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NYPD Police Officer Indicted in Ramarley Graham Killing

Ramarley Graham
A New York City police officer has been indicted on manslaughter charges in the Bronx shooting death of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham. Graham, a young black man, was shot and killed in the bathroom of his own home after a team of NYPD narcotics officers followed him home, broke in, and confronted him.

When he was killed in February, Graham was the eighth person to die in drug law enforcement activities so far this year. That number is now up to 28. The indictment of NYPD Officer Richard Haste is the first of any officer in any of those deaths.

Although the indictment has not been officially unsealed, the New York Times reported that a grand jury has indicted Haste, 30, on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. More charges could be pending.

Graham was shot and killed after he and a pair of friends caught the attention of narcotics officers who had staked out a bodega on White Plains Road. They radioed their colleagues and said they believed he had a gun in his waistband as he walked toward his home. Officer Haste dashed to the scene, broke into Graham's apartment, and shot and killed him in his bathroom.

No weapon was found, but police did say they found marijuana in a plastic baggie in the toilet bowl, suggesting Graham may have been trying to get rid of the evidence to avoid becoming another New York City pot bust statistic.

The shooting has provoked anger in the community and led to numerous calls for justice for Graham and other victims of overzealous policing in the city. It has also focused attention on the aggressive tactics of the NYPD's Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, teams of officers who surreptitiously surveil the streets looking for drug deals before bursting in to bust dealers and customers.

The Graham shooting has focused attention on the aggressive tactics of the Police Department’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Units -- teams of six or seven officers who hide on rooftops or in parked cars as they scan the streetscape for drug transactions before swooping in to arrest dealers and customers. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered a review of the units' tactics, but the results of that review have not been released.

The last time NYPD officers were indicted for killing a resident was when three of them riddled Sean Bell's body with bullets as he attended his pre-wedding party in 2007. Those officers were eventually found not guilty.

New York, NY
United States

Why Is Clarence Aaron Still in Federal Prison? [FEATURE]

Sentenced nearly two decades ago to three life prison sentences for his peripheral role in a crack cocaine deal, Clarence Aaron became a poster child for the inequities and harshness of drug war policing and sentencing policies. His case has garnered attention in media outlets from PBS to Fox News, and he was featured in the 1999 PBS documentary "Snitch."

Clarence Aaron
Aaron, then a linebacker at Southern University in Baton Rouge, introduced the brother of a drug supplier to a cocaine dealer he knew from his high school days in Mobile and was present when a nine-pound cocaine deal went down. Despite his tangential involvement, when federal authorities busted the cocaine operation, Aaron ended up with by far the longest sentence of anyone involved, because the other players cooperated with the government and named him as a major player, and because he refused to testify against his friends.

Now, the 43-year-old Alabamian is becoming a poster child for yet another drug war inequity: the failure of the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney to promptly and accurately report to the president on requests for pardons and commutations.

In a pair of lengthy investigative reports, the most recent published last Saturday, ProPublica and the Washington Post revealed that when Aaron tried for commutation for a second time in 2008, Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers, who is still in the post, failed to convey critical information about his request to the Bush White House, including recommendations from the US Attorney and his sentencing judge that his application be granted. 

"I have reviewed various documents submitted by Clarence Aaron in support of his petition for commutation of sentence and agree that Aaron should receive a commutation of his life sentence," wrote US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Deborah Rhodes in her November 2008 memo to Rodgers.

US District Court Judge Charles Butler, Jr., also shifted from an earlier stance of neutrality on Aaron's request to one of support. "Looking through the prism of hindsight, and considering the many factors argued by the defendant that were not present at the time of his initial sentencing, one can argue that a less harsh sentence might have been more equitable," he wrote in response to a motion filed by Aaron’s attorneys.

Via a phone interview with the pardon office, Butler told staff attorney Samuel Morison that Aaron "should be granted relief" immediately by the president. Morison then sent an e-mail to Rodgers telling him what Butler had said and asking whether he should update Aaron's file with the new positions taken by the judge and the prosecutor. Rodgers responded by saying he would take care of it.

He didn't. Instead, he made no new recommendation to the White House and did not revise Aaron's file to reflect the new stances by the judge and prosecutor. Nor did he pass on years of favorable prison reports describing Aaron's rehabilitation or mention an affidavit Aaron filed with the pardons office in 2007 in which he expressed further remorse and asked "for a second chance to be a productive citizen."

The Bush administration, acting on the Office of the Pardon Attorney's recommendation, turned down Aaron's commutation request in December 2008.

When ProPublica showed the statements from the judge and prosecutor to Kenneth Lee, the White House lawyer working on Aaron's case, Lee was mind-boggled. He said that had he seen those statements, he would have recommended a commutation.

"This case was such a close call," Lee said. "We had been asking the pardons office to reconsider it all year. We made clear we were interested in this case."

Aaron isn't alone in getting sub-par treatment from the pardon office. ProPublica and the Post cited a former pardon office lawyer as saying some applicants have been turned down "en masse," with little or no review. But it gets worse. The first ProPublica and Post report on the pardon office, published in December, found that white offenders seeking pardons and commutations were four times more likely to receive them than black ones.

And, as the number of commutation requests has risen along with the prison population, the likelihood of actually winning one has been declining. It was one out of a hundred under Reagan and Clinton, but declined to little more than one out of a thousand under George Bush. President Obama so far has commuted the sentence of one person out of 3,800.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney has been backlogged for much of the last decade, and that may account for some of the problem. When Rodgers took over, he attempted to streamline the office to address the backlog. Instead of having office attorneys review and research each case, he turned them over to paralegals. The result was too often merely a pro forma review.

"The office types up a list of names, along with basic sentencing and offense information for each prisoner, and sends the list to the White House with a note that says the attached cases are meritless and should be denied," Morison said.

Rodgers reverted back to the old system in 2010, but that was too late for Clarence Aaron and the thousands of others summarily rejected by the pardon office. The apparent problems at the pardon office have sentencing advocates calling for changes.

"We need to see some change on several fronts," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "First, the administration needs to look at what's happening or not happening at the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and some of that should include a rethinking of how the pardon process takes place. There are calls for an independent commission to make these recommendations to the president, not an entity within the Justice Department. That's at least worthy of consideration to see what the trade-offs are," he mused.

"Also, the White House should make it clear that to be consistent with its longstanding support or the reform of crack cocaine sentencing, there should be an examination of those older cases currently in prison," Mauer added. "They should consider recalculating those mandatory minimum sentences as if they were sentenced today, to put them in sync with the new law. That would not only be consistent, it could have a substantial effect on the federal prison population."

Mauer's first suggestion echoes one made by former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig, who told an American Constitution Society panel on the pardons issue last week that the president could eliminate the pardon office by executive order. He suggested a bipartisan review panel reporting directly to the president.

"We cannot improve or strengthen the exercise of this power without taking it out of the Department of Justice," Craig said.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which has championed Aaron's case as well as many others, called the ProPublica report "extremely disturbing but not surprising." The organization is calling for a congressional investigation and, on Monday, issued a sign-on letter to demonstrate public support for the call.

"Between this report and ProPublica's earlier report on the pardon process, the Pardon Attorney's office has been shown to willfully misrepresent the facts of commutation requests to the President and contribute to a racial imbalance among pardon recipients. The Pardon Attorney's office is not a gatekeeper but a brick wall," said FAMM president Julie Stewart. "Congress should investigate this egregious behavior immediately with oversight hearings. The entire clemency process should be removed from the Department of Justice's control. It is not in the president or the public's interest to have a Pardon Attorney's office that is captive to a prosecutorial agenda, doesn't take clemency cases seriously, and doesn't treat applicants fairly."

FAMM pointed to other cases it said suggested something was seriously wrong with the pardon office.

"We have long believed that the Pardon Attorney's case evaluations have been subjective and misleading," said Stewart. "Now we know that is true in the case of Clarence Aaron. Many other cases are suspect, too. President Obama denied a commutation to Barbara Scrivner, a low-level, nonviolent drug offender who has served 16 years of her 30-year sentence for her minor and addiction-driven role in her husband's methamphetamine activity. Did the Pardon Attorney ever inform President Obama of Scrivner's extraordinary rehabilitation and the support she had from the prosecutors who tried her, the judge who sentenced her, and her congressman? If someone with that much support cannot get a favorable recommendation from the Pardon Attorney, who can?" she asked.
 

"We learned there have been only 12 commutations in the past 12 years, and only one under this president, and at least one derailed under Bush," said FAMM general counsel Mary Price. "And then there are the problems with the pardons. There is a lot more to investigate. I don't see how lawmakers can come to the conclusion there's not a serious problem. Not only Congress, but the administration and the Justice Department ought to be taking notice of this and acting accordingly."

"The letter sent today demonstrates that this story is not going to go away and that DOJ cannot sweep the Office of the Pardon Attorney's disturbing behavior under the rug," said Stewart.

Whether the Obama administration or the Congress will be moved to act on these latest revelations remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Clarence Aaron sits in federal prison, where he will die if he does not win a commutation. He filed a new application in 2010. That one is still pending.

Washington, DC
United States

New Jersey Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Advances

A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to 15 grams (a little more than a half-ounce) of marijuana was approved Monday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The bill, Assembly Bill 1465, now heads for an Assembly floor vote.

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Under current law, small-time pot possession is punishable by up to six months in jail. Under AB 1465, the threat of jail would be removed and infractions would be punishable by a $150 fine for a first offense, $200 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense.

Some 22,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession in the state last year, with blacks disproportionately represented. In addition to possible jail time, those arrested face other collateral consequences, such as difficulties finding a job or qualifying for housing.

The crowd in the hearing room and most witnesses, including a retired corrections officer, defense attorneys, a clergyman, a college instructor, and a representative from a drug addiction prevention group favored decriminalization, according to an account carried by New Jersey Real-Time News.

"Some acts harm society and they warrant the intervention of police, prosecutors and perhaps even incarceration," said the bill's prime Republican sponsor, Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris), who is also a committee member. "Other acts warrant at best, a spanking, and these seems to be one of these situations."

"These long-term consequences are unjust and expensive," said Candice Singer, a research analyst from the New Jersey chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "The police manpower utilized for these arrests is costly. It is beyond dispute that a criminal record interferes with one's ability to maintain employment. This not only hurts the individual and the individual's family, but it harms the economy and the state, preventing residents from becoming employed and paying income taxes."

Only Bruce Hummer of the New Jersey Prevention Network, which represents treatment professionals, spoke against the bill. He said decriminalization would "send a mixed message to our youth," who would be more likely to use the herb if it was seen as less harmful and "accepted" by the community.

But retired corrections officer Harry Camisa had a powerful retort to Hummer. "I have seen firsthand the devastating effects on these young kids who are sent to jail for what I consider a minor offense," Camisa said. "I always felt bad for the very young ones because by the time they asked for protective custody they had already been beaten with a lock in a sock, stabbed or sodomized."

Forty years ago, the Shafer Commission, recognizing that harsh penalties for marijuana had no scientific basis, called for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts for personal use. A handful of states took that advice in the 1970s, and after a long interregnum beginning with the Reagan years, in the past decade, more states have come on board. The number is now 14.

Trenton, NJ
United States

Connecticut Bill to Strengthen Racial Profiling Ban Passes

The Connecticut House Monday passed a bill to strengthen the state's 12-year-old racial profiling reporting, which some senators said was not being followed by police. The bill, Senate Bill 364, passed the Senate last month. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said in statement Monday he would sign it into law.

]"More than 10 years ago, as the mayor of Stamford, I was proud to stand with the men and women of the Stamford Police Department on Martin Luther King Day to announce that we did not tolerate racial profiling and would lead the efforts to ensure its elimination. As governor, I will continue to insist that every effort is taken to protect individual rights in every community and that racial profiling is eliminated," Malloy said. "This is a real problem that deserves a real solution, and my administration is committed to carrying out the spirit and letter of this law. I look forward to signing the bill when it arrives at my desk."

The original racial profiling law was pushed by then-Senator Alvin Penn, who spoke out loudly against the practice. Penn said he himself had been stopped by police for no reason except for his skin color. Penn died of pancreatic cancer in 2003.

That law required police departments to report on each traffic stop, noting the driver's race and the reason for the stop. In the first six months the law was in effect, police wrote 315,000 reports, and a 2001 study of those reports found that blacks accounted for only 8% of the state's population, but 12% of the traffic stops.

Still, the state's top prosecutor said at the time that the numbers did not suggest racial profiling.

"We did not find a pattern of racial profiling,'' said then Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey. "Minority drivers do not appear to be treated systematically any different than non-minority drivers.''

In the decade since then, the issue has quietly festered while police departments quietly quit reporting. According to Senate Democrats, only 27 of the state's 92 police departments are complying with the law.

Last month, the head of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, Douglas Fuchs, told the Hartford Courant that most departments were complying with the law. He added that racial profiling data does not "accurately portray how Connecticut law enforcement across the state conducts business,'' although he did not explain why not.

But former state Rep. Michael Lawlor, who is now Gov. Malloy's (D) chief criminal justice advisor, disagreed. "The fact of racial profiling is very real. Almost every African-American has a story like that [of profiling], and very few white people do. It's real.''

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams (D) also disagreed, saying, "Racial profiling is a problem in Connecticut and throughout the United States… It's time to strengthen' the law."

Malloy said his administration hadn't waited for the law to pass to start working on its provisions.

"Our administration has already begun taking some of the steps required under the legislation," he said. "Last year, I instructed the Office of Policy and Management, with the help of Central Connecticut State University, to create the advisory group called for in the bill, and they have begun to develop standardized methods and guidelines to improve collection of racial profiling data."

Hartford, CT
United States

Connecticut Senate Votes to Put Teeth in Racial Profiling Law

The Connecticut Senate last Thursday passed a bill to strengthen the state's 12-year-old racial profiling reporting, which some senators said was not being followed by police. The bill, Senate Bill 364, passed on a 31-3 vote.

The original racial profiling law was pushed by then-Senator Alvin Penn, who spoke out loudly against racial profiling. Penn said he himself had been stopped by police for no reason except for his skin color. Penn died of pancreatic cancer in 2003.

That law required police departments to report on each traffic stop, noting the driver's race and the reason for the stop. In the first six months the law was in effect, police wrote 315,000 reports, and a 2001 study of those reports found that blacks accounted for only 8% of the state's population, but 12% of the traffic stops.

Still, the state's top prosecutor said at the time that the numbers did not suggest racial profiling.

"We did not find a pattern of racial profiling,'' said then Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey. "Minority drivers do not appear to be treated systematically any different than non-minority drivers.''

In the decade since then, the issue has quietly festered while police departments quietly quit reporting. According to Senate Democrats, only 27 of the state's 92 police departments are complying with the law.

Last week, the head of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, Douglas Fuchs, told the Hartford Courant that most departments were complying with the law. He added that racial profiling data does not "accurately portray how Connecticut law enforcement across the state conducts business,'' although he did not explain why not.

But former state Rep. Michael Lawlor, who is now Gov. Dan Malloy's (D) chief criminal justice advisor, disagreed. "The fact of racial profiling is very real. Almost every African-American has a story like that [of profiling], and very few white people do. It's real.''

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams (D) also disagreed, saying, "Racial profiling is a problem in Connecticut and throughout the United States… It's time to strengthen'' the law.

The vast majority of his colleagues agreed with Williams, with only three Republicans voting against the measure. The new bill beefs up the law by requiring a standardized form from all departments, requiring reports to go to the governor's office instead of the African American Affairs Commission, and creating an advisory board to oversee compliance with the law.

The bill has now been placed on the House calendar.

Hartford, CT
United States

Protestors Challenge NYC Mayor on Mass Marijuana Arrests [FEATURE]

New York City has the dubious -- and well-earned -- reputation as the world's marijuana arrest capital, with more than 50,000 people being arrested for pot possession there last year alone at an estimated cost of $75 million. It also has a mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who has famously said he smoked marijuana and enjoyed it, yet who presides over a police force that has run roughshod over the state's marijuana decriminalization law in order to make those arrests, almost all of which are of members of the city's black and brown minority communities.

Protestors call on Mayor Bloomberg (DPA)
Last Thursday, activists and concerned citizens organized as the New Yorkers for Health & Safety campaign marched to the mayor's home, an apartment building in Manhattan's Upper East Side, to call him on his hypocrisy, chastise the NYPD for its racially-skewed stop-and-frisk policing, and demand that the city quit wasting tens of millions a dollar a year on low-level marijuana arrests even as it proposes cuts to other vital New York City services.

The campaign, consisting of members of the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL-NY, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, and Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH), among others, brought out dozens of people for a march to the mayor's residence, followed by a brief rally. Protestors, some wearing Mayor Bloomberg masks, held signs and chanted as they rallied across the street from the apartment building.

"Bloomberg is doing more than wasting $75 million a year on marijuana arrests, he is wasting the future our youth," said Chino Hardin, lead know-your-rights trainer for the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "We don't want kids using drugs, so why not put money into real programs that will help them make better choices, not give forever lasting criminal records."

On the march to the mayor's place, with Bloomberg masks (DPA)
Under New York state law, the possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized, punishable by a ticket and fine. But NYPD practice, designed to get around that law and generate arrests, is to stop and frisk citizens going about their business, almost always young people of color, order them to empty their pockets (which they are not required by law to do), then arrest them for possession of marijuana in public when a baggie containing weed emerges. That is not an infraction, but a misdemeanor, and the victims are then arrested and jailed, typically for 24 hours or more, before being arraigned and released.

Last year, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered an end to that practice, but that has yet to be reflected in declining marijuana possession arrest numbers. And those numbers are huge: In addition to the more than 50,000 arrested last year, another 350,000 have been arrested since Bloomberg took office in 2002, at an estimated cost to the city of $600 million.

Even though whites use marijuana at higher rates than any other ethnic or racial group, nearly 85% of those arrested for pot possession are black and Latino, and most are under 30. Being arrested for pot means more than a day or so in jail; it also creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be accessed by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks, damaging the life prospects of those saddled with a rap sheet.

"For a mayor who celebrates diversity as a key staple of the city, he sure has a horrible way of demonstrating his appreciation for certain communities in our City," said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Black and Latino New Yorkers cannot walk down the street without fear of being stopped, frisked, illegally searched, and then falsely charged and arrested for something that was decriminalized over 30 years ago. This is costing us millions of dollars as taxpayers. It's an insult, and must end now."

Academic marijuana arrest researcher Harry Levine has a few words for the mayor (DPA)
Mayor Bloomberg last year launched a new $130 million Young Men's Initiative, "the nation's boldest and most comprehensive effort to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men," but continues to preside over a marijuana arrest policy seemingly designed to increase those disparities. That makes the mayor a hypocrite, the protestors charged.

"Mayor Bloomberg is talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to helping young Black and Latino men like me," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer for VOCAL-NY who has been targeted under stop-and-frisk practices, illegally searched and falsely arrested for marijuana possession. "The money for his Young Men's Initiative goes to waste along with the taxpayer dollars he's wasting on pursuing his marijuana arrests crusade in my community."

"New York City is spending $75 million dollars a year to arrest and prosecutor mostly young people of color simply for possessing marijuana -- which is not a crime in New York State." said Harry Levine, Queens College Professor and founder of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. "It is long past time for this outrage to stop."

The sign says it all (DPA)
It isn't just activists who have taken notice. Lawmakers in Albany have crafted bipartisan legislation, Assembly Bill 7620, introduced by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP-Brooklyn), and companion measure Senate Bill 5187, introduced by Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), that would standardize marijuana possession penalties statewide, enforcing the original legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law. Dozens of New York City council members have signed onto a resolution supporting those bills and calling to end to the mass marijuana arrests.

"The explosion of low level marijuana arrests in New York City is a tremendous waste of precious law enforcement resources and needlessly scars thousands of young lives," said Jeffries. "Our legislation is an additional step toward a more equitable criminal justice system that treats everyone the same, regardless of race or socioeconomic status."

Activists in the city aren't waiting for Albany to ride to the rescue. They are planning more street actions, including one next month, said the Drug Policy Alliance's Frederique, and they're looking for some white guys.

"We will be having an action in April, but haven't yet decided on the date and location, or the exact nature of the action," she said. "We're trying to get white men under 30 to show up, since those are the people who actually smoke marijuana, but don't get arrested. And we are cordially inviting New York City's most famous pot smoker, Mayor Bloomberg, to attend."

An organizing meeting for the April action will take place next Wednesday, April 4, at 113 West 13th Street in Manhattan. Contact the organizations linked to above for more information.

Chronicle Book Review: "The Marijuana Conviction"

 

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The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States, by Richard J. Bonnie and Charles H. Whitebread II (1999, Lindesmith Center Press, 368 pp.)

I don't customarily review books that aren't hot off the presses, and The Marijuana Conviction is even older than that 1999 publication date above, considerably so. In fact, it was originally published by the University of Virginia Press in 1974, back when Richard Nixon was still president. But we got our hands on a bunch of copies of it that we intend to share with our supporters, so I thought I would take a look.

I'm glad I did. Although I consider myself fairly well-read on the topic of marijuana law reform, I came away with a refreshed appreciation for the tumultuous social currents and historical happenstance that forged pot prohibition in the first place, the role of race and class, the opinion-shaping power of early media and political opportunists, and the bureaucratic maneuvering that enabled Harry Anslinger to shepherd the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act into law, enacting for the first time a federal ban on marijuana.

This is a foundational text for serious scholarship about the making of marijuana policy in America. Bonnie and Whitebread were University of Virginia law professors, and Bonnie had just finished a stint as Assistant Director of the Shafer Commission, which had been appointed by Nixon to examine the nation's drug policies (and was ignored by him when he didn't like what it had to say). The Marijuana Conviction first took form as an appendix to the commission report in 1972, and Bonnie and Whitbread spent the next year or so expanding and revising it into its published form.

We're talking primary documents here. Departmental memoranda from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, congressional testimony, state legislative hearings, and the like. It may sound dry, but it will be deeply fascinating and thought-provoking for serious marijuana policy wonks and even just pot history buffs.

And it's not all dusty documents. There is detailed social and cultural history, and there are extensive references to the lurid and outlandish press coverage of murderous marijuana maniacs and the campaign that percolated up from the states to criminalize the demon weed.

For that was the original charge against marijuana: It will enslave you, it will drive you to commit horrible crimes, and it will drive you insane. Bonnie and Whitebread devote much space to describing how such a view of marijuana emerged, and they tie it squarely to attitudes toward racial outsiders -- first the Chinese and the opium laws, then the Mexicans and blacks with the marijuana laws.

It doesn't paint a very appealing picture of American political decision-makers, whether it's lawmakers in Montana laughing as they voted to outlaw marijuana after testimony that consisted of a joking anecdote about how after Mexicans smoked it, they thought they were the Emperor of Mexico and wanted to assassinate their political enemies, or bureaucrats in Washington -- and not just Anslinger -- who deliberately covered up or suppressed information that didn't fit the emerging "marijuana menace" consensus.

It does, however, provide fascinating insight on the back-and-forth, both between Washington and the states and among the competing bureaucratic and political interests in Washington as that consensus concretized in harsh state and federal laws against marijuana.

But reading The Marijuana Conviction now, nearly four decades after the fact, leaves one feeling appalled and frustrated, too. Because not only do Bonnie and Whitebread describe the prohibitionist marijuana consensus -- that pot is addictive, criminogenic, and psychosis-inducing -- of the 1920s and 1930s, they also describe its disintegration in the 1960s. Of course, that consensus only crumbled when marijuana use spread to middle- and upper-class white youth, provoking not only the concern of well-placed parents, but also the interest of scientists and researchers who were just unable to find all of those pot-addled, blood-stained psychos.

But crumble it did. Almost a half century ago, the supposed scientific and medical basis for marijuana prohibition was exposed for the sham it was. At the time, Bonnie and Whitebread were too cautious, too professorial, to call for immediate "regulation" instead of prohibition. But as a first step, they demanded, at an absolute minimum, decriminalization.

In the decade in which they wrote, the reform impetus flourished, and 11 states actually did decriminalize. But since then, progress stalled, then came to a screeching halt during the Reaganoid dark ages of "Just Say No" and "This is your brain on drugs." It is only in about the last 15 years that the marijuana reform movement has begun moving forward again, now with ever increasing momentum.

But even with all that's gone on since the groundbreaking passage of Proposition 215 in California in 1996, marijuana is still illegal. The number of states that have even decriminalized is still in the teens, and while Bonnie and Whitebread waxed indignant about 250,000 people being arrested for pot each year, that number is now north of 800,000.

The Marijuana Conviction can't tell us how we can get out of this mess, although a close reading should yield some insights, but it certainly and artfully shows how we got into it. This is a must-have for any serious student of marijuana's bookshelf.


Federal Crack Cocaine Prisoners Start Coming Home [FEATURE]

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison Tuesday, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners are eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The numbers of those released vary by region, but federal prosecutors and defenders said Tuesday they would be freed by the dozens in different cities across the land. The public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia expected 75 to be released this week, while his colleague in San Antonio estimated 15 or 20 and his colleague in St. Louis estimated 30 to 50. The federal prosecutor for the Northern District of West Virginia said 92 would walk free there this week.

At this point, there is some confusion over how many people will be released and how fast.

"We're not sure how many are getting out today," a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told the Chronicle Tuesday. "This is the first day. We're reviewing files, checking for detainers, so some might not be released. And we don't have a date set yet for when we're releasing numbers."

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much maligned disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning this week.

"For the past 25 years, the 100:1 crack/powder disparity has spawned clouds of controversy and an aura of unfairness that has shrouded nearly every federal crack cocaine sentence that was handed down pursuant to that law. I say justice demands this result," said Ketanji Brown Jackson, vice chairwoman of the Sentencing Commission, after it decided on retroactivity in June.

Both the Fairness in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Commission's decision to make it retroactive provoked ire from congressional conservatives. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), opposed both.

"This bill reduces the penalties for crack cocaine," Smith said during debate on the bill. "Why would we want to do that? We should not ignore the severity of crack addiction or ignore the differences between crack and powder cocaine trafficking. We should worry more about the victims than about the criminals."

But after a quarter century of skyrocketing federal prison populations driven almost entirely by harshly punitive drug laws like the crack statute, Smith's view no longer holds sway. That's in part due to years of efforts by reform advocates, who decried the evident racial disparities in the prosecution and sentencing of crack cases, as well as the Sentencing Commission itself, which for more than a decade has urged Congress to fix the law.

Despite the initial uncertainly, activists, newly freed prisoners, and family members greeted the event with elation. "Beginning today, thousands of individuals across the country will get another shot at justice," said Julie Stewart, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "These people were forced to serve excessive sentences under a scheme Congress has admitted was fundamentally flawed, but, today, they can ask for long overdue relief."

"It's unbelievable. I'm ecstatic," said William Johnson, a Virginia man convicted of crack distribution conspiracy in 1997 and imprisoned ever since. The 39-year-old told CNN he only found out Monday he was going free the next day.

The joyous reunions taking place this week notwithstanding, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war carceral complex requires changes on the front end.

"We want sentencing reform; we'll take anything we can get," said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that focuses on federal drug prisoners. "But people have to start demanding that drug war policing tactics change, too. They could stop drug dealing when they see it and stop spending tax dollars on buy and bust operations. Those are front end solutions," she said.

"When the Sentencing Commission evaluated the sentencing schemes, they explained that 'the sentence begins at investigation,' exposing the police tactics that are the beginning of the sentencing process," Callahan continued. "Police control buy and busts and sting operations, and they determine how much drugs or cash they are going to talk some poor SOB into exchanging, or even simply discussing."

Some people imprisoned for too long under racially disparate US drug laws are walking free this week. Others are not. And as long as the drug war keeps rolling along, the federal prisons are going to keep filling up with its victims.

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Race & Justice News: Blacks Three Times as Likely as Whites to be Searched in Traffic Stops

 

 

Race & Justice News

 

In This Issue:

  • "The collapse of American justice" » GO
  • Alabama prison refuses to allow book on treatment of Southern blacks » GO
  • Blacks three times as likely as whites to be searched in traffic stops » GO
  • Reevaluating explanations for racial disparities » GO
  • Upcoming Events » GO



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The Sentencing Project's 25th Anniversary Celebration

Criminal Justice 2036

October 11, 2011. Washington, DC.

The Sentencing Project is hosting a 25th anniversary celebration featuring a half-day forum, Criminal Justice 2036, at the National Press Club. Leading academics and practitioners will be describing a vision for the criminal justice system 25 years from now and strategies to achieve that vision.

Centerforce 2011 Summit

"Causes and Consequences of Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System"

October 23-24, 2011. San Francisco, CA.

Marc Mauer will be the keynote speaker at the National Summit of Centerforce, a national leader in providing programming to incarcerated people and their loved ones.

2011 University of Pennsylvania Law Review Symposium

The Future of Sentencing: Rhetoric and Reality

October 28-29, 2011. Philadelphia, PA.

The sentencing symposium sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Law School will include leading scholars and practitioners in a panel discussion on "The War on Drugs and Racial Justice."

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October 7, 2011

Race & Justice News

"THE COLLAPSE OF AMERICAN JUSTICE"

The late law professor William J. Stuntz investigates what he calls "the collapse of American justice" in Salon. The article examines  America's high incarceration rate, and assesses the role of official discretion, discrimination against minority suspects and victims, and the swing toward harsh punishment as the main factors leading to the justice system's failure.

Stuntz argues that laws that turn large segments of the population into offenders, such as speeding and drug laws, provide police officers with excessive official discretion that contributes to racial profiling. Stuntz states that, "too much law amounts to no law at all: when legal doctrine makes everyone an offender, the relevant offenses have no meaning independent of law enforcers' will," and points to the fact that blacks are nine times more likely to be arrested for drug use than whites, despite both groups having similar rates of drug use.

Direct election of many judges and prosecutors, coupled with the increased electoral power of suburbs and their relative distance from inner city problems, is also identified as an explanation for increased racial disparities.

ALABAMA PRISON REFUSES TO ALLOW BOOK ON TREATMENT OF SOUTHERN BLACKS

The New York Times reports that an inmate is suing the Alabama Department of Corrections for denying him access to a book that details the plight of Southern African Americans during the time between the end of the Civil War and World War II.

The Kilby Correctional Facility reportedly would not allow Mark Melvin to read Slavery by Another Name because it was deemed to be "incendiary" and a "security threat." Officials claimed that the book, which explores the convict leasing system, which became nearly indistinguishable from slavery, could incite “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.”

The book's author, Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas A. Blackmon, calls that claim "absurd," and Melvin's lawyer argues that the withholding of the book is essentially a reflection of the country's refusal to own up to its racial history.

BLACKS THREE TIMES AS LIKELY AS WHITES TO BE SEARCHED IN TRAFFIC STOPS

A special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that black drivers in 2008 were three times as likely to have their cars searched during traffic stops as whites. The study, which looked at contact between citizens and law enforcement, also found that traffic stops involving blacks were roughly twice as likely to result in a search as those involving Hispanics.

The survey showed that African Americans were slightly more likely to face multiple contacts with police officers, but that blacks were about as likely to be pulled over in traffic stop as whites and Hispanics. However, when pulled over blacks were more likely than whites and Hispanics to be arrested, while both blacks and Hispanics were more likely to receive tickets than whites. Blacks were also more likely to have force used or threatened against them by police officers.

REEVALUATING EXPLANATIONS FOR RACIAL DISPARITIES

Darnell F. Hawkins attempts to sort through explanations for the racial disparities present in the American criminal justice system in light of declining crime rates, and criticizes academics for failing to make significant progress in producing cogent theories.

In Things Fall Apart: Revisiting Race and Ethnic Differences in Criminal Violence amidst a Crime Drop he argues that the presence of constant racial disparities in the criminal justice system despite drops in crime rates and changes in social conditions has undermined many theories meant to explain racial disparities. Much of this, according to Hawkins, is due to the tendency of researchers to rely heavily on quantitative skills and narrow variables and subjects.

The use of more encompassing theories, such as Robert Blauner's internal colonialism framework, is offered as a possible path forward in answering longstanding questions about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

 

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A Drug Arrest Every 19 Seconds, Says Latest US Data [FEATURE]

More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US last year, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.

Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.

Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than  all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.

The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.

The stabilization of drug arrests at record high levels comes as the FBI reports all other categories of crime are dropping. Violent crime was down overall, with murder decreasing by 4.2% and robberies by 10.0%, while property crime was also down overall, with burglary and larceny declining by more than 2% and motor vehicle theft and arson down by more than 7%.

Drug arrests were the single largest category of arrests, accounting for more than 10% of all arrests in the country. They were followed by drunk driving arrests (1.41 million) and larceny arrests (1.27 million). More than three times as many people were arrested for drugs than for all violent crimes combined (552,000) and nearly as many as for all property crimes combined (1.643 million).

African-Americans continue to be arrested for drug offenses in disproportionate numbers. Blacks accounted for 31.8% of all drug arrests last year, while according to the US Census Bureau, they constitute only 12.6% of the national population.

[Visit the Drug War Facts Crime section for updated tables presenting arrest data from 1980 through the present.]

The high drug arrest numbers were grist for the mill for drug war critics.

"This shows that, contrary to what Obama and Kerlikowske say, the war on drugs is not over," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. While conceding that the vast majority of drug arrests are conducted by state and local law enforcement, "the Obama administration sets the tone," he argued. "Kerlikowske said he ended the war on drugs—not the federal war on drugs—but federal money absolutely subsidizes state and local drug arrests by funding programs like the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program and the COPS program. They are supposed to be setting national policy, but they're not doing a very good job of leading by example."

"Since the declaration of the 'war on drugs' 40 years ago we've arrested tens of millions of people in an effort to reduce drug use," noted Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore narcotics cop who now heads the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "The fact that cops had to spend time arresting another 1.6 million of our fellow citizens last year shows that it simply hasn't worked. In the current economy we simply cannot afford to keep arresting three people every minute in the failed 'war on drugs. If we legalized and taxed drugs, we could not only create new revenue in addition to the money we'd save from ending the cruel policy of arresting users, but we'd make society safer by bankrupting the cartels and gangs who control the currently illegal marketplace."

While national drug reform groups had harsh words for the policies leading to the overall drug arrest figures, marijuana reformers were equally critical when it came to the herb and the arrests it generates.

"Today, as in past years, the so-called 'drug war' remains fueled by the arrests of minor marijuana possession offenders, a disproportionate percentage of whom are ethnic minorities," said NORML deputy director Paul Armentano. "It makes no sense to continue to waste law enforcements' time and taxpayers' dollars to arrest and prosecute Americans for their use of a substance that poses far fewer health risks than alcohol or tobacco."

"It's pretty obvious that we continue to spend billions a year arresting nearly a million people for marijuana related crime, yet use had not fallen dramatically," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "That shows that this is just a waste of time and money. It's really disingenuous for the Obama administration and the drug czar to say they are concentrating on public health measures and harm reduction and moving away from law enforcement, and then release numbers that show that was not the case, that the arrest rates are staying the same."

Fox noted that pot arrests accounted for 5.7% of all arrests nationwide. "If the drug czar says we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem, then why are we spending one-twentieth of our law enforcement resources arresting people for nonviolent, victimless crimes?" he asked. "We could be using those resources for solving rapes and murders."

More than a decade of drug reform efforts have managed to slow what once seemed to be endless annual increases in drug arrests in the US, but stabilizing at around 1.6 million drug busts a year is not victory, only the first step in putting the brakes on the drug war juggernaut. Now, it's time to start concentrating on bringing it to a screeching halt.

Washington, DC
United States

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