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Feature: Obama's Appointees Raise Questions in the Drug Reform Community

Like other interest groups, the drug reform movement has the Obama transition under a microscope, searching for clues on the new administration's intentions as it scrutinizes those appointments for positions that are going to be key to advancing the cause. Some of the Obama transition team's early moves have some drug reformers sounding alarm bells, but other reformers -- not so much.

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Eric Holder -- not the reformer's dream pick
Drug reformers were not particularly enthralled with Obama's vice-president selection, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), who made a career authoring drug war legislation. Biden can rightfully claim to be the father of the drug czar's office, he was a big fan of harsh sentencing laws, he crafted the horrid RAVE Act. Never encountering a "drug problem" that couldn't be fixed with another federal criminal law, Biden most recently authored a bill that would criminalize being on board a home-made submarine carrying drugs.

While Biden may have begun to see the light in recent years -- he is author of one of the best bills seeking to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity (which he helped create) -- drug reformers remain deeply suspicious of a man who built a political power base on the shoulders of the assembled ranks of law enforcement.

Nor did the appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) as White House chief of staff alleviate concerns. While the sharp-elbowed political operative has not been a leading drug warrior, neither has he shied from using drug war discourse as a weapon against his political foes.

One oft-cited example of Emanuel's penchant for drug war rhetoric came a decade ago, when he defended the Clinton administration's unconstitutional effort to punish physicians who recommended medical marijuana to patients. "We are going to continue to find ways within the administration to fight legalization and the notion of legalization," he said in an interview. "We're against the message that [California's medical marijuana initiative] sends to children," Emanuel demagogued. (Emanuel, now a member of Congress, did vote for the pro-medical marijuana Hinchey amendment in July of last year.)

This week's announcement that former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder would be nominated for the Attorney General post did little to allay mounting fears that Obama was filling key positions for drug policy with Clinton-era drug war holdovers. Some were quick to point to Holder's time as US Attorney for the District of Columbia, when he pushed through changes in DC's marijuana laws that made sales a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

As the Washington Post reported:

In addition, US Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that he is considering not only prosecuting more marijuana cases but also asking the DC Council to enact stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana. "We have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," Holder said, referring to current attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling.

Holder said he hopes to discourage some of that activity by being tougher on marijuana crimes. New guidelines should be in place by the end of the month, he said, noting that the District could learn from New York's "zero-tolerance" policy. There, crime plummeted when police aggressively enforced quality-of-life crimes, including panhandling and public drinking, which gave officers an opportunity to check for drugs, guns and outstanding warrants.

That same year, he told the Washington Times he was considering proposing a mandatory-minimum 18-month sentence for any marijuana sales. That, at least, didn't happen.

Drug reformers took some small solace, however, from Holder's comments on mandatory minimum sentencing in a 1999 interview. Responding to a question about whether it was time to review mandatory minimums, Holder said:

I do not think that we should ever foreclose the possibility that we take a look at how the laws that we have passed are working. I tend to think that mandatory minimum sentences that deal with people who commit violent crimes are almost always good things. I think the concerns are generally raised about mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. And I think there are some questions that we ought to ask.

I do not go into it with a presumption that they're necessarily bad, but we ought to look at the statistics and see, are we putting in prison, are we using our limited prison space for the kind of people that we want to have there? Are the sentences commensurate with the kind of conduct that puts people in jail for these mandatory minimum sentences?

Those are the kinds of questions I think that we ought to ask. And as thinking legislators on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative, I would hope that we would ask those questions and then go into it with an open mind.

With drug war cheerleaders like Biden and Emanuel and professional drug warriors like Holder being invited to join the Obama team, drug reformers are understandably skittish. But most are taking a wait and see attitude, even as they bemoan some of Obama's choices.

"Some of the appointments, such as Holder, are certainly concerning," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "There is some problematic stuff in the past, yes, but people do change and learn. Who would have thought that a drug warrior like Bob Barr would end up as a Libertarian?" Mirken asked. "I don't think that because somebody said or did something we disagreed with a decade ago, he is necessarily bound to those same positions now, but we will be watching closely. If the time comes to freak out, we will, but it's premature to freak out now."

The reform community should not be freaking out, agreed Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Instead, it should be trying to flex its muscles.

"I think the reform community is way overreacting and, more importantly, not taking the initiative," he said "Reform leaders ought to be asking themselves what letters they've written to President-elect Obama, what letters to the editor they've penned, what op-eds they've submitted. Is the movement doing anything other than passively reacting?" he asked.

"Our movement has been under such assault for the past eight years that we're really out of practice in being effective political actors," Sterling argued. "I just contacted [the left-leaning magazine] In These Times suggesting an article about taxing marijuana as a way to prevent the lay-off of public employees. Our movement should be reaching out to people like the public employee unions, maybe buying ads saying 'No teacher should be fired until the legislature tells us how many legal marijuana could pay for.'"

"What you can say about Emanuel and these other people is that they are political and will respond to pressure," said Sterling. "If Emanuel thought our issues were good politics, he would be standing on the ramparts, but it's not good politics because we haven't made it good politics. It's not enough to mobilize the drug reform aficionados, we have to be working with much more powerful organizations and interest groups around issues they care about. The dire situation with the economy right now and the lack of revenues for state and local governments is a tremendous opportunity for us, exactly like 1933 in that sense. What did they do then? They ended Prohibition and taxed alcohol."

Marijuana does not enjoy the same cultural favor that alcohol did, Sterling noted, but that can be overcome. "We need to frame the issue in very stark economic terms. We need to be asking who is going to teach our kids? How are we going to pay for teachers? If the state taxing marijuana is the only way to pay for teachers, should we do it? That marijuana isn't going anywhere. It's still going to be smoked, whether we tax it or not. Why don't we benefit from it?"

"Drug policy reform has its work cut out for it," said Kevin Zeese, a long-time reformer who doubts either major party is ready for fundamental change. "The best we can hope for is a little benign neglect, and that they not continue to waste law enforcement resources on medical marijuana providers in states that allow it."

Given the plateful of problems facing the incoming administration and the state of the drug reform movement, a big push on drug policy on the federal level is unlikely, Zeese argued. "We should be working locally to continue to build momentum and a real movement," he said, suggesting that "benign neglect" could come into play. "If the reform movement continues to push state and local initiatives, I think the Obama administration will stay out of those conflicts. I don't think we'll see the drug czar flying off to different states to campaign against initiatives, and that would be a good thing."

A big push for drug reform is not only unlikely, it may be unwise at this time, Zeese suggested. "The caution Obama brings to the job, and Biden and Emanuel's histories present some room for us to maneuver, but it may be best not to poke the sleeping bear with a stick. We don't want to wake up the criminal justice advocates in the federal government. Benign neglect is better than abuse. Perhaps we should just work under the radar and allow their political caution to work for us, instead of against us."

While Zeese could tick off the bad drug policy stances of some of Obama's newly-forming inner circle, he suggested that those stances were based more on political calculations than ideological enthusiasm. "As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden aligned himself with police and prosecutors -- that is his criminal justice base, that's where the power and safety is. Emanuel was a clear architect of the crime control acts under Clinton that increased police numbers and lengthened sentences. But both these guys are essentially political animals and will take what looks like a hard line to neutralize an issue."

One area that could be an early indicator of the Obama administration's drug reform proclivities is the ongoing DEA raids against California medical marijuana providers. Obama vowed during the campaign to halt those raids. But the big news there could be that there is no news.

"We expect that Obama will keep his promise about ending the raids in California," said MPP's Mirken. "There are plenty of reasons for him to do so, including Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Michigan -- all states that had gone Republican, but that he carried. Whatever else you think about Obama and his team, they can count, and it's hard for me to imagine that they think it is in their interest to continue a war against a quarter of the country, most of whom voted for him," he said.

"That doesn't have to happen in dramatic fashion, you don't have to hold a press conference, it could just be something that happens quietly," said Mirken. "It may be awhile before anyone really sees for sure that a change has occurred. And that's fine -- we don't need a press conference as long as he stops arresting patients and caregivers."

"Obama is no doubt already thinking about a second term and doesn't want to make drug policy reform an issue of conflict with Republicans," said Zeese. "He will play it safe, but there is some opportunity for us there, and I think ending the raids is one of the things he could make happen. He'd prefer not to have medical marijuana patients and advocates angry at him in places like California and Oregon."

"I think he will stop the raids," said Sterling. "I don't see how the raids are helpful to him unless the Republicans are able to gin up some anger about providers, so it would be wise to stay low-key and continue to work with state and local officials so it is not controversial at the local level. But if it becomes controversial, and the Republicans are able to make it an issue, then Obama will be against us. We need to stay under the radar on this right now."

While reformers watch to see what does and doesn't happen regarding the DEA raids -- will they just quietly vanish into that long good night? -- there is still plenty of work to do, said Sterling. "We have to build the movement. We keep seeing the same 300 people at the conferences, maybe 1,000 if you're talking about the harm reduction conferences. No one is going door to door in the black community talking about how the drug war is undermining public safety and its relationship with the police. No one is talking to the unions. We've done well on the education part of our issue, but we haven't done well in developing a political power base, and until we do that, we won't get reform."

Feature: Looking Forward -- The Prospects for Drug Reform in Obama's Washington

The political landscape in Washington, DC, is undergoing a dramatic shift as the Democratic tide rolls in, and, after eight years of drug war status quo under the Republicans, drug reformers are now hoping the change in administrations will lead to positive changes in federal drug policies. As with every other aspect of federal policy, groups interested in criminal justice and drug policy reform are coming out of the woodwork with their own recommendations for Obama and the Democratic Congress. This week, we will look at some of those proposals and attempt to assess the prospects for real change.

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The White House
One of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform proposals, of which drug-related reform is only a small part, comes from a nonpartisan consortium of organizations and individuals coordinated by the Constitution Project, including groups such as the Sentencing Project, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and the Open Society Policy Center. The set of proposals, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress, includes the following recommendations:

  • Mandatory Minimum Reforms:
    Eliminate the crack cocaine sentencing disparity
    Improve and expand the federal "safety valve"
    Create a sunset provision on existing and new mandatory minimums
    Clarify that the 924(c) recidivism provisions apply only to true repeat offenders
  • Alternatives to Incarceration:
    Expand alternatives to incarceration in federal sentencing guidelines
    Enact a deferred adjudication statute
    Support alternatives to incarceration through expansion of federal drug and other problem solving courts.
  • Incentives and Sentencing Management
    Expand the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP)
    Clarify good time credit
    Expand the amount of good time conduct credit prisoners may receive and ways they can receive it
    Enhance sentence reductions for extraordinary and compelling circumstances
    Expand elderly prisoners release program
    Revive executive clemency
  • Promoting Fairness and Addressing Disparity:
    Support racial impact statements as a means of reducing unwarranted sentencing disparities
    Support analysis of racial and ethnic disparity in the federal justice system
    Add a federal public defender as an ex officio member of the United States Sentencing Commission

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also issued a set of recommendations, Actions for Restoring America: How to Begin Repairing the Damage to Freedom in America Under Bush, which include some drug reform provisions:

  • Crack/Powder Sentencing: The attorney general should revise the US Attorneys' Manual to require that crack offenses are charged as "cocaine" and not "cocaine base," effectively resulting in elimination of the disparity.
  • Medical Marijuana: Halt the use of Justice Department funds to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana users in states with current laws permitting access to physician-supervised medical marijuana. In particular, the US Attorney general should update the US Attorneys' Manual to de-prioritize the arrest and prosecution of medical marijuana users in medical marijuana states. There is currently no regulation in place to be amended or repealed; there is, of course, a federal statutory scheme that prohibits marijuana use unless pursuant to approved research. But US Attorneys have broad charging discretion in determining what types of cases to prosecute, and with drugs, what threshold amounts that will trigger prosecution. The US Attorneys' Manual contains guidelines promulgated by the Attorney general and followed by US Attorneys and their assistants.
  • The DEA Administrator should grant Lyle Craker's application for a Schedule I license to produce research-grade medical marijuana for use in DEA- and FDA-approved studies. This would only require DEA to approve the current recommendation of its own Administrative Law Judge.
  • All relevant agencies should stop denying the existence of medical uses of marijuana -- as nearly one-third of states have done by enacting laws -- and therefore, under existing legal criteria, reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule V.
  • Issue an executive order stating that, "No veteran shall be denied care solely on the basis of using marijuana for medical purposes in compliance with state law." Although there are many known instances of veterans being denied care as a result of medical marijuana use, we have not been able to identify a specific regulation that mandates or authorizes this policy.
  • Federal Racial Profiling: Issue an executive order prohibiting racial profiling by federal officers and banning law enforcement practices that disproportionately target people for investigation and enforcement based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex or religion. Include in the order a mandate that federal agencies collect data on hit rates for stops and searches, and that such data be disaggregated by group. DOJ should issue guidelines regarding the use of race by federal law enforcement agencies. The new guidelines should clarify that federal law enforcement officials may not use race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or sex to any degree, except that officers may rely on these factors in a specific suspect description as they would any noticeable characteristic of a subject.

Looking to the south, the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of nonprofit groups, has issued a petition urging Obama "to build a just policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean that unites us with our neighbors." Included in its proposals are:

  • Actively work for peace in Colombia. In a war that threatens to go on indefinitely, the immense suffering of the civilian population demands that the United States takes risks to achieve peace. If the United States is to actively support peace, it must stop endlessly bankrolling war and help bring an end to the hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis.
  • Get serious -- and smart -- about drug policy. Our current drug policy isn't only expensive and ineffective, it's also inhumane. Instead of continuing a failed approach that brings soldiers into Latin America's streets and fields, we must invest in alternative development projects in the Andes and drug treatment and prevention here at home.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has some suggestions as well. As NORML's Paul Armentano wrote last week on Alternet:

  • President Obama must uphold his campaign promise to cease the federal arrest and prosecution of (state) law-abiding medical cannabis patients and dispensaries by appointing leaders at the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Department of Justice, and the US Attorney General's office who will respect the will of the voters in the thirteen states that have legalized the physician-supervised use of medicinal marijuana.
  • President Obama should use the power of the bully pulpit to reframe the drug policy debate from one of criminal policy to one of public health. Obama can stimulate this change by appointing directors to the Office of National Drug Control Policy who possess professional backgrounds in public health, addiction, and treatment rather than in law enforcement.
  • President Obama should follow up on statements he made earlier in his career in favor of marijuana decriminalization by establishing a bi-partisan presidential commission to review the budgetary, social, and health costs associated with federal marijuana prohibition, and to make progressive recommendations for future policy changes.

Clearly, the drug reform community and its allies see the change of administrations as an opportunity to advance the cause. The question is how receptive will the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress be to drug reform efforts.

"We've examined Obama's record and his statements, and 90% of it is good," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "But we don't know what he intends to do in office. There is an enormous amount of good he can do," Borden said, mentioning opening up funding for needle exchange programs, US Attorney appointments, and stopping DEA raids on medical marijuana providers. "Will Obama make some attempt to actualize the progressive drug reform positions he has taken? He has a lot on his plate, and drug policy reform has tended to be the first thing dropped by left-leaning politicians."

There will be some early indicators of administration interest in drug reform, said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We will be watching to see if he issues an executive order stopping the DEA raids; that would be a huge sign," he said. "He could also repeal the needle exchange funding ban. The congressional ban would still be in place, but that would show some great leadership. If they started taking on drug policy issues in the first 100 days, that would be a great sign, but I don't think people should expect that. There are many other issues, and it's going to take awhile just to clean up Bush's mess. I'm optimistic, but I don't expect big changes to come quickly."

"We are hoping to see a new direction," said Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for civil and criminal justice reform for the Open Society Policy Center. "We couldn't have a better scenario with the incoming vice president having sponsored the one-to-one crack/powder bill in the Senate and the incoming president being a sponsor. And we have a situation in Congress, and particularly in the Senate, where there is bipartisan interest in sentencing reform. Both sides of the aisle want some sort of movement on this, it's been studied and vetted, and now Congress needs to do the right thing. It's time to get smart on crime, and this is not a radical agenda. As far as I'm concerned, fixing the crack/powder disparity is the compromise, and elimination of mandatory minimums is what really needs to be on the agenda."

"With the Smart on Crime proposals, we tried to focus on what was feasible," said the Sentencing Project's Kara Gotsch. "These are items where we think we are likely to get support, where the community has demonstrated support, or where there has been legislation proposed to deal with these issues. It prioritizes the issues we think are most likely to move, and crack sentencing reform is on that list."

The marijuana reform groups are more narrowly focused, of course, but they, too are looking for positive change. "Obama has made it very clear on the campaign trail that he disagrees with the use of federal agencies to undo medical marijuana laws in states that have passed them," said Dan Bernath, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "He has vowed to stop that. Obama seems to be someone who values facts and reasoned decision-making. If he applies that to marijuana policy, that could be a good thing".

While the list of possible drug reforms is long and varied, it is also notable for what has not been included. Only NORML even mentions marijuana decriminalization, and no one is talking about ending the drug war -- only making it a bit kinder and gentler. The L-word remains unutterable.

"While we're optimistic about reducing the harms of prohibition, legalization is not something that I think they will take on," said Piper. "But any movement toward drug reform is good. If we can begin to shift to a more health-oriented approach, that will change how Americans think about this issue and create a space where regulation can be discussed in a a rational manner. Now, because of our moralist criminal justice framework, it is difficult to have a sane discussion about legalization."

"We didn't talk that much about legalization," said Gotsch in reference to the Smart on Crime proposals. "A lot of organizations involved have more ambitious goals, but that wouldn't get the kind of reaction we want. There just isn't the political support yet for legalization, even of marijuana."

"We should be talking about legalization, yes," said StoptheDrugWar.org's Borden, "but should we be talking about it in communications to the new president who has shown no sign of supporting it? Not necessarily. We must push the envelope, but if we push it too far in lobbying communications to national leadership, we risk losing their attention."

"I do think it would be a mistake to blend that kind of caution into ideological caution over what we are willing to talk about at all," Borden continued. "I think we should be talking about legalization, it's just a question of when and where," he argued.

Talking legalization is premature, said Eric Sterling, formerly counsel to the US House Judiciary Committee and now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "What we are not yet doing as a movement is building upon our successes," he said. "We just saw medical marijuana win overwhelmingly in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts, but the nation's commentariat has not picked up on it, and our movement has not been sufficiently aggressive in getting those votes translated into the political discourse. We haven't broken out of the making fun phase of marijuana policy yet."

Sterling pointed in particular to the medical marijuana issue. "Everyone recognizes that the state-federal conflict on medical marijuana is a major impediment, and we have 26 senators representing medical marijuana states, but not a single senator has introduced a medical marijuana bill," he said. "It's an obvious area for legislative activity in the Senate, but it hasn't happened. This suggests that we as a movement still lack the political muscle even on something as uncontroversial as the medical use of marijuana."

Even the apparent obvious targets for reform, such as the crack/powder sentencing disparity, are going to require a lot of work, said Sterling. "It will continue to be a struggle," he said. "The best crack bill was Biden's, cosponsored by Obama and Clinton, but I'm not sure who is going to pick that up this year. The sentencing reform community continues to struggle to frame the issue as effective law enforcement, and I think it's only on those terms that we can win."

Reformers also face the reality that the politics of crime continues to be a sensitive issue for the majority Democrats, Sterling said. "Crime is an issue members are frightened about, and it's an area where Republicans traditionally feel they have the upper ground. The Democrats are going to be reluctant to open themselves up to attack in areas where there is not a strong political upside. On many issues, Congress acts when there is a clear universe of allies who will benefit and who are pushing for action. I don't know if we are there yet."

Change is the mantra of the Obama administration, and change is what the drug reform community is hoping for. Now, the community must act to ensure that change happens, and that the right changes happen.

Latin America: Plan Colombia Didn't Work, GAO Report Says

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coca eradication in Plan Colombia (courtesy SF Bay Area IndyMedia)
Washington's ambitious $6 billion investment in wiping out Colombia's coca crops and cocaine production has been a failure, the GAO said in a report released Wednesday. The aid program, known as Plan Colombia, had a goal of reducing Colombian coca and cocaine production by half between 2000 and 2006, but instead of shrinking, coca production was up 15% and cocaine production was up 4%, the review found.

Or, as the GAO diplomatically put it: "Plan Colombia's goal of reducing the cultivation, processing, and distribution of illegal narcotics by 50 percent in 6 years was not fully achieved."

By all accounts, Colombia has been and remains the world's number one coca and cocaine producer. It is estimated that 90% of the cocaine reaching the US is from Colombia. Despite years of aerial eradication with herbicides, as well as manual eradication, Washington and Bogotá have been unable to put a serious dent in the Colombian coca and cocaine trade. The inability to suppress coca and cocaine production "can be explained by measures taken by coca farmers to counter US and Colombian eradication efforts," the report said.

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anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The report was commissioned by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It could provide powerful ammunition for congressional foes of Plan Colombia, who are seeking to reduce US assistance to the government of President Álvaro Uribe, many of them citing human rights violations by the Colombian military and the right-wing paramilitaries, who have an ambiguous relationship with the Colombian government.

The report calls for aid cuts and advises US and Colombian officials to "develop a joint plan for turning over operational and funding responsibilities for US-supported programs to Colombia." It also called for USAID, which has administered more than $1.3 billion in alternative development funding, to come up with methods of measuring whether its efforts were having any impact.

The GAO did give Washington and Bogotá credit for improving Colombia's security climate "through systematic military and police engagements with illegal armed groups and by degrading these groups' finances." But, as we reported last week, Amnesty International has found that the human rights situation in Colombia remains atrocious, with thousands of killings each year and between two and three million Colombians displaced and living as refugees.

With Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, Plan Colombia's days could be numbered, and a report like this one ought to kill the beast. But don't be surprised if it doesn't.

Latin America: Citing Continuing Human Rights Violations, Amnesty International Urges US to Halt Military Aid to Colombia

The human rights group Amnesty International harshly criticized Colombia in a 94-page report issued Tuesday and urged the US to halt military aid to Colombia unless and until it manages to rein in the killings of civilians and other human rights abuses.

The US government has provided more than $5 billion in assistance to Colombia, the vast majority of it military, since the Clinton administration initiated Plan Colombia in 1999. Originally sold as a purely counter-narcotics package, the US assistance has since 2002 morphed into a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism mission aimed primarily at the guerrilla army of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC supports itself in part through participation in Colombia's coca and cocaine industry.

Washington has lauded Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for taking the fight to the FARC, and Colombia has seen a decrease in kidnappings and an increased sense of security in some big cities. But in the report, Amnesty questioned Uribe's claims that Colombia "is experiencing an irreversible renaissance of relative peace" and "rapidly falling levels of violence."

"Colombia remains a country where millions of civilians, especially outside the big cities and in the countryside, continue to bear the brunt of this violent and protracted conflict," the report says, adding that "impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights abuses."

According to the report, more than 70,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in the past two decades of the 40-year-old war between the FARC and the Colombian state, with somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 "disappeared" and another 20,000 kidnapped or taken hostage. Colombia is also the scene of one of the world's worst refugee crises, with between three and four million people forcibly displaced.

And despite Uribe's protestations, for many Colombians, things aren't getting any better. According to the report, 1,400 civilians were killed in 2007, up from 1,300 the previous year. Of the 890 cases where the killers were known, the Colombian military and its ally-turned-sometimes-foe the rightwing paramilitaries were responsible for two-thirds. Similarly, the number of "disappeared" people was at 190 last year, up from 180 the year before.

Colombia's internal refugees didn't fare any better, either. More than 300,000 were displaced last year, up substantially from the 220,000 in 2006. Much of the displacement and many of the killings took place as paramilitaries attempted to wrest control of coca fields from the FARC and its peasant supporters.

In addition to pressure from donor countries, one key to improving the human rights picture is to get the Uribe administration to admit that it is in a civil war. Uribe refuses to do so, instead labeling the FARC belligerents as "terrorists."

"It's impossible to solve a problem without admitting there is one," said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. "Denial only condemns more people to abuse and death."

The report also found that despite Uribe's claim that demobilization of the paramilitaries has succeeded, the paramilitaries remain active and continue to commit human rights abuses. Disturbingly, the report concluded that the FARC in the last year has been creating "strategic alliances" with the paramilitaries in various regions in the country as both groups seek "to better manage" the primary source of income, the cocaine trade.

Drugs in America: Trafficking, Policy and Sentencing

This symposium is presented by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) and the Administration of Justice Department of George Mason University. The schedule: 8:45am: Panel 1 begins 9:45am: Panel 2 begins 10:45am: Panel 3 begins 12:00pm: Media Availability Panel Details: Panel 1: How do drugs get to the U.S. and how are they distributed to users? Panel 2: Combating drug crime Panel 3: What's happening to users? Parking: Transportation by Metro is highly encouraged. Limited parking for TV trucks is available, but must be reserved in advance. RSVP: For members of the media, please RSVP to Annie Hughes at Anne_Hughes@webb.senate.gov or 202-224-4447. For the general public, please RSVP to Kate Zinsser at kzinsser@gmu.edu or 703-993-9699.
Date: 
Wed, 10/15/2008 - 8:00am - 12:00pm
Location: 
3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

Press Release: Legislation Introduced to Restore Voting Rights for People Who Have Finished Prison Sentence

For Immediate Release: October 1, 2008 Contact: Jasmine Tyler 202-294-8292 Legislation Introduced to Restore Voting Rights for People Who Have Finished Prison Sentence Millions of Voters Could Reclaim Voting Rights Drug Policy Alliance: Drug War the New Jim Crow; Felony Reinfranchisment the New Civil Rights Movement Federal legislation was introduced this week that would permit individuals who have been previously convicted of a crime, have completed their prison term and are living in the community the right to vote in federal elections. The Democracy Restoration Act of 2008 (DRA, S. 6340, H.R. 7136) was introduced in both chambers of Congress by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). The U.S. currently denies 5.3 million, or one in 41, citizens the right to vote due to felony convictions and is the only democracy that disenfranchises citizens who have completed their prison sentence. The DRA restores voting rights to individuals who have returned from prison or were never sentenced to a prison term. Because periods of supervised release, probation or parole can last decades and is part of a person’s sentence, reinfranchising individuals after completing their sentence would not ensure the same access to the ballot box as this measure does by giving voting rights back to people already living in our communities. This bill would also instruct officials in each state to notify individuals of their restored right to ensure access to the ballot. Nineteen states, including Maryland, Texas and Florida, have reformed felony disenfranchisement laws over the last decade, increasing voter participation through bipartisan reform efforts. These reform efforts have set the stage for Congress to act and, although there is little time to enact this legislation this year, it lays the groundwork for restoration in the near future. “Once passed, this bill will mean that people who are living in society and paying taxes will no longer be second class citizens,” said Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Regaining the right to vote after prison means formerly incarcerated individuals will have every opportunity to be civically engaged and influence the political process as everyday Americans.” No group has been harder hit by disenfranchisement than African Americans. After gaining the right to vote in 1965, and overcoming the history of slavery and racism that overshadowed our country’s early history, African Americans suffered a new form of Jim Crow under the guise of the modern-day war on drugs. Thirteen percent of African-American men have been denied the right to vote because of felony conviction, the majority of these convictions stem from drug law enforcement. Although drug use rates are similar for both African Americans and whites, African Americans make up more than half of those convicted of felony drug charges. Upon introduction of the DRA, Sen. Feingold, addressing the President, said “…the practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions has an explicitly racist history. Like the grandfather clause, the literacy test, and the poll tax, civil death became a tool of Jim Crow.” “Unjust policing practices, misuse of prosecutorial power, and lack of judicial discretion all converge to create the judicial system that African Americans experience, namely injustice, and it has led us to the newest installment of racialized community suppression: the war on drugs,” Tyler said. “At least in federal elections, this legislation will change that.”

Feature: Poll Finds Broad Support for Doing Away with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Nonviolent Offenders

A poll released Wednesday by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) found broad support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders and a majority who said they would vote for politicians who acted to end them. The poll results challenge the longstanding conventional wisdom that politicians need to be "tough on crime" to win elections.

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federal courthouse, Alexandria, Virginia
According to the poll conducted by StrategyOne, an independent public opinion research firm, 78% thought the courts -- not Congress -- should determine how long people convicted of offenses should be imprisoned. Solid majorities also supported ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders (59%) and voting for congressional candidates who would act to end mandatory minimum sentencing (57%).

"Politicians have voted for mandatory minimum sentences so they could appear 'tough on crime' to their constituents. They insist that their voters support these laws, but it's just not true," says Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM. "Republicans and Democrats support change and that should encourage members of Congress to reach across the aisle next year and work together to reform mandatory minimums. Mandatory sentencing reform is not a partisan issue, but an issue about fairness and justice that transcends party lines."

"This poll suggests that a majority of Americans are open to re-examining this issue and moving to a court-driven sentencing model," said Sparky Zivin, research director at StrategyOne.

"I am amazed that such a high number of people even understood the difference between Congress doing sentencing and the courts doing it," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that focuses on freeing federal drug war prisoners. "I didn't think that many people would agree, but it seems that the public has grasped that crime has been politicized. That leads me to believe we will probably see a much greater understanding of what's wrong with our punitive drug laws and what's wrong with prohibition."

The poll results show that while politicians largely remain wedded to the "tough on crime" philosophy and the notion that it helps them win elections, the public is going in a different direction, said Callahan. "It's very dramatic; it's astonishing," she said. "This is very far from what the politicians are thinking; we are seeing that there is a huge gap there."

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overcrowded prisons
But even on Capitol Hill, there are a few voices calling for radical sentencing reform. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has, since his election in 2006, been leading the charge. Webb has already held two hearings on sentencing and drug policy issues and will hold a third next month.

"America is locking up people at astonishing rates. In the name of 'getting tough on crime,' there are now 2.2 million Americans in federal, state, and local prisons and jails and over 7 million under some form of correction supervision, including probation and parole. We have the largest prison population in the world," said Webb in a statement included in FAMM's press release announcing the poll results. "This growth is not a response to increasing crime rates, but a reliance on prisons and long mandatory sentences as the common response to crime. It is time for America's leadership to realize what the public understands -- our approach is costly, unfair and impractical."

Webb is not alone. Even on the Republican side of the aisle, there are signs of support for sentencing reform. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) is one GOPer who is ready for change.

"Mandatory minimums wreak havoc on a logical system of sentencing guidelines," said Inglis. "Mandatory minimums turn today's hot political rhetoric into the nightmares of many tomorrows for judges and families."

In addition to releasing the poll results Wednesday, FAMM also released a comprehensive new report, Correcting Course: Lessons From the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums, which details how Congress created mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders in 1951 and repealed them in 1970 because the laws failed to stop drug abuse, addiction and trafficking. The politicians involved in overturning mandatory minimums in 1970 had no problem getting reelected, the report notes.

The report also looked at the rebirth of mandatory minimum sentencing in the fear-ridden 1980s and charts the ways they have been ineffective and counterproductive. According to the report, mandatory minimums:

  • Have not discouraged drug use in the United States.
  • Have not reduced drug trafficking.
  • Have created soaring state and federal corrections costs.
  • Impose substantial indirect costs on families by imprisoning spouses, parents, and breadwinners for lengthy periods.
  • Are not applied evenly, disproportionately impacting minorities and resulting in vastly different sentences for equally blameworthy offenders.
  • Undermine federalism by turning state-level offenses into federal crimes.
  • Undermine separation of powers by usurping judicial discretion.

"Our report and poll show that lawmakers can vote to reform mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and live to tell the story. Republicans and Democrats alike don't want these laws. They don't work, they cost taxpayers a fortune, and people believe Courts can sentence better than Congress can. Another repeal of mandatory drug sentences isn't just doable, it's doable right now," said Molly Gill, author of the report.

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the mid-1980s, when some of the most draconian mandatory minimum drug laws were passed. He has been working to undo them ever since.

"In 1986, we got stuck with some of the most punitive, least effective criminal sentencing laws ever created, said Sterling. "Mandatory minimums haven't stopped the drug trade. They haven't locked up the big dealers and importers. They're applied to small fries, not kingpins. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars to lock up a street-level dealer for 10 years when that money could be spent on treatment, drug courts, or going after the people bringing in boatloads of drugs every year. Getting rid of mandatory minimums is about getting our priorities straight."

"Mandatory minimums are among the worst criminal justice policies ever adopted in this country," said FAMM's Stewart. "They treat all offenders the same, when the most sacred principle of American sentencing law is that punishment should fit the individual and the crime. Repealing these laws isn't impossible -- it's been done before. The next Congress should do it again," she said.

FAMM's report offers two options for dealing with mandatory minimums: Repealing them outright while leaving federal sentencing guidelines in place, which would allow for judicial discretion, or expanding the "safety valve," under which judges can ignore mandatory minimums in some circumstances.

With the US economy and federal budget under unprecedented pressure, and with elections looming that could dramatically alter the political landscape, the time for radical sentencing reform may be drawing nigh, but reformers aren't counting their chickens just yet.

"There could be a window opening," said the November Coalition's Callahan. "I won't start holding my breath until we see how the elections play out, but we're working hard and preparing to work even harder the next four years."

While a poll isn't going to change the mind of Congress, she said, it creates an opening, both with politicians and the public at large. "With these numbers, I can think of a lot of new ways to talk to people," she said. "Activists tend to think that people don't get it, but this poll shows that people do get it, and now people are even more cynical about their leaders. This helps create a definite climate for achieving reform."

Feature: US Sentencing Commission to Examine Alternatives to Incarceration

The US Sentencing Commission, the panel that sets sentencing guidelines for federal courts, has signaled that it intends to focus next year on developing alternatives to imprisonment, a move that is welcomed by reform advocates, but opposed by conservatives and, likely, the Justice Department. The commission's intentions were mentioned in a recent filing in the Federal Register and come as a September 8 deadline for public comment has just passed.

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Created in 1984, the Sentencing Commission consists of seven presidential appointees who are then confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel is charged with making sentencing recommendations which automatically take effect unless Congress proactively votes to reject them.

While Congress has repeatedly enacted tough new sentences in bouts of anti-crime or anti-drug hysteria, the Sentencing Commission is less prone to political passions and more likely to act as a restraining influence on congressional incarceration mania. The commission, for example, has for more than a decade urged reforms of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities that have seen thousands of African-Americans imprisoned for years for crack while mostly whites holding similar amounts of powder cocaine do far less time. Last year, the commission enacted changes in the federal sentencing guidelines to reduce sentences for crack offenders.

Despite objections from the Justice Department, the commission then went a step further, making the reductions retroactive so that some of the thousands of long-serving crack offenders could get out of prison a few months early.

But with some 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, including more than 200,000 in the federal system -- more than half of them drug offenders -- the commission signaled earlier this year that it wants to see more efforts to reduce those numbers. This summer, it hosted a two-day symposium on alternatives to incarceration, and now, with the Federal Register announcement, it appears the commission will continue down that path.

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"The summer symposium was a really good coming together of criminal justice experts," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "There were judges, probation and parole people, law enforcement, academics, and advocates there to talk about what the states are doing in relation to alternatives to incarceration. They discussed successful programs that are diverting people from prison. The commission has demonstrated its interest in this issue and has said it would distribute materials from the symposium, so we are hoping the commission will look to apply some of this to alternatives to incarceration at the federal level, including expanding the sentencing grid to include alternatives."

Not everyone was so excited. In a weekend story in the Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department seemed decidedly unimpressed. Spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said that while the department is interested about the use of expanded monitoring technologies, "we do not believe the use of alternatives should be expanded without further rigorous research showing their effectiveness in promoting public safety."

Similarly, Michael Rushford of the conservative, victims' rights-oriented Criminal Justice Legal Foundation warned that resorting to less mass incarceration could result in rising crime and violence. "I'm old enough to remember the 1960s and the sky-high crime and murder rates we had then," he said. "While there may be a role for diversion for young offenders, serious felony offenders need to be behind bars."

While it is unclear exactly what the commission might recommend, the summer symposium heard lots of talk about drug courts, residential and community corrections, and other alternatives to incarceration. It does seem clear that the commission wants to reduce the flow of new inmates before they get to the prison gates.

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"We're going to be looking at what might fit at the starting point, before somebody is sent to prison," District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, chairman of the commission, told the Wall Street Journal. But the commission will move cautiously, he said.

"The commission's priorities for next year are not yet finalized," said Gotsch, who is hoping it will also consider further reforms of crack sentencing and the mandatory minimum sentencing structure. "But we are encouraged by the symposium and this announcement. Advocates like us and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) will continue to push for modifications of the sentencing grid to make including alternatives to incarceration a priority. The issue is clearly on their radar, and that's a good thing," she said.

The Sentencing Commission can -- and should -- have an impact on Congress, Gotsch said. "If we can get them on board for alternatives to incarceration, that will be huge. When the commission speaks on a sentencing issue, Congress should listen."

Feature: Scholarship Fund Honoring 9/11 Hero John W. Perry Assists More Students Losing Financial Aid Because of Drug Convictions

A decade ago, Congress approved an amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) authored by arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). That amendment, variously known as the HEA drug provision or the Aid Elimination Penalty, denied loans, grants, even work study jobs to would-be students with drug convictions. Since its inception, more than 200,000 would-be students have been denied aid, and an unknown number have simply not applied, believing rightly or wrongly that they would not be eligible.

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In response to the amendment, StoptheDrugWar.org (DRCNet), in association with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group founded as a result of the drug provision, and other friends of civil liberties and believers in the value of higher education, founded the John W. Perry Fund to provide financial assistance to students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

The fund reflects the goals and views of its namesake, New York City Police Officer John William Perry, a Libertarian Party and ACLU activist who often spoke out against the war on drugs. In addition to wearing the NYPD uniform, Perry was also a lawyer, athlete, actor, linguist, and humanitarian. He was filing his retirement papers at One Police Plaza when the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He rushed at once to the scene, where he died attempting to help others.

The Perry Fund has its goal not only providing educational opportunities to those denied them by the provision, but also to raise the issue of the provision's unfair and counterproductive consequences, and ultimately, to repeal the Souder amendment entirely. Although some progress has been made it scaling back the drug provision, it is still on the books. Two years ago, in response to a rising clamor for repeal from the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Rep. Souder himself offered an amendment that would restrict the loss of aid eligibility to people who were already in school and receiving aid when arrested.

Efforts to win outright repeal as part of HEA reauthorization faltered this year when House Democrats failed to act when push came to shove. However, future applicants will have the opportunity to regain eligibility by passing two unannounced drug tests administered by a treatment program. Depending on how this is implemented, it could create a shorter and less expensive way for students to regain their financial aid.

"We regret that the Perry Fund remains necessary because Congress has not fully repealed its ill-conceived anti-financial aid law," said David Borden, executive director of DRCNet and founder of the Fund. "Along with helping a few deserving students each year, the fund also makes a statement -- we don't just think this is a bad law, we're actually handing out scholarships to individuals targeted by the government's drug war. We don't believe people should lose their financial aid because of drug convictions," he said.

With only partial reforms, there is still a sizable pool of potential HEA drug provision victims. This semester, the Perry Fund is helping two of them.

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Brandi McClamrock
Brandi McClamrock attends Forsyth Technical Community College for Healthcare Management in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After being arrested in a pot bust, she found herself ineligible for financial aid.

"I was in school, and my roommate was dealing pot, and I helped her and one of her customers out by giving him a couple of bags," said McClamrock. "My roommate was setting me up; she had been busted and the cops offered her a deal: If she could get them somebody bigger, they would drop the charges. The cops raided my house and arrested me and charged me with three felonies, even though it was all less than an ounce."

After two years of court dates and legal expenses, McClamrock pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession with the intent to distribute. She escaped without jail time, but had to serve two years of unsupervised probation. But the consequences of her marijuana conviction were just beginning to be felt.

"I started getting turned down for jobs because of my criminal record," she said. "I've been waiting tables because I couldn't get a job in my field, so I decided to go back to school in health care management at my local community college. I can't afford to pay for college -- I can barely pay my own bills -- but when I filled out the FAFSA, they denied me."

That was a huge disappointment, said McClamrock. "I had no idea they weren't going to let me have financial aid because of that. I'm 25 years old, my criminal record is holding me back, and now I can't even go back to school? Even when I'm trying to better myself and my prospects?"

Fortunately for McClamrock, an advisor suggested she look online for scholarships she could apply for, and she found the Perry Fund. While the amount she received from the Fund was only in the hundreds of dollars, it was critical. "It was absolutely the difference between me being in school and not being in school," she said. "This is a really good thing."

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Matt Daigle
Matt Daigle is in his second year at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida, where is taking pre-chiropractic courses. He was also in school when he got busted selling marijuana to an undercover agent. He is this year's second Perry Fund recipient.

"I was ineligible for assistance for two years," he said. "I took a full semester off to work, then paid for one class last semester, but now I can afford to go back. One of the counselors at the college went online and found the Perry Fund, and it was really a big help. I only have one more semester of ineligibility for financial aid, and this is keeping me in school until then," said a pleased Daigle.

"The Fund is really a big help for a lot of people," he said. "The way that law is, they want to punish you. They want you to be a better person, but then they make it more difficult to do that. The Perry Fund lets you know there are people backing you up, and I'm grateful for that."

"These students have been sent to jail or prison, they've paid fines, they've paid lawyers, they've spent countless hours resolving their legal situations," said Borden. "Why, after all of that punishment already handed down, should they continue to get treated differently?"

"It's not just that we oppose having drug prohibition, which I do, and John Perry also did very strongly," Borden continued. "But this is also a second punishment of people who have already been punished by the criminal justice system. Staying in school to finish your education is almost by definition a positive step. It's foolish to make that more difficult."

Outright repeal -- not more limited reform -- is necessary for another reason, too, said Borden. "As long as this law is on the books, large numbers of people will continue to mistakenly assume they are permanently ineligible for financial aid. Many people just assume the worst, and having this law on the books just winds up pushing people to the margins. We get emails almost every day from people who think they aren't eligible when they are."

How Much More Public Support Does Medical Marijuana Really Need?

CNN hosted an interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday which featured democratically elected questions courtesy of the popular website Digg.com. Unsurprisingly, one of the top questions was about marijuana policy reform. Here is her response (it’s the 3rd question):



Obviously, Pelosi is very supportive of medical marijuana and despite her pessimism about achieving full-scale legalization, she didn’t actually say she opposed it. Ideologically, I’d have to say this was pretty good coming from the Speaker of the House. But, as Paul Armentano points out, Pelosi’s advice to supporters of medical marijuana just doesn’t add up. She laments Congress’ intransigence on the issue and encourages constituents to contact their representatives, as though this is all just a matter of showing politicians where the people stand.

Alas, we kinda tried that already. Public support for medical marijuana has been overwhelming for a long time. Reformers are 9-1 when it comes to passing state-level medical marijuana laws at the ballot box. State legislatures in Hawaii, New Mexico and Rhode Island have passed laws to protect patients, drawing praise from constituents. The only memorable instance of a politician being damaged for his position on medical marijuana involved Bob Barr, who lost his House seat following attacks for opposing medical marijuana. He’s come around since then.

What, other than legalizing medical marijuana in a dozen states, could the people possibly do to show the politicians in Washington, D.C. that we’re serious about this? You want us to go legalize medical marijuana everywhere else in America? We’ll do it. You want more research proving that it works? Let us know when you’re done reading what we’ve already given you, and we’ll gladly send the rest. Worried about the message to young people? Teenage use is down in states with medical marijuana laws.

You see, our feet are tired. Our throats are hoarse. Our keyboards are cracking, our sharpies are dry and we’re almost out of posterboard. With all of that in mind, Nancy Pelosi, since you do agree with us and you’re the Speaker of House now, we were hoping there might be something else you could do.

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