer who could have gone to prison for years ended up with probation for a misdemeanor, which was subsequently wiped from his record. Ah, privilege -- ain't it sweet?

The lack of consequences for breaking drug laws may help explain the students' almost universal lack of interest in drug law reform. These student dope-slingers were not SSDP types. Only one of the two dozen or so dealers watched by Mohamed and Fritsvold expressed any interest in changing the laws. Why should these folks care about reforming the drug laws? They appear to be irrelevant to their lives. Perhaps if these privileged students were subjected to the wrath of the drug war the same way their poorer, darker-skinned counterparts were, they and their powerful parents might begin to feel compelled to address the drug laws. Until then, not so much.

These student dealers were mostly vending pot, with a few offering cocaine and ecstasy as sidelines. There was no mention of heroin or methamphetamines. One finding that surprised the authors was the prevalence of the pill culture. Students were gobbling down Valium, Xanax, Oxycontin, Lorcet, Vicodin, Adderall and Ritalin like crazy, swapping or selling excess pills, lying to doctors to get prescriptions, even smuggling in loads obtained in Tijuana strip joints.

The pill-poppers felt even less like criminals than the illicit drug dealers did. All of the students were able to rationalize their lawbreaking, in part, the authors suggest, because they never really self-identified as dope dealers. After all, dope dealers live in the inner city, are poor, and are a different color. For the subjects of "Dorm Room Dealers," collegiate dope-dealing was incidental, a passing phase on their road to mainstream success as realtors, upper management types, and business owners. They were invested in conventional lives and careers, and, as follow up interviews suggest, as a group they are now doing quite well.

"Dorm Room Dealers" is a valuable contribution to the ethnography of drug use and drug selling and is an interesting read, too. But at $50 for the hardback, you'll probably want to check it out of your campus library or wait for the paperback.

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

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