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Juries Must Find Facts on Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Supreme Court Rules

The US Supreme Court Monday dealt a blow to mandatory minimum sentencing, ruling that any facts used to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence are "elements" of the crime and must be proven by a jury, not left to a judge. The 5-4 ruling came in Alleyne v. United States.

Until Monday's ruling, judges had been able to find certain facts that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences, such as quantities of drugs involved in an offense, based on a "preponderance of evidence" in post-conviction sentencing hearings. Now, those facts will have to established by juries in the course of the trial using the higher standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case is the latest in a line of cases that began with the groundbreaking 2000 Supreme Court decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that any fact that increases the range of punishments is an "element" of the crime and must be presented to a jury and proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Sentencing reform advocates were pleased by the ruling.

"Mandatory minimums for drug offenders will lessen, but it's difficult to say to what extent," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes mandatory minimum sentences. "It's also likely that this will have beneficial effects in reducing racial disparity, because so many mandatory minimums are imposed for drug offenses, and because African-Americans in particular are on the receiving end of those penalties."

"No defendant should have to face a mandatory minimum sentence because of facts that are not considered -- or worse, considered and rejected -- by a jury," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. "As Justice Thomas noted in Monday's opinion, 'mandatory minimums heighten the loss of liberty.' Today, those who face mandatory minimums do so with the Constitution more firmly at their backs."

Drug offenders are those most likely to be hit with mandatory minimum sentences.

Washington, DC
United States

Chicago Police Kill Fleeing Man in "Drug Area"

Chicago police shot and killed a man early Sunday morning on the city's West Side as he fled after they tried to pull over his car in "an area known for drug activity." Antwoyn Johnson, 21, becomes the 15th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to WLS-TV and the Chicago Sun-Times, both citing police sources, officers tried to stop the vehicle in which Johnson was a passenger, and he jumped out and fled. The officers chased him into an alley in their vehicle, where they saw him slip and fall to the ground. They got out of their vehicle and approached him, with Johnson grabbing his weapon as he tried to stand. One officer fired his own weapon, fatally wounding Johnson.

"As he's running, he's got a gun in his belt, in his back. As he goes to the ground, he's falling and reaching for the gun at the same time. At that point, the officers open fire. I believe the offender is DOA," said Fraternal Order of Police's Pat Camden.

Police say they found a weapon at the scene. Johnson's family disputes the police version of events, according to DNA Info Chicago. Family members said police recovered no weapon and Johnson was shot three times in the back.

Johnson, who had arrests for cocaine dealing in 2008 and marijuana possession in 2011 and had spent time in jail, was uncomfortable around police, family members said.

 "They shot my son for no reason," Liberty Johnson said. "He panicked because he doesn't like police. He gets out of the car and runs. You automatically think just because he’s black, he has a gun on him?"

The Johnson shooting received short shrift in a city beset by its worst spate of violence this year. Over the weekend, 10 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in shootings.

Chicago, IL
United States

New Jerseyans Ready to Decriminalize Marijuana, Poll Finds

As New Jersey legislators consider a marijuana decriminalization bill, a new poll suggests strong public support for such a move -- and more. The poll of likely voters conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Drug Policy Alliance found that 61% favored decriminalization and nearly as many (59%) agreed with taxing, regulating, and legalizing marijuana.

"New Jersey voters are ready for aggressive and immediate change of state marijuana laws, with strong majorities supporting decriminalizing up to two ounces of marijuana," said Daniel Gotoff, a partner at Lake Research. "Support for this reform is remarkably broad, including majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans, as well as voters from every major region in the state."

The poll comes as the legislature is considering Senate Bill 1977, which would decriminalize the possession of up to 50 grams (slightly less than two ounces) of marijuana and make possession a civil violation carrying a fine similar to a traffic ticket. The bill sponsored by Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union), Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The release of the poll could be designed to prod the legislature to act on marijuana reform. SB 1977 was filed more than a year ago and still has not been scheduled for a committee hearing. Another measure, Assembly Bill 1465, which would decriminalize up to 15 grams, actually passed the Assembly last June, only to languish in the Senate Judiciary Committee ever since.

Under current New Jersey law, simple marijuana possession is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Conviction on a pot possession charges also creates a criminal record that cannot be expunged for at least five years.

Once an individual is convicted of even a minor possession offense, he or she is subject to a system of legal discrimination that makes it difficult or impossible to secure housing, employment, public assistance, federal student aid for higher education, and even a basic driver's license.

Marijuana possession prosecutions also disproportionately target the Garden State's black population. African-Americans are arrested for pot possession at a rate nearly three times that of whites, even though both groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate.

"More than 22,000 individuals were arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey in 2010 at a cost of more than $125 million dollars," said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "New Jerseyans understand that current penalties for marijuana are unfair and wasteful. These laws should be changed now. "

If legislators heed the popular will and pass the decriminalization bill, New Jersey will join 15 other states that have decriminalized pot possession in amounts ranging from half an ounce to three ounces.

Trenton, NJ
United States

Blacks Targeted in Wasteful War on Marijuana, ACLU Finds

Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to get busted for marijuana possession than white ones, even though both groups smoke pot at roughly comparable rates, the ACLU said in a report released Tuesday. The report, "The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests," is based on the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report and US Census Bureau Data.

Blacks are 3.7 times more likely to get busted for marijuana possession than whites. (aclu.org/marijuana)
The disparity in arrest rates is startlingly consistent, the report found. In more than 96% of the counties covered in the report, blacks were arrested at higher rates than whites. Racial disparities in pot busts came in large counties and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, with large black populations and with small ones.

In some counties, the disparity rose to 15 times more likely, and in the Upper Midwest states of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites. Nationwide, blacks were 3.73 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana than whites.

And it's getting worse, not better. The report found that even though the racial disparities in marijuana arrests existed 10 years ago, they have increased in 38 states and the District of Columbia.

"The war on marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color," said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and one of the primary authors of the report. "State and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against black people and communities, needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost."

In budgetary terms, that cost to the states was $3.61 billion in 2010 alone, the report found. During the decade the report studied, despite aggressive enforcement and rising marijuana arrest rates, all those arrests failed to stop or even diminish the use of marijuana, and support for its legalization only increased.

"The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn't work," said Edwards. "These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people's lives, as well as on the communities in which they live. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, they can be disqualified from public housing or student financial aid, lose or find it more difficult to obtain employment, lose custody of their child, or be deported."

The report recommends legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana, which it said would eliminate racially-targeted selective enforcement of marijuana laws, save the billions of dollars spent on enforcing pot prohibition, and raise badly needed revenues by taxation. If legalization is not doable, then decriminalization, and if not decriminalization, then lowest prioritization.

The ACLU also calls in the report for reforms in policing practices, including not only ending racial profiling, but also constitutionally-suspect stop-and-frisk searches, such as those embraced with such gusto by the NYPD in New York City. It also crucially recommends reforming federal law enforcement funding streams, such as the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, that encourage police to make low-level drug busts by using performance measures that reward such arrests at the expense of other measures.

Federal Appeals Court Panel Extends Crack Sentencing Retroactivity

In a Friday decision, a three-judge panel of the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati held that the provisions of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses should apply to people convicted even before the law was passed. If upheld, the ruling could reduce the sentences of thousands of inmates, mostly black, who were sentenced under the draconian old laws.

The case was US v. Cornelius and Jarreous Blewitt, in which the Blewitt cousins were convicted in 2005 of federal crack cocaine charges and sentenced to mandatory minimum prison sentences. The Blewitts appealed their sentences, citing the Fair Sentencing Act's impact on crack cocaine sentencing, and seeking retroactive sentencing in line with the act.

Even though the Fair Sentencing Act had reduced the 100:1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine for sentencing purposes to 18:1, "thousands of inmates, most black, languish in prison under the old, discredited ratio because the Fair Sentencing Act was not made explicitly retroactive by Congress," the court noted.

"In this case, we hold that the federal judicial perpetuation of the racially discriminatory mandatory minimum crack sentences for those defendants sentenced under the old crack sentencing law, as the government advocates, would violate the Equal Protection Clause, as incorporated into the Fifth Amendment," the court wrote, noting that the Fifth Amendment forbids federal racial discrimination in the same way as the Fourteenth Amendment forbids state racial discrimination.

The US Supreme Court had already approved sentencing retroactivity for crack offenders who were charged before the Fair Sentencing Act went into effect but sentenced after it in Dorsey v. US, but this decision from the 6th Circuit dramatically expands the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act's sentencing reductions by applying it to all federal crack cocaine offenders.

[Ed: Whether the ruling will survive the scrutiny of the 6th Circuit en banc or the US Supreme Court, if it gets that far, remains to be seen.]

Cincinnati, OH
United States

CA Lt. Gov. Newsom Calls for Legalizing Marijuana

At the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento Saturday, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom called for marijuana legalization and described the war on drugs as "an abject failure." (Watch the speech here.)

Gavin Newsom
The famously well-coiffed former San Francisco mayor is one of the key contenders for the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination in 2014 -- if Gov. Jerry Brown (D) decides not to run again. The other leading contender is state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who did not broach the topic in her convention address.

"It's time to decriminalize, tax, and regulate marijuana," Newsom said to raucous cheers and applause. "In 2011 alone in this country, three quarters of a million people in the United States were arrested for marijuana law violations, 87% of them for simple possession. And listen to me closely on this -- African-American children are ten times more likely to get arrested for drug crimes than their white counterparts even though white children are more likely to abuse drugs."

"You can't make this up," Newsom said. "We send a higher percentage of African American males to prison and jail in this country than we send to colleges and universities in California. After 42 years of failure, I think it's time we concede that if we continue to do what we've done, we'll continue to get what we've got. I think you and we deserve better. It's about standing up on principle, having the courage of our convictions, about saying publicly all too often what we say privately."

The lieutenant governor's speech wasn't all high seriousness. Jokingly referring to his role as acting governor while Brown is on an overseas trip, he said, "I'm thrilled to be here… on the sixth day of the Newsom administration," he said. "This is the right time and the appropriate time to reflect on our cornucopia of landmark accomplishments over these magical six days." Among those was the creation of hundreds of new jobs, "notably in the now-booming hair gel industry," he said, patting his hair.

"All of these wonderful achievements will one day be studied by scholars at the Newsom Acting Governor Library, currently being constructed in the back of a medical marijuana dispensary in the Haight-Ashbury," he said to laughter and applause. "I'm looking forward to it as well," Newsom said, smiling.

Sacramento, CA
United States

As NYC Pot Busts Continue, New York Punts on Marijuana Reform

People -- almost all of them young people of color -- are being arrested at the rate of a thousand a week in New York City for marijuana possession "in public view," but although a legislative fix was in sight this week, the state's political establishment couldn't come to an agreement on it. Instead, the legislature is going on vacation.

The New York City "in public view" arrests violate the spirit of the Empire State's 1977 marijuana decriminalization law, which made possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense, not a criminal one. They typically occur when the NYPD stops and frisks someone, then either reaches into his pockets or belongings or intimidates the detainee into pulling out his biggie himself and then charges him with the criminal misdemeanor of possession "in public view."

Through-out the legislative session, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Senate and Assembly leaders talked about fixing the situation as part of the budget process. During his State of the State address, Cuomo had called for decriminalizing the possession of up to 15 grams "in public view," but with smoking in public remaining a misdemeanor. But on Thursday, Cuomo and the legislative leadership announced they had reached a final deal on the budget, one that didn't include marijuana law reform.

That doesn't mean decriminalization reform is dead this year -- the session will resume after a three-week hiatus -- but it is certainly delayed and possibly derailed without having the impetus of the budget agreement behind it. In either case, legislators and community activists blasted the leadership for punting on the issue while the arrests (and the costs) mount by the day.

"I am gravely disappointed that this budget failed to enact justice for the more than 44,000 individuals arrested last year based on a flawed law. Not only does allowing these arrests directly impact the lives of individuals and their communities, they are a gross misappropriation of city and state resources, and a waste of officer manpower that can be spent on more pressing law enforcement matters," said Assemblyman Karim Camara, Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. "Changing this flawed law has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYC Police Commissioner Kelly, the District Attorneys of the five boroughs, and Buffalo and Nassau and Albany counties, the Police Benevolent Association and major law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Yet politics trumped the policy that would be best for New York City and our state."

"This is an issue that cannot wait. Our tens of thousands of youth arrested annually under unfair practices shouldn't have to wait," said Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez. "They deserve better -- they deserve justice and equality. And they deserve it now. We need to end this policy that has plagued our communities for too long  and make public view possession a violation."

"Why is it acceptable to kick the can down the road when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of young Black and Latino New Yorkers?" asked Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights community organizer for VOCAL-NY. "Getting this done is a test for the political leadership in Albany that right now they are failing. It's time to stop delaying justice when it comes to ending racially biased and costly marijuana arrests."

Since 2002, nearly 500,000 thousand people have been arrested in New York  for marijuana possession -- the vast majority of those arrests, 440,000, took place in New York City. Last year alone in the city, there were nearly 40,000 such arrests, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests in the city between 1981 and 1995. The cost to taxpayers is $75 million a year, and over $600 million in the last decade. A report released earlier this week found that the NYPD had spent one million hours making these arrests over the past decade.

"Behind the one million police hours spent arresting young Black and Latino men is the shameful truth of 21st Century racism. These are unlawful, racially biased arrests, plain and simple. We need our elected officials to stand up for civil rights for all people" said Chino Hardin, Field Coordinator and Trainer with the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.

Albany, NY
United States

NYPD Facing Double-Barreled Challenge to Marijuana Practices [FEATURE]

There has been a double-barreled challenge this week to the NYPD and its heavy-handed policing. On the one hand, the department and the city are being sued in federal court over their stop-and-frisk program, which is aimed predominantly at young men of color. On the other, the NYPD is facing the glare of publicity over a new report that contends it has wasted as much as a million man-hours over the past ten years arresting low-level marijuana offenders.

March 2012 protest of NYC stop and frisk violations
Under the stop-and-frisk program, which the city touts as a crime-fighting effort, more than 531,000 people were stopped last year and nearly five million in the past decade. Some were stopped only for questioning, some had their bags or backpacks searched, some were subjected to full pat-down searches. Only 10% of those stops resulted in arrests -- including arrests for public marijuana possession after police tricked or intimidated people into pulling out their baggies (possession is otherwise decriminalized in the state) -- and only a tiny number resulted in the seizure of weapons.

The massive number of annual stop-and-frisks, five times the number a couple of decades ago, raises questions itself. But who is being stopped-and-frisked is raising even more questions and concerns. While blacks make up a quarter of the city's population, they accounted for 51% of all stop-and-frisk encounters, being stopped at a rate twice what would be expected with color-blind enforcement. Whites, on the other hand, make up 44% of the population, but accounted for only 11% of stop-and-frisk encounters.

Many of the stop-and-frisks are illegal and the enforcement is racially biased, argued attorneys in the class action lawsuit in federal court this week. In the case, which began Monday, attorneys for the plaintiffs -- people who were subjected to stop-and-frisk searches -- are seeking a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes in police practices.

They are not seeking to ban stop-and-frisk searches because they have been found legal. But US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has expressed deep concerns over the tactic in previous rulings, could order reforms. The trial could last for up to a month.

NYPD is doing illegal stops and must reform its practices, said Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Darius Charney, who is representing the plaintiffs. The stops are "arbitrary, unnecessary, and unconstitutional" and a "frightening and degrading experience" for "thousands, if not millions" of New Yorkers, Charney argued. He said plaintiffs will present "powerful testimonial and statistical evidence" that residents are stopped for no good reason.

On Monday, the first plaintiff witnesses took the stand. Devin Almonor, 16, the son of a police officer, testified that he was stopped when he was 13, handcuffed and thrown against an unmarked police car as he made his way home. David Floyd, now a 33-year-old medical student, testified that he was stopped twice without cause.

Attorneys for the city responded that in a city that large, large numbers of stop-and-frisks should not be unexpected and that the NYPD went where the crime was.

"The New York Police Department is fully committed to policing within the boundaries of the law," said Heidi Grossman, an attorney for the city. "Crime is not distributed evenly across the city. Police are given an awesome responsibility, one of which is to bring crime down and keep people safe."

Given those awesome responsibilities, a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project is raising eyebrows. The report's main finding is clear from its title: One Million Police Hours: Making 440,000 Marijuana Possession Arrests in New York City, 2002-2012. The report was authored by CUNY sociology professor Dr. Harry Levine, an expert on marijuana possession arrests, at the request of members of the city council and the state legislature.

While marijuana possession offenders typically faced only fines once they had their day in court, the report found that the arrests themselves inflicted immediate pain. Those 440,000 arrests resulted in five million hours of police custody, an average of more than 10 hours per person of being held in the city's notorious holding cells, often overnight.

"We cannot afford to continue arresting tens of thousands of youth every year for low-level marijuana possession," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights organizer with VOCAL-NY. "We can't afford it in terms of the negative effect it has on the future prospects of our youth and we can't afford in terms of police hours. It's shocking that the same mayor who has been taking money away from youth programs and cutting other social services, is wasting tens of millions of dollars locking youth up through the NYPD's marijuana arrests crusade. We need legislative action to fix this madness."

"This report shows that people arrested for marijuana possession spend an average of 12-18 hours, just in police custody, and the vast majority of those arrested are young Black and Latino men from seven to ten neighborhoods in NYC," said Chino Hardin, field coordinator and trainer with the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. "This is not just a crisis, but a frontline civil rights issue facing urban communities of color in the 21st century. We are calling on Governor Cuomo to do the right thing, and exercise the moral and political will to address this injustice."

While Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly last fall announced changes it how the NYPD processes marijuana arrests and the number of pot possession busts have begun to decline slightly, advocates are calling on the legislature and the governor to change the state's 1977 decriminalization law to remove law enforcement's "in public view" loophole, the provision NYPD has used to great effect.

"For years, New Yorkers from across the state have organized and marched and rallied, demanding an end to these outrageous arrests. And now we learn that the police have squandered one million hours to make racially biased, costly, and unlawful marijuana possession arrests. This is scandalous," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I’m sure we can all think of more effective things for the police to spend their time on -- imagine if NYPD committed one million hours to working with communities to stop gun violence or to pursue unsolved serious crimes. We stand with the caucus and other leaders in Albany -- both Democrats and Republicans -- in demanding reform. The hour of change is upon us, and reform is long, long overdue."

Whether it is the massive stop-and-frisk policing program or the practice of turning marijuana possession tickets into misdemeanor arrests complete with post-booking jail time and criminal records, NYPD is coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism..

New York City, NY
United States

Bloomberg Says No More Jail Stays for Minor NYC Marijuana Busts

In his final state of the city address Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people caught with small amounts of marijuana in the city will no longer be subjected to overnight stays in the city's jails, but will merely be taken to the precinct for a desk appearance and then released.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (wikimedia.org)
The move is in response to increasingly loud criticism of the city's extremely high marijuana arrest rates, which are taking place despite New York state having decriminalized pot possession more than three decades ago. The NYPD managed to get its pound of flesh from marijuana users by intimidating them into removing baggies from their pockets, then charging them with the misdemeanor of public possession of marijuana, not the infraction of simple possession, and then making them sit in holding cells for up to 24 hours.

During Bloomberg's 10-year tenure as mayor, more than 400,000 people have been arrested on pot possession charges, nearly 350,000 of them young men of color. That number has begun to decline in recent months as police have modified their practices under pressure.

"We know that there's more we can do to keep New Yorkers, particularly young men, from ending up with a criminal record," Bloomberg said. "Commissioner Kelly and I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it this year. But we won't wait for that to happen," he said.

"Right now, those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are often held in custody overnight. We're changing that. Effective next month, anyone presenting an ID and clearing a warrant check will be released directly from the precinct with a desk appearance ticket to return to court. It's consistent with the law, it's the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they're needed most."

Drug reform and civil rights activists said it was a step in the right direction, but a small one.

"Mayor Bloomberg stopped defending the indefensible and now recognizes that we cannot afford to criminalize youth of color for carrying small amounts of marijuana," said Alredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer with VOCAL-NY. "But being 'consistent with the law' means more than just issuing desk appearance tickets instead of putting people in jail. Most people targeted for these arrests only produce marijuana in plain view after being illegally searched during stop, question and frisk encounters with police. Mayor Bloomberg's support for marijuana reform is a step in the right direction but does not solve the fundamental problems with the NYPD's policing strategies."

"We agree with the mayor that there's more we can do keep New Yorkers, especially young people of color, from ending up with a criminal record," said Kyung Ji Rhee, the juvenile justice director for the Center for NuLeadership. "For instance, the mayor can direct Commissioner Kelly to immediately cease and desist NYPD’s broken 'stop and frisk' program. We must stop these mass arrests and criminalizing people for simply possessing small amounts of marijuana. And we can get the police out of our schools to end the 'schools to prison' pipeline."

"This new policy is a step in the right direction -- and it's the direct result of the ongoing campaign led by community groups in New York to end these racially biased, unpopular, unjust and expensive arrests," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Marijuana possession is the number one arrest in New York City and with this new policy change, tens of thousands of people, mostly young men of color, will no longer be held in jail overnight on for possessing small amounts of marijuana. But the arrests themselves need to end -- period. Now the legislature must act -- immediately -- to pass Gov. Cuomo's marijuana decriminalization bill. Every reasonable New Yorker supports the measure. Reform is long, long overdue."

New York City, NY
United States

Look Out, New York, It's Credico For Mayor! [FEATURE]

New York City has earned itself the sobriquet of Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World, with tens of thousands of minor pot possession arrests every year -- mostly of young men of color -- generated in good part by the city's equally infamous stop-and-frisk policing, again aimed primarily at the city's young and non-white residents. There's a man running an outsider campaign for the mayor's office there this year who wants to end all that.

Randy Credico during 2010 Senate campaign
Veteran Big Apple civil rights, social justice, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and drug reform activist Randy Credico, who also doubles as a professional comedian, is mounting an insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party mayoral nomination, and he wants to end the city's drug war and a whole lot more, and he wants to do it now.

The inventively funny, yet deadly serious, agitprop artist has an ambitious 17-point program for his first day in office, with promises that range from going after "the biggest criminals in our city" -- the Wall Street bankers -- and reforming the city's tax code to favor the poor to rolling back privatization of city schools and reforming various city agencies.

But just beneath banksters and taxes is a vow to begin reining in the NYPD by firing Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (to be replaced with Frank Serpico) and "abolishing the NYPD’s unconstitutional policies of racial profiling, stop and frisk, domestic spying, entrapment, and its infamous (albeit unadmitted) 'quota system.'"

Central to that policing reform plank, Credico says, is reclassifying the smoking and carrying of marijuana as no longer an arrestable offense. He also vows to fire any officer who lies or perjures himself on the stand, and to bar the use of "no-knock" warrants and stun grenades "except in the case of legitimate terrorist attack."

And he wants to replace the city's Special Narcotics Office with a Harm Reduction Office, whose leadership he has offered to Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann. He also vows to shut down the Rikers Island prison and turn it into a treatment center and education facility with a state of the art library, and to nominate law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness, to run it.

That's quite a tall order for a first day in office, but Credico says he's up for it.

"I plan to stay up for 24 hours and get all that stuff done," he told the Chronicle.

Of course, first he has to win the Democratic Party nomination and then win the general election, and that's a pretty tall order, too. There is a bevy of candidates (polling data at the link as well) running for a shot at the prestigious post, and he is facing stiff establishment opposition in the primary, most notably from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the as yet officially undeclared city council Speaker Christine Quinn, who leads the other Democrats in early polls, but is in a close race with "undecided."

The Republican race includes a handful of announced or potential candidates led by former Metropolitan Transit Authority head Joseph Lhota (who still trails "undecided" by a large margin) and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is as yet unannounced. The Libertarians may also field a candidate this year, possibly former "Manhattan madam" and gubernatorial candidate Kristin Davis, and we can't forget the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, either.

"The GOP has a rich guy who just jumped in, and the Democrats have a six-pack of hacks, all getting money from the real estate interests and Wall Street and none of whom will talk about the issues," Credico explained. "The Democrats are all doing the Schumer act -- just talking about the middle class, not the poor, the homeless, the division between the rich and poor, not about drug policy. This city is virtually a police state right now."

Credico has a remedy for that: Elect him.

"I will get rid of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is a combination of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Fouche, Napoleon's dreaded head of the secret police. Everyone is afraid of him. He's got the Red Squads going; they were infiltrating groups at Occupy Wall Street. Kelly is doing all these joint operations with the feds under the guise of fighting terrorism, and this city is crawling with undercover cops -- FBI, DEA, AFT, all running joint task forces with the NYPD. They've foiled 14 plots, all hatched by the NYPD. Ray Kelly has way too much power," the veteran activist said flatly.

"There is a lot of money not only in the prison industrial complex, but also the police industrial complex," Credico noted. "They have asset forfeiture and lots of new schemes, tons of undercover agents, who are really there to beat up on the black community. They infiltrate, demonize, and destroy lives, and this has to stop."

Credico has been active in the Occupy Wall Street moving, having been arrested five times by the NYPD, but before that, he was active in the city's minority communities for years, working to reform the Rockefeller drug laws with the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (in between stints flying out to Tulia, Texas, to deal with the bogus mass arrests of black men on drug charges there), and fighting stop-and-frisk. He currently is taking time out of his days to attend hearings in the criminal trial of the NYPD officer who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his own bathroom as he was flushing a bag of weed down the toilet.

"I go to every one of the court dates and sit right next to his mother," he said. "This cop invaded Ramarley's house and shot him in the head for weed, but it's not an isolated incident. No cops go to jail for killing a black person, but a spit on a cop and you can go to jail for years. This is just one cop -- and he's like the Lt. Calley of the NYPD. [Editor's Note: Calley was the sole US Army officer convicted of a crime in the Vietnam War My Lai massacre.] It's not an isolated incident; it's the policy, the same policy that killed Ramarley Graham and Sean Bell and Amador Diallou. So many people have been killed by the NYPD, and it's not just the guys on the street; it's a brutal force."

Marijuana could also be a wedge issue for him, Credico said.

"I'm a committed pot smoker, and I think it should be legal, and I'm the only candidate saying it should be legal. Of course, it's up to the state legislature to do that, but I would direct the NYPD not to enforce those laws and particularly not to arrest anyone."

Under current state law, pot possession is decriminalized, but beginning with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD had a policy of turning what should have been tickets for possession into misdemeanors by either reaching in someone's pocket and removing the baggie or intimidating the person into revealing it himself, thus elevating the offense from an infraction to the misdemeanor of "public possession." Under increasing pressure over the tactic, Commissioner Kelly last year issued an order for it to stop, and arrests have declined somewhat, but still remain at unacceptably high levels.

In 2011, there were some 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in the city, nearly 80% of them of people of color. Nearly one-quarter (12,000) were youth aged 16 to 19, and of those, 94% had no prior criminal records.

And it's not just marijuana, Credico said.

"There should be no more prosecutions for drug possession," he said. "They should be going after the real criminals, the guys on Wall Street. They don't have to go up to Harlem and Washington Heights, the real big barracudas are right down here."

The city's criminal justice system is rotten to the core, he said.

"This is like Tulia, this is like the South," he moaned. "The criminal justice system here is a black box where blacks and Latinos go in and disappear into the penal system. The cops are white, the judges are white, the prosecutors are white -- only the Bronx has a rainbow coalition of prosecutors -- the rest are white, and they're going after black people in this city."

Many of those busted ended up in Rikers Island or the Tombs, often after first spending hours or days crammed into precinct holding cells.

"Rikers Island is like Alcatraz for poor people on minor drug offenses," said Credico. "It's all Mickey Mouse; there's no Hannibal Lectors there. They need to turn it into a university for poor people. And no one is talking about the Tombs. I've been there. There are lots of junkies in there going through withdrawals, filthy toilets, people penned in like cattle. No one will talk about that, or about the hundreds of precincts with their holding cells."

Unsurprisingly, Credico doesn't think much of his establishment opposition.

"Christine Quinn is Bloomberg in drag wearing a red wig," he declared, "and de Blasio supported stop-and-frisk. He was also Hillary's hit man when she was running for the Senate, and derailed Grandpa Munster Al Lewis's campaign then."

Lhota, who has recently made noises about legalizing marijuana, "looks like a weed head," Credico snorted. "But I actually smoke it."

Now, Credico has to go through the process of qualifying as a Democratic candidate, smiting his foes within the party, and then taking on the Republican challenger in the general election. His first official campaign task will be to complete a month-long signature-gathering drive in late spring to qualify for the primary.

"I'll be on talk shows -- people all over the place are asking for interviews -- making some ads and some YouTube videos, and they'll be interesting and funny. It will be a very entertaining campaign. We have buttons coming out soon, we have the web site, there are people who will be putting ads in the Nation," he explained.

"Drug reformers are interested in my campaign, and I've got tons of volunteers from the stop-and-frisk campaigns and people from OWS," he said. "I'm getting a lot of attention right now."

Credico, of course, is a long-shot, but even if he doesn't become the next mayor of New York, to the degree that his campaign shines a light on the problems in the city's criminal justice system and forces other candidates to address them, he will be judged a success.

(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.)

New York City, NY
United States

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