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Asset Forfeiture: Texas DA Seeks to Use Seized Funds to Defend Herself in Lawsuit Over Unlawful Seizure of Same Funds

The Texas district attorney accused of participating in an egregious asset forfeiture scheme in the East Texas town of Tenaha now wants to use the very cash seized to pay for her legal defense in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by victims of the practice. The ACLU of Texas, which, along with the national ACLU, is representing the plaintiffs in the case, filed a brief last Friday with the Texas Attorney General's office seeking to block her from doing so.

Lynda Russell is the district attorney in Shelby County, where Tenaha is located. She is accused of participating in a scheme where Tenaha police pulled over mostly African-American motorists without cause, asked them if they were carrying cash, and if they were, threaten them with being immediately jailed for money laundering or other serious crimes unless they signed over their money to authorities.

Representing a number of victims, attorneys from the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU Racial Justice Project filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in June 2008. According to the suit, more than 140 people, almost all of whom were African-American, turned over their assets to police without cause and under duress between June 2006 and June 2008. If a federal judge agrees that assets were in fact illegally seized, they should be returned to their rightful owners, whose civil rights were violated.

In one case, a mixed race couple, Jennifer Boatwright and Ronald Henderson, were stopped by a Tenaha police officer in April 2007. According to the lawsuit, they were stopped without cause, detained for some time without cause, and asked if they were carrying any cash. When they admitted they had slightly more than $6,000, a district attorney's investigator then seized it, threatening them with arrest for money laundering and the loss of their children if they refused to sign off. There was never any evidence they had committed a crime, and they were never charged with a crime.

The town mayor, the DA, the DA's investigator, the town marshal, and a town constable are all named in the lawsuit. While they claim to have acted legally under Texas asset forfeiture law, the lawsuit argues that "although they were taken under color of state law, their actions constitute abuse of authority." The suit argues that the racially discriminatory pattern of stops and searches violated both the Fourth Amendment proscription of warrantless searches and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause.

While either the county or the state would normally be expected to pony up for the DA's legal expenses for a lawsuit filed as a result of her performance of her duties, neither has done so. That's why Russell -- with a tin ear for irony -- requested that she be allowed to use the allegedly illegally seized money stolen from motorists. She has asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on whether using the funds for her defense violates the state's asset forfeiture law.

"It would be completely inappropriate for the district attorney to use assets which are the very subject of litigation charging her with participating in allegedly illegal activity to defend herself against these charges," said Lisa Graybill, legal director at the ACLU of Texas. "Texas has a long history of having its law enforcement officials unconstitutionally target racial minorities in the flawed and failed war on drugs and it is of paramount importance that those officials be held accountable."

"The government must account for the misconduct of officials who operate in its name," said Vanita Gupta, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, who represented African-American residents of Tulia, TX in high-profile litigation challenging their wrongful convictions on drug charges. "The state of Texas has seen egregious examples of racial profiling that result from poor oversight of criminal justice officials."

The ACLU of Texas is using the Tenaha case to push for asset forfeiture reform in the Lone Star State. One such bill stalled in the state legislature this year. "The misuse of asset forfeiture laws by local officials is exacerbated by inadequate oversight," said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the group. "The legislature must squarely address these reported civil rights violations via reform of forfeiture laws that strengthen protection against unconstitutional conduct and racial profiling."

Asset Forfeiture: Texas DA Seeks to Use Seized Funds to Defend Herself in Lawsuit Over Unlawful Seizure of Same Funds; ACLU Objects

The Texas district attorney accused of participating in an egregious asset forfeiture scheme in the East Texas town of Tenaha now wants to use the very cash seized to pay for her legal defense in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by victims of the practice. The ACLU of Texas, which, along with the national ACLU, is representing the plaintiffs in the case, filed a brief last Friday with the Texas Attorney General's office seeking to block her from doing so. Lynda Russell is the district attorney in Shelby County, where Tenaha is located. She is accused of participating in a scheme where Tenaha police pulled over mostly African-American motorists without cause, asked them if they were carrying cash, and if they were, threaten them with being immediately jailed for money laundering or other serious crimes unless they signed over their money to authorities. Representing a number of victims, attorneys from the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU Racial Justice Project filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in June 2008. According to the suit, more than 140 people, almost all of whom were African-American, turned over their assets to police without cause and under duress between June 2006 and June 2008. If a federal judge agrees that assets were in fact illegally seized, they should be returned to their rightful owners, whose civil rights were violated. In one case, a mixed race couple, Jennifer Boatwright and Ronald Henderson, were stopped by a Tenaha police officer in April 2007. According to the lawsuit, they were stopped without cause, detained for some time without cause, and asked if they were carrying any cash. When they admitted they had slightly more than $6,000, a district attorney's investigator then seized it, threatening them with arrest for money laundering and the loss of their children if they refused to sign off. There was never any evidence they had committed a crime, and they were never charged with a crime. The town mayor, the DA, the DA's investigator, the town marshal, and a town constable are all named in the lawsuit. While they claim to have acted legally under Texas asset forfeiture law, the lawsuit argues that "although they were taken under color of state law, their actions constitute abuse of authority." The suit argues that the racially discriminatory pattern of stops and searches violated both the Fourth Amendment proscription of warrantless searches and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. While either the county or the state would normally be expected to pony up for the DA's legal expenses for a lawsuit filed as a result of her performance of her duties, neither has done so. That's why Russell—with a tin ear for irony—requested that she be allowed to use the allegedly illegally seized money stolen from motorists. She has asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on whether using the funds for her defense violates the state's asset forfeiture law. "It would be completely inappropriate for the district attorney to use assets which are the very subject of litigation charging her with participating in allegedly illegal activity to defend herself against these charges," said Lisa Graybill, legal director at the ACLU of Texas. "Texas has a long history of having its law enforcement officials unconstitutionally target racial minorities in the flawed and failed war on drugs and it is of paramount importance that those officials be held accountable." "The government must account for the misconduct of officials who operate in its name," said Vanita Gupta, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, who represented African-American residents of Tulia, TX in high-profile litigation challenging their wrongful convictions on drug charges. "The state of Texas has seen egregious examples of racial profiling that result from poor oversight of criminal justice officials." The ACLU of Texas is using the Tenaha case to push for asset forfeiture reform in the Lone Star State. One such bill stalled in the state legislature this year. "The misuse of asset forfeiture laws by local officials is exacerbated by inadequate oversight," said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the group. "The legislature must squarely address these reported civil rights violations via reform of forfeiture laws that strengthen protection against unconstitutional conduct and racial profiling."
Location: 
Tenaha, TX
United States

The Manhattan DA’s Race: The Princess of Darkness vs. Two Former Coke-Snorting Assistant DAs

Former Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder has made her career as a “tough on crime” prosecutor and “hang ‘em high” judge, reveling in the moniker "The Princess of Darkness." For years on the bench, she routinely sentenced low-level drug offenders to harsh Rockefeller drug law sentences without batting an eye. Now, in a tight race for Manhattan District Attorney against former Assistant DAs and self-admitted former cocaine users (more on that below) Richard Aborn and Cyrus Vance, Jr., in next Tuesday’s election, Snyder seems to be changing her tune. Citing her “progressive” vision, Snyder says : "For more than 20 years on the bench, I have supported alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, first-time offenders by promoting programs that provide drug treatment, education, and job training. The most important work I did as a judge was finding young people who were not yet locked into the cycle of incarceration and violent crime, and working with all parties to find effective and appropriate sentencing that avoided incarceration and led to rehabilitation." Some Rockefeller law victims, though, aren’t buying what Snyder is peddling. Writing in the Huffington Post, former Rockefeller law prisoner Tony Papa blasted Snyder for sentencing countless low-level drug offenders as "kingpins," including Jose Garcia, who died in a prison cell at age 69, serving a life sentence under the Rockefeller laws. "Nowadays there is a new and improved Leslie Crocker Snyder," wrote Papa. "She is running for New York City District Attorney and, remarkably, now supports Rockefeller Drug Law reform. I almost fell off my chair when I heard this. She sounded nothing like the old "Princess of Darkness." Do I think Snyder really supports drug law reform? No, I don't. She knows that she needs the black and Latino vote. And she knows that public opinion has shifted, as the wastefulness and ineffectiveness of harsh sentences for drug law violations has been brought to light over the past decade. I guess running for a political office has a way of changing a person's thinking." Here’s another Rockefeller law victim who isn’t buying either: In a debate last week, Snyder admitted smoking pot, but both Aborn and Vance trumped that by admitting they had snorted cocaine as young men. Of course, both men did the mandatory ritual negation of their acts, with Aborn calling his coke-snorting “an error” and Vance saying his message to young people was that “drug use is something to be avoided.” Aborn sounds pretty progressive on drug policy reform: "It's time to stop ruining young people's lives because of a single mistake," he says on his web site. "It's time to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws and replace them with a sensible policy grounded in public health and common sense. Drug kingpins deserve prison. First and second-time non-violent offenders deserve an opportunity to rebuild their lives. And the families of offenders unfairly caught up in the draconian Rockefeller laws deserve to be reunited." And so does Cy Vance: "In April, Governor Paterson signed into law significant reforms to New York State’s draconian Rockefeller Drug laws,” he says on his web site. “As a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and member of the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform which provided the blueprint for these overdue changes, I welcome the progress that has been made on this important issue. During the more than two decades I have been involved in sentencing issues, I have always been an advocate for moving toward a treatment model that protects public safety through rehabilitation where possible as opposed to a punitive model based on incarceration….As District Attorney, I will continue to work with the Governor and State Legislature to ensure that our drug laws include statewide treatment options and re-entry programs that break the cycle of crime by changing behavior and strengthening families." But neither Alford nor Vance will come out and say that people should not be prosecuted for drug use or simple possession, like what they did in their youths. Maybe they don’t believe that. Maybe they think they should have been caught and punished for snorting a line or two. Maybe they think they should have been sent to drug treatment. But somehow, I doubt that. I think it’s more likely that just don’t think it would be politically expedient to say that absent harm to others, drug use should not be the state’s business. And that’s too bad. I don’t live in Manhattan, so I don’t get to vote on Tuesday. I wouldn’t presume to tell New Yorkers how to vote, and I’m not sure which candidate I would vote for. But I know which one I wouldn’t vote for. Got that, Princess? (This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
Location: 
New York City, NY
United States

Drug War Chronicle Book Review Essay: "Righteous Dopefiend" and "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang"

Drug War Chronicle Review Essay: "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang," by Samuel Logan (2009, Hyperion Press, 245 pp., $24.99 HB) and "Righteous Dopefiend," by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg (2009, University of California Press, 392 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

These two books have little in common except that they focus on two deviant subcultures of interest to people curious about various facets of drug policy: Central American immigrant gang-bangers in the former and, less obviously, middle-aged, homeless San Francisco heroin addicts in the latter. Neither group has much to do with the other, except that perhaps some of the gang members could have peddled some of the heroin that went into those addicts' arms. What makes both groups -- and both books -- of interest to the Chronicle is that neither group would exist as presently constituted absent the regime of drug prohibition.

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"This is for the Mara Salvatrucha" is described as journalist Samuel Logan's effort to peek behind the curtain of one of America's largest street gangs, but with the exception of a few passages scattered through its pages, the book concentrates almost exclusively on the fate of Brenda Paz, a Honduran teenager who got caught up in the gang in Dallas and was quickly brought into local inner circles because she was the girlfriend of a local leader. When Paz's gang-leader boyfriend killed another Dallas area teenager in Paz's presence to steal his car, Paz fled to northern Virginia to avoid prosecution. There, she hooked up with another murderous local Mara leader, got arrested, and turned informant.

Thanks to Paz's extensive interviews with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, police got their best insights yet into the group's murky inner workings, its origins, and its breadth. Unfortunately, Logan devotes little attention to such things, preferring instead to craft a police procedural, which, while a page-turner in its own right, leaves this reader at least hungry for more solid information.

While Logan asserts that the Mara Salvatrucha is into extortion, dope dealing, and human smuggling, he doesn't really demonstrate it, nor does he demonstrate that the Mara is indeed "America's most violent gang." Logan shows us localized incidents of thuggery, some of them truly mindless and savage, but doesn't describe how the gang actually works, nor compare it in size and scope to other criminal gangs. Nor is there much material about Mara's presence in Central America -- it is particularly strong in El Salvador and Honduras -- a strange omission given Logan's acknowledgement of the gang's origin among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

"This is for the Mara Salvatrucha" is an entrancing read in its own right, it does open some windows on the much feared organization -- although not nearly enough -- and it makes the reader develop an interest in Brenda Paz and her trip from innocent if troubled teenager to hardened gang-banger to the federal witness protection program. And that's sort of a shame, given how she ends up. I'll say no more; I don't want to spoil it for you.

Logan left me wishing that anthropologists Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg had written "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha," but that is a bit unfair. The urban ethnographers were able to spend a decade with the subjects of "Righteous Dopefiend," and those subjects, while constantly engaged in petty criminality, were not hardened, violent tough guys. Instead, they were middle-aged long-term heroin addicts, most definitely nowhere near as scary as a face-tattooed Mara killer. Still, whether it was differences in approach -- journalistic vs. anthropological -- or access to subjects -- limited and fraught with danger vs. long-term and fraught with being asked for spare change -- "Righteous Dopefiend" left me much more fulfilled.

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Bourgois and Schonberg came to be on intimate terms with a group of homeless heroin addicts camped in obscure spaces under freeway exchanges in San Francisco. Some were black, some white, a few Hispanic, a few were women. Good anthropologists that they are, there is plenty of theory mainly of interest to grad students, but it is nicely mixed in with real world observation, field notes, striking photographs (and the theory of the photographic gaze), and numerous transcripts of interviews with the aging junkies. (Before some reader jumps up to object to the term, let me just say I prefer the self-selecting "junkie" to the therapeutically-imposed and disempowering "addict.")

The junkie/addict distinction has a parallel in one of the distinctions Bourgois and Schonberg discovered among their homeless chronic heroin users. The white guys were much more likely to be alienated from their families than the black ones. The white guys sometimes didn't even know where their parents lived anymore, but the black guys would go home for birthdays, weddings, funerals, and other important occasions. They were more likely to be accepted as errant but still loved family members, while their white counterparts were more likely to be shunned. The junkies' own self-images reflected these contrasting familial responses, with the white ones adopting a hang-dog "outcast" persona compared to the black guys' graying Superfly "outlaw" persona.

The world of the "Righteous Dopefiend" isn't pretty. There are ugly abcesses and necrotizing fasciitis, there is the violence among the users and directed at them, they live in filth and squalor (although some try harder than others to rise above it), they are constantly driven by the need for the next fix and the fear of getting dopesick if they can't come up with the money to buy it.

But, like any of the rest of us, they are capable of acts of kindness and generosity. In the group Bourgois and Schonberg hung with, there was always at least a heroin-soaked bit of cotton for the person going without. There was romance, too, and a friendship and intimacy among "running partners" probably as genuine as any best friendship among non-homeless non-junkies.

By the way, that kindness and generosity often means sharing needles and cooking equipment. If three of you are going in on a $20 bag of Mexican tar, there is going to be some bodily fluid-swapping going on. Bourgois and Schonberg devote some attention to harm reduction practices, and amid all the talk about knowledge/power relations, one gets the general message that some harm reductionists need to do a better job of listening to their clients. Encouraging them moralistically to not share needles or cooking equipment when their circumstances make it inevitable that they will may not be the best approach, they suggest. Still, despite the critique, it is clear the author and the junkies appreciate the efforts at public health and harm reduction interventions. They are certainly preferable to interventions by police or Caltrans, which result in arrest or the trashing of the homeless camps and the loss of all possessions, and certainly more well-intentioned than the city's public hospitals, which insist that the junkies be literally on death's door before they admit them or the doctors who operate on abscesses without anesthetics and needlessly remove large chunks of flesh, leaving gaping wounds before pushing them back out onto the streets.

"Righteous Dopefiend" is most excellent. Even the theorizing is intelligible to the interested layperson (and will doubtless be grist for many a graduate seminar), and the theorizing is the basis for a well-informed critique of the social forces that create and impact the lives of their subjects. I feel like I got to know these people and gained some insight to how they live and think, and I deepened my understanding of why they live the way they do. What more can you ask of anthropology?

Feature: Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Bill Passes Key House Subcommittee, Heads for Floor Vote

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Wednesday approved a bill designed to end the disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. The bill, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009 (H.R. 3245), passed by a vote of 16-9 and now heads for a House floor vote.

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the late Lillie Blevins, served life sentence for a crack cocaine ''conspiracy'' after being convicted on the word of a snitch who received probation in return (courtesy november.org)
Under laws passed in the midst of the crack cocaine panic of the 1980s, it takes 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. For example, five grams of crack earns a five-year mandatory minimum, but it takes 500 grams of powder to garner the same sentence.

A majority of crack users are white, but more than 80% of federal crack prosecutions have been aimed at blacks. When Hispanics are added in, nearly 96% of all federal crack prosecutions have been aimed at non-whites.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) addresses the disparity by removing all references to crack cocaine in federal sentencing laws and treating the two forms of the drug equally. Under the bill, it would take 500 grams of either crack or powder cocaine to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence. The bill would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for possession of any amount of crack.

"We have taken a big step today toward ending the disparity that exists between crack and powder cocaine sentencing," said Judiciary committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who cosponsored the bill. "African Americans serve almost as much time in federal prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months), largely due to sentencing laws such as the 100-to-1 crack-powder cocaine disparity. Since 1980, the number of offenders in federal prisons for drug offenses has skyrocketed from less than 5,000 to almost 100,000 in 2009. Currently, drug offenders represent 52% of all federal prison inmates."

The crack/powder sentencing disparity has been the most glaring example of racially imbalanced drug enforcement in recent years and has been under attack not only by sentencing reform advocates, civil libertarians, and civil rights groups, but also by the US Sentencing Commission, which has for more than a decade called for its elimination. But any moves to address it languished during the Bush administration.

The atmosphere has changed with Democratic control of the White House and the Congress. Both President Obama and Attorney General Holder support ending the disparity, so do congressional Democrats, and even some congressional Republicans.

Remaining Republican hard-line drug warriors in the subcommittee attempted to subvert the spirit of the bill, resorting to time-honored anti-drug political tactics, but failed. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the committee, was concerned about sending messages. "The bill sends the wrong message to drug dealers and those who traffic in ravaging human lives. It sends the message that Congress does not take drug crimes seriously," he complained.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced an amendment to address the disparity by making the current draconian penalties for crack apply to powder cocaine as well. He said he supported reducing the sentencing disparity, but "let's do it on the side of making sure our streets are safer, not less safe."

But committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) ruled the amendment out of order. It was then tabled on a 14-13 vote.

Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC) captured the majority sentiment for ending the crack/powder sentencing disparity. "It did not work," he said. "We were wrong."

The vote was welcomed by sentencing reform advocates. "Today's vote is an historic first step in ending a 20-year injustice," said Michael Macleod-Ball, interim director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "Lawmakers must act now to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing by treating both forms of the same drug equally under federal law. Congress alone has the authority to put a stop to the crack-powder disparity and long mandatory minimum sentences."

"Justice won today," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today's vote represents another step to restoring basic fairness to our sentencing laws and to fulfilling the Constitution's promise of equal justice under the law. We urge the full House to act quickly on this measure."

"It makes no more sense to punish crack cocaine offenders more harshly than powder cocaine offenders than it does to punish wine drinkers more harshly than beer drinkers. Crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "When all is said and done people will look back at this as a watershed moment -- the day that Congress began rolling back some of the drug war's worst excesses."

The bill still has to pass the House. On the Senate side, Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) is preparing to introduce his own measure to eliminate the sentencing disparity. It is expected to win bipartisan support from his fellow Judiciary Committee members.

Sentencing: House Subcommittee Approves Reducing Federal Crack Cocaine Penalties

An end to the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine may be in sight. After more than a decade of congressional dawdling since the US Sentencing Commission called for the disparity to be ended because of its racially disproportionate impact, a bill that would do so is finally moving in the Congress.

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DEA crack cocaine photo
Under current federal law, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same time. The 100:1 sentencing disparity has been widely criticized for years, especially because about nine out of 10 federal crack prosecutions are aimed at African-Americans. (Most crack users are white, despite popular belief.)

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security passed H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. They did so unanimously, making the vote a striking moment of bipartisanship on a once controversial issue. The bill removes all references to "cocaine base" -- federalese for crack -- from the US criminal code, effectively treating all forms of cocaine the same for sentencing purposes.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and has 20 cosponsors, including every Democrat on the subcommittee. It now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), also an ardent supporter of ending the sentencing disparity.

Sentencing reform advocates cheered the bill's progress. "I knew it was coming," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. " There has been so much attention paid to sentencing policies in the past six months that it was only a matter of time before one of the half-dozen sentencing bills in Congress would start moving. Today it did."

Repealing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is a much needed step in restoring trust and enacting smarter policies , said Stewart. "If Congress eliminates the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, it would not only restore some faith in the justice system among the communities most affected by the law, it would reduce prison overcrowding and free up funding for more effective rehabilitation efforts. A minimum of $26 million would be saved in the first year of the reforms and nearly $530 million over the next 15 years," she said. "FAMM strongly urges Congress to make the changes retroactive so that people currently serving unjust sentences for crack cocaine can benefit and taxpayers will see even greater savings."

Ethan Nadelmann Challenges NAACP to Oppose the Drug War




It's a fascinating speech and I would have liked to see the audience's reaction for myself. It's an unfortunate reality that the case for drug policy reform has yet to be widely embraced in the African-American community and Ethan faced the unique challenge of presenting our argument to NAACP leaders in only 7 minutes.

Bonus: Here's some subsequent discussion from the same event, in which an audience member asks the panelists what they think about marijuana legalization.

Sentencing: Obama Administration Tells Congress to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

In a break with the Bush administration, Justice Department officials called Wednesday for the first time for Congress to pass legislation that would undo the vast disparities in sentences for those convicted of crack and powder cocaine possession offenses. For years, drug reformers, civil rights groups, and even the US Sentencing Commission have called for the disparities to be undone, saying they have had a racially disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities.

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Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) opens the hearing
Under federal sentencing laws adopted in the midst of the crack hysteria of the 1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to generate a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to generate the same sentence. Historically, blacks have accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack convictions, with whites accounting for less than 10%.

Competing bills have been introduced to eliminate or reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, but in previous years they have not gotten far. With the administration now behind eliminating the disparity, this year could be different.

Justice Department Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee Wednesday that the administration supported bills that would equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The disparity should be "completely eliminated," he said.

"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety," Breuer told the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. He added that a Justice Department panel is reviewing a broad range of criminal justice topics, including sentencing reforms.

It's about time, said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the Senate majority whip, citing the racially disproportionate crack conviction figures. "These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.

US District Judge Reggie Walton, representing the Judicial Conference, also addressed the committee. The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is "one of the most important issues confronting the criminal justice system today," he said. "No one can appreciate the agony of having to enforce a law that one believes to be fundamentally unfair to individuals who look like me," said the judge, who is black.

Sentencing reform advocacy groups were also on hand for the hearing. Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) told the subcommittee the sentencing disparity has a discriminatory impact on blacks, including people like FAMM client Eugenia Jennings, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for twice trading small amounts of crack for designer clothes.

"This hearing gives new hope to thousands who have loved ones serving harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses," Price said.

Even former DEA head and enthusiastic drug warrior Asa Hutchinson had little good to say about the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. "When significant numbers of African Americans on the street question the fairness of our criminal justice system, then it becomes more difficult for the officer on the street to do his or her duty under the law," Hutchinson said.

A number of bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Now, the fight will be to ensure that eliminating the disparity means reducing crack sentences, not increasing powder ones.

Click here to view archived video of the hearing.

The Movies: "American Violet" Film Opens Tonight, Tells the Story of the Hearne, Texas, Injustice

announcement from Samuel Goldwyn Films

On April 17, Samuel Goldwyn Films will release American Violet, a new film based on true events that occurred in the small Texas town of Hearne. The film examines how drug laws and enforcement practices target African-Americans, and, how the justice system uses threats and intimidation to steer them towards guilty pleas, regardless of their innocence or the evidence against them. As the film points out, more than 95% of criminal convictions in this country are the result of plea-bargains, not jury trials. While the film is based on a specific case, the story it represents is hardly unique or isolated, and, the film's release presents an exceptional opportunity to explore how the drug war has become the new Jim Crow.

American Violet is inspired by the real life story of Regina Kelly, an African-American, single mother of four girls who was arrested in 2000 in a military-style drug raid. The raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 15% of the town's young black male population for felony cocaine distribution.

Kelly was innocent. Her name, along with the names of many others arrested (nearly all African-American), were given to police by a single, highly unreliable informant with personal reasons to antagonize her. Despite Kelly's innocence, she was urged to plead guilty by her family and even her public defender so that she could return to her children and receive a minimal sentence. A felony conviction, however, would have resulted in the loss of her right to vote and the public assistance programs on which her family depended, not to mention the tainting of her personal reputation and her ability to obtain employment. She chose to maintain her plea of not guilty. The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project came on board to represent her.

In American Violet, Kelly's on-screen character is named Dee Roberts (played by newcomer Nicole Beharie) and the ACLU lawyer in the film is played by Tim Blake Nelson. Alfre Woodard, Charles Dutton, Will Patton, Michael O'Keefe and Xzibit also star. The town of Melody and certain other characters and events are fictitious.

Eventually, the charges against Kelly were dropped (as were the charges against most of the others arrested in the same drug raid due to the same informant's lack of credibility). Yet, she was separated from her children while she was incarcerated, shamed in her small community by being labeled a drug dealer, fired from her job, and had difficulty obtaining employment thereafter; in short, her life was torn apart due to her arrest and her time in jail. Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project represented her in a lawsuit against the county and the District Attorney (among other parties), for damages, which resulted in a settlement.

More importantly, the case resulted in a change in Texas law, whereby now, cases cannot be prosecuted based solely on the claims of a single informant.

Visit http://schedule.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/films/american+violet/ for a list of cities where the movie is opening.

Sentencing: Number of African Americans in Prison for Drugs Falling, Whites Increasing

The number of African Americans behind bars for drug offenses dropped dramatically from 1999 to 2005, while the number of white drug war prisoners has increased, according to a report released Tuesday. That is a "potentially significant change" in the outcomes of drug policies, said the report's author.

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still too many people in prison notwithstanding
The report, The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs, was written by Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer. It relied on official numbers from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

According to the report, in 1999, 145,000 blacks were doing time in state prisons for drug offenses; by 2005, that number had declined by 22% to 113,500. At the same time, the number of white drug war prisoners jumped 43%, from 50,000 in 1999 to more than 72,000 in 2005. The number of Hispanics doing time for drugs in state prisons remained constant at about 51,000.

The decline in the number and percentage of black drug war prisoners is the first since the crackdown on crack during the lock-'em-up Reagan years of the mid-1980s. But while the decline is significant, blacks remain imprisoned on drug charges at a disproportionate rate. They made up 45% of state drug prisoners in 2005, down from 58% in 1999, but still far in excess of their percentage of the overall and drug-using populations, about 12%.

The report examined the reasons behind the decrease in black drug prisoners and the increase in white drug prisoners and arrived at some tentative conclusions. It found that blacks made up a declining percentage of all non-marijuana drug arrests and accounted for a declining number of drug convictions during the period in question.

The reasons for the declines in black drug arrests, convictions, and imprisonment lie in the rise and fall of crack cocaine and the increasing resort to drug courts and other diversionary programs, the report suggested. With crack use falling off after its harms became apparent, and with crack sellers shifting from open air markets to indoor sales, the number of African-Americans arrested for crack offenses is declining. Similarly, the report suggests that the increase in whites imprisoned on drug charges may be partially attributable to the rise of methamphetamine in the past decade.

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