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Documentary Screening: A Perversion of Justice

Atkinson Memorial Church, Unitarian Universalist, will host the Oregon premiere of Perversion of Justice, by filmmaker Melissa Mummert that documents one woman’s story of redemption behind bars. Through the story of Hamedah Hasan, Perversion of Justice examines the legal system that calls for excessive prison time for crimes of association. There will be a discussion following the screening featuring Mummert, Hasan’s daughters who live in the Portland area and Rev. Dr. Emily Brault, chaplain at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. The film follows the story of Hamedah Hasan. Hasan fled an abusive relationship in Portland to live with her cousin in Nebraska who was selling drugs. When her cousin was arrested, prosecutors wanted information from Hamedah about his activities. When she refused to testify against the cousin who assisted her in her time of need, prosecutors charged Hasan as a co-conspirator in the case, based primarily on the fact that Hasan had aided her cousin by wiring money for him. Though she was never arrested with any drugs or drug money and had no criminal history, mandatory federal sentencing guidelines forced her judge to sentence her to two life sentences in prison. Since her incarceration, Hasan has received an education, and is working to gain release from prison through appeals and a presidential commutation request. Perversion of Justice explores the how the system works and where it fails; a dichotomy that will be explored in detail with the panel discussion. Perversion of Justice shows how one small component of the war on drugs has had a major impact on families. Shot over the course of five years ­much of it in Portland ­the film tracks the effects of Hasan’s incarceration upon her daughters who have struggled since their mother’s arrest to make their way in the world without her. This is the first documentary for Melissa Mummert, an affiliated community minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte and an advocate for incarcerated women. She decided to make a documentary about Federal Sentencing Guidelines and drug conspiracy laws while serving as a chaplain intern at a Federal prison in California, where parts of Perversion of Justice were filmed. Mummert currently coordinates a domestic violence education program for female inmates at the Mecklenburg County Jail, a partnership between United Family Services and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office. She holds degrees in philosophy and theater from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri and a Master of Divinity Degree from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. For more information, contact 704-502-6912 (Melissa Mummert, filmmaker) or 503-750-9649 (Bill Carrithers, Atkinson Memorial Church).
Date: 
Fri, 04/27/2007 - 7:00pm
Location: 
710 Sixth Street
Oregon City, OR 97045
United States

Prison Phone Changes & Outreach

[Courtesy of Center for Constitutional Rights] Hello, Sorry for the delay in further updating you about April 1 changes to the prison telephone contract and our efforts to reach out to families statewide. We FINALLY got word from DOCS about what families should expect on April 1, 2007 (please see below). Because it took so long to get answers from the Governor and DOCS, our postcards have not yet arrived at the office! We will be getting the postcards tomorrow to use for outreach in NYC. If you contacted me earlier this wee wanting some sent to you, we will still send to you in hopes that you will distribute in your community as early as possible. In the meantime, if you are planning to reach out in your community THIS WEEKEND and are able to print the attached flyer (English & Spanish text included), please do so! It has all of the information that is mentioned in the postcard. For those in NYC who would like to help with bus outreach, we will be doing outreach Friday, March 30 and Saturday, March 31. Please see below for how to meet up with us and help out! The more folks we have, the more we can get the word out! In this email: ************************************************ NEWS ON APRIL 1 CHANGES OUTREACH MATERIALS & PLANS FOR NYC FEEDBACK NEEDED FROM FAMILIES ************************************************ Also, much thanks and praise should go out to Rafael Mutis who quickly translated information we received from Gov. Spitzer on Tuesday into Spanish so we could sent the postcards to print right away. Thank you, Rafael!_____________________ _____________________ lauren melodia | center for constitutional rights | 666 broadway 7th floor | ny ny 10012 | 212.614.6481 NEWS ON APRIL 1 CHANGES The following text is a response from DOCS in regards to the questions we have been asking since Gov. Spitzer announced his elimination of the state’s 57.5% commission from the NYSDOCS prison telephone contract. As you’ll notice, they failed to give us real answers about many of our concerns. All the more reason why we need YOU to help us build pressure and continuing pushing for change! From DOCS: 1. Why is there only going to be a 50% reduction in rates, when the commission is 57.5%? In consideration of the rates dropping, there is an anticipated increase in call volume. National data suggests that if call rates drop 10%, call volume will increase 5%. Based on our current infrastructure, DOCS projects that we have enough phones to handle a 20-25 percent increase in calls on April 1, 2007 without disrupting service to inmates/families. DOCS monitors call volume. If volume increases 18% or more within the six months of April-Sept 2007, DOCS contract allows for a further rate reduction of 7.5%. This will provide sufficient time and data for us to increase phones if we need to and further reduce rates. 2. The phone bills will go down 50%, effective April 1, 2007. Does this mean the surcharge (currently $3) will now be $1.50 and the per rate minute (currently 16 cents) will go down to 8 cents? What is the new rate going to be? Correct - phone rates will be $1.50 to connect and $.08/minute effective April 1, 2007. 3. Currently the rates are the same whether or not people are calling local, in-state or out-of-state. Will that stay the same? Yes - phone rates will be the same for local/in-state and out of state calling. 4. What will happen to those families with blocks on their phones? The phones were blocked because they were unable to pay the high rates. Phones are blocked for the following reasons: the customer asked for it to be blocked; the phone is incapable of receiving a collect call (i.e. gov't phones);the customer has not paid their phone bill; the customer's local phone company does not have a reciprocal billing arrangement with MCI/Verizon. That process will not change - the Department must be able to ensure that calls are blocked when individuals do not wish to receive calls from inmates (Crime Victims frequently request this for example). The phone company must have a method to control bad Dept. When customers pay their back bills, phone service can be restored. DOCS and MCI customer service are committed to assisting families with the nuances of navigating the local service issues. 5. There was discussion about a further drop in rates once the April 1 contract went into effect? Is there any more information on this? How would this work? If volume increases 18% or more within the six months of April-Sept 2007, DOCS contract allows for a further rate reduction of 7.5%. This will provide sufficient time and data for us to increase phones if we need to and further reduce rates. 6. Are there any details on the RFP process starting in August 07 for the 2008 contract? The State Finance laws and procurement guidelines limit what DOCS can disclose about the RFP, but the focus will be to provide inmate call services at best value, while maintaining the system requirements to provide security and protection for customers and crime victims. 7. There are also rumors circulating among prisoners, as well. Some have heard they are getting debit cards on April 1, 2007. Others have said that MCI customer service reps have said, "We don't know anything about this decision by the Gov. and our rates are not changing April 1, 2007." Clearly, we need to dispel these myths." Debit cards are not being introduced. The system will remain a collect-call only system for the duration of the existing contract. MCI has begun to notify their customer service representatives that it is appropriate to acknowledge that call rates will decrease on April 1, 2007. They did not do that prior so that customers would not be mislead into thinking that current calls could be made under the new rates. The Department will notify the facilities of the changes. OUTREACH MATERIALS & PLANS FOR NYC As mentioned before, we are printing postcards with information about the contract changes and our unmet additional demands in regards to the prison telephone contract. If you have contacted me previously to have some sent to you, we will send them out TOMORROW and they should arrive early next week. While we were hoping to hit the streets statewide to distribute the information this weekend, the information WILL STILL BE RELEVANT next week, and I encourage you to consider finding a way to reach out to families in your area in whatever way you can. If you were planning on hitting the streets this weekend, please see the attached flyer which you can print for those purposes. NYC Plans: We will be reaching out to families at bus stops around the city Friday, March 30th and Saturday, March 31st. The more people we have, the more boroughs and stops we can reach! If you live in or near NYC, please join us! Our plan now is to reach out to the bus stops on 34th Street and Columbus Circle in Manhattan. However, if you live in Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, please stop by Friday anytime in the afternoon or evening to pick up postcards and reach out in your borough. Please call 212.614.6481 and/or email lmelodia@ccr-ny.org to sign up for bus outreach! FRIDAY, March 30th OUTREACH 7:00PM Meet at CCR (666 Broadway, 6th Floor) We will send out teams to 34th Street, Columbus Circle and possibly outer boroughs based on our numbers. 8:00pm – Leave CCR to go to stops 8:30 – 10:30pm Outreach at stops SATURDAY, March 31st OUTREACH 7:00PM Meet at CCR (666 Broadway, 6th Floor) We will send out teams to 34th Street, Columbus Circle and possibly outer boroughs based on our numbers. 8:00pm – Leave CCR to go to stops 8:30 – 10:30pm Outreach at stops If you are unable to meet up at 7:30pm but would still like to help, please contact me at 212.614.6481 or lmelodia@ccr-ny.org and we will figure out a way for you to meet up with one of the teams. FOR EVERYONE: We all need to do our part to inform our families, friends and loved ones on the inside of these changes, as there are a lot of rumors circulating and confusion. Please write you loved ones on the inside and let them know what changes are occurring with the contract on April 1, 2007. Please forward this email to your friends and family who are also affected by this contract and call or write those you know that do not have email access. FEEDBACK NEEDED FROM FAMILIES This week, some interesting phone calls have been coming into our office; we need to hear from you to find out if these are rumors, affect only certain individuals or if these issues affect EVERYONE. Please let me know: Have you or anyone you know received any letters from MCI or Verizon announcing the contract being transferred to Global Tel Link? Have you or anyone you know been contacted by MCI/Verizon about opportunities to receive refunds? If your answer is YES to any of these questions, please send me copies of any letters you have received by mail or fax. Please call and give me a heads up, as well!
Location: 
NY
United States

NYCTJ: Action Plans for April Prison Phone Changes

[Courtesy of Lauren Melodia, Center for Constitutional Rights] Hello, April 1, 2007 is fast approaching, and we need to keep the public pressure strong and also better educate families and their loved ones inside about what changes to expect and how to get involved in the NYCTJ. I’m writing today to let you know what plans we made on the monthly NYCTJ Family Member Conference call last night. Please let me know if you are interested in participating in our planned outreach and actions in NYC the weekend of April 1, 2007 or if you’d like to plan your own event/outreach in your area. We will send you materials, if you make a commitment to SPREAD THE WORD. On the call last night, many mentioned that they and their loved ones on the inside are incredibly confused by what Spitzer’s decision ACTUALLY MEANS and that there are a lot of rumors spreading. We made some plans to do create better educational tools and do some coordinated outreach the weekend of April 1 and to do some public actions that may encourage media attention. Here’s the idea: We will be creating a postcard in English and Spanish that explains the facts of what will change on April 1 (what the new rates will be, etc.), what demands we still have for the contract to work better for families, and how people can join the NYCTJ and take action. In NYC, we will do bus outreach at as many of the streets where families take buses to upstate facilities as possible on the evenings of FRIDAY, March 30th and SATURDAY, March 31st. We need your help with this! The more folks we have, the more stops we can cover! Right now the plan is Columbus Circle, but we’d like to expand to include 34th Street area, downtown Brooklyn and Bronx and Queens as possible. During these outreach efforts, we will distribute the postcards and answer questions. We will also have a large poster board which will list our remaining demands and ask people to sign this, write in additional demands or tell their story. We will deliver this poster to Spitzer’s office in NYC on Monday, April 2nd in an effort to nicely remind him that we need him to keep working on this issue. Individuals on the call last night expressed interest in doing outreach in Ithaca and Albany that weekend (or that Monday). If you live in either of those regions and would like to participate, please let me know and I will put you in touch with those folks. Similarly, we are looking to MASS PRODUCE this postcard to distribute state-wide. If you are part of a group or would like to make plans to do outreach in your community during that weekend or at your next group meeting, etc., please let me know and I will send you a package of postcards. Please let me know how many you’d like me to send. If you would like to do a similar action with a GIANT list of demands to send/deliver to Spitzer, let me know and we’ll coordinate, as well. It would be great to send/deliver several large lists of demands to Gov. Spitzer! Also, think about incorporating the letter writing campaign I sent out yesterday into your outreach efforts. April 2, 2007 will be a national call-in day (target yet to be decided) that you can participate in from anywhere. We will be submitting articles to several newsletters that folks on the inside have access to, to clarify what the changes mean for them and their families. Here’s what we need from YOU: Some of you have already sent me questions about the April changes (i.e. what will the new rate be? Will the surcharge price go down? Why 50% reduction and not 57.5%), which we are working to get answers for. If you have additional questions or are confused in any other ways, let me know. I’m not sure we can get all the answers right now, but we’ll see what we can get. If you have heard certain rumors, please alert me to those, as well, so we can dispel them in the postcard. Let me know if you’re interested in doing outreach with the postcards in your area/community. We will send you postcards and a GIANT list of demands if you will use them. We hope to have postcards printed and ready to send out on Monday morning. Consider incorporating the letter writing campaign to Nozzolio into your street outreach, tabling or presentation. If you live in the NYC area and would like to distribute postcards to your group/community, come to the next NYCTJ meeting NEXT TUESDAY at 6pm (666 Broadway, 6th Floor). We will have postcards and the letter writing campaign in bulk at the meeting and you can pick them up at the meeting! RSVP with me, so we are sure to have enough food for everyone! We will send out final plans for April 1, 2007 in the coming weeks, so keep watch for them! In Struggle, Lauren Melodia
Location: 
NY
United States

Opinion: The war on drugs' war on minorities

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
Los Angeles Times
URL: 
http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-oe-huffington24mar24,1,3333535.story?coll=la-news-comment

Center for Constitutional Rights Press Release: FAMILIES WIN VICTORY IN COURT OF APPEALS

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE For more information: Jen Nessel, 212-614-6449 / 917-442-0112 cell Dan Klotz, 917-438-4613 / 347-307-2866 cell FAMILIES WIN VICTORY IN COURT OF APPEALS ON PRISON TELEPHONE CHALLENGE High Court Allows Challenge to “Unlegislated Tax” on Poor Families to Move Forward Albany, NY, February 20, 2007 — Today the Court of Appeals ruled that a constitutional challenge brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of New York family members who pay a grossly inflated rate to receive phone calls from their loved ones in state prisons must be allowed to move forward. The lawsuit, Walton v. NYSDOCS and MCI, seeks an order prohibiting the State and MCI from charging exorbitant rates to the family members of prisoners to finance a 57.5% kickback to the State and money damages for the recipients of those calls. MCI charges these family members a 630% markup over regular consumer rates to receive a collect call from their loved ones, the only way possible to speak with them. The case was dismissed in 2004 by Judge George Ceresia of the Supreme Court of New York, Albany County, citing issues of timeliness and the Appellate Division affirmed that dismissal in 2006. The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, agreed to hear the case in July of 2006, and reversed the lower courts’ decisions. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals held that the lower courts erred in dismissing plaintiffs’ constitutional claims as untimely. The Court held today that plaintiffs acted reasonably in bringing their complaints to the Public Service Commission, the administrative body that regulates telephone rates, before bringing the case in State Court. “We are thrilled with the Court’s ruling” said Rachel Meeropol, the attorney handling the case for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The family members and friends of prisoners in New York State have sought a ruling on the constitutionality of New York’s prison telephone system for years. That day is now in sight.” Plaintiff Ivey Walton also embraced the decision. “I can’t talk to my son in prison because I flat-out can’t afford to pay MCI’s crazy rates. No one should be cut off from their family, just so the State can make a profit. I’m so happy the courts didn’t turn their backs on this injustice.” The Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case on January 9, 2007, the day after Governor Spitzer announced that the State would soon cease collecting the challenged “kickback.” “We were impressed by Governor Spitzer’s principled decision” explained Meeropol, “but we still need the Court to declare that plaintiffs’ rights have been violated to ensure that no future administration reinstates the illegal tax, and to compensate those individuals who have been injured by the State’s past illegal actions.” Craig Acorn, co-counsel on the case at Community Service Society also welcomed the news: "The Court's decision represents a long-awaited recognition that impoverished and stigmatized New Yorker's seeking justice can have their grievances heard and the wrongs they've suffered made right." Judge Pigott wrote the opinion for the Court. Judge Smith wrote a concurring opinion in which he agreed that plaintiffs’ claims should move forward, but acknowledged that this decision was “influenced” by the fact that plaintiffs raised “substantial” constitutional claims. Judge Read dissented. The Court remanded the case back to the Supreme Court, to rule on whether plaintiffs’ Constitutional claims state a cause of action. Previous members of the Center for Constitutional Rights legal team on Walton include Barbara Olshansky and Robert Bloom. The New York Campaign for Telephone Justice works to end the kickback contract between MCI and the New York State Department of Correctional Services, and deliver choice, affordability, and equitable service to the families and friends of those incarcerated in New York State. The campaign is a project of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in partnership with Prison Families of New York, Inc. and Prison Families Community Forum. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is a nonprofit legal and educational organization dedicated to protecting and advancing the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Location: 
Albany, NY
United States

Drug War Irrationality Watch: Banning Things That Are Already Illegal

One of the fun things about being a drug warrior is that you can always propose crazy new drug laws, even when they overlap with existing legislation. The temptation to single out and stigmatize perpetrators of every remote subcategory of drug activity has been known to keep drug-obsessed legislators off the golf course.

This week, Nevada State Sen. Joe Heck (R-Las Vegas) is championing unnecessary marijuana laws in a state where 44% of voters want to legalize the stuff. From the Reno Gazette-Journal:

Nevada parents who grow a single marijuana plant in their home where children live could be subject to a prison term of up to 15 years, according to a bill that was debated Monday at the Nevada Legislature.

Senate Bill 5, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Heck, R-Las Vegas, would subject parents who grow or sell marijuana in the presence of children to the same penalties as adults who operate methamphetamine labs in front of children.

Of course meth labs frequently explode and spew toxic chemicals, eventually producing methamphetamine. Marijuana plants just sit around smelling nice and getting larger, and eventually you get marijuana. Different drugs, different process, different people, same draconian punishment?

"The very behavior of small children puts them at risk around these materials, including marijuana," Heck said. "As any parent knows, the first place a toddler places anything they find is in their mouth. What if this object is a marijuana plant?"

I'm skeptical. A lot of kids won’t eat vegetables unless you withhold dessert. And unheated marijuana is basically non-psychoactive. I'm not saying people should grow marijuana with kids around, but the bill's proponents have cited no evidence of small children being injured by live marijuana plants. I doubt they'll find any.

At best, a 15-year mandatory minimum for small-time marijuana cultivation is an imprecise reaction to the general concern that children put random things in their mouths. At worst, one might call it shameless drug war posturing, hastily drafted without evidence of any particular urgency, to the detriment of a thousand better ways to spend money on Nevada's children.

Actually, that's exactly what it is.

Location: 
United States

Drug test angers family

Location: 
East Windsor, NJ
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Times (NJ)
URL: 
http://www.nj.com/news/times/index.ssf?/base/news-2/1170997785168250.xml&coll=5

Feature: The Conviction That Keeps On Hurting -- Drug Offenders and Federal Benefits (repeat)

Because last week's Chronicle was issued a few days late, and because this feature article deals with issues that DRCNet is directly involved with or plans to be, we reprint it in this week's issue.

Some 15 to 20 million people have been arrested on drug charges and subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system in the past two decades. But, thanks to congressional drug warriors, the punishments drug offenders face often extend far beyond the prison walls or the parole officer's office. A number of federal laws ostensibly aimed at reducing drug use block people with drug convictions from gaining access to federal benefits and services. These laws have a disproportionate impact on society's most vulnerable or marginalized members -- the poor, people of color, and women with children -- and in some cases, do not even require that a person actually be convicted of a drug offense to be punished.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/publichousing.jpg
No conviction is needed to be evicted from public housing for drugs -- even someone else's.
A growing number of groups and individuals ranging from the American Bar Association to welfare rights organizations, public health and addiction groups, drug reform organizations, and elected officials have called for changes in these laws or their outright repeal, saying they are cruel, inhumane, counterproductive, and amount to "double jeopardy" for drug offenders trying to become productive members of society.

"We feel that these laws are discriminatory and tend to focus on an illness as opposed to a crime," said Alexa Eggleston of the Legal Action Center, one of the key groups in the movement to adjust those laws. "We also think that if you have a conviction, you should be able to serve your time and come out and resume your life. We say we want people to get sober, get treatment, get a job, get housing, but then we set up all these barriers and roadblocks that seem designed to stop them from moving forward. These lifetime bans are very destructive of people's ability to reintegrate into society and move forward with their lives as productive citizens."

"These discriminatory laws represent incredible barriers in terms of people getting on with their lives, which is why they are part of our platform for change," said Pat Taylor, director of Faces and Voices of Recovery, a national alliance of individuals and organizations committed to securing the rights of people with addictions. "If you can't get housing, can't get a job, it's really hard to get your life back on track."

"One of the problems we constantly face is helping people who have been convicted of a drug crime," said Linda Walker of All of Us or None, a California-based initiative organizers prisoners, ex-prisoners, and felons to fight the discrimination they face because of their criminal convictions. "Why do they ask about that on the student loan applications? Why do they face lifetime bans on public housing? These are people did their time, paid their restitution, they've moved on and matured, and now, because of something they did in their twenties, they can't get into senior housing."

Walker knows a bit about the plight of the ex-con. She was convicted not a drug offense, but for a crime committed in an effort to get money to buy drugs. While Walker's status as a non-drug offender means she is not barred from receiving food stamps or public housing, she still wears the scarlet letter of the ex-con. "I currently work for a county office, and each time I go up for a position or promotion, this becomes a problem," she explained. "I've been out of the criminal justice system for 14 years now, but I'm still being told that because of my criminal history I can't be considered for this job or that."

These "double jeopardy" laws have been formulated in the last 20 years as part of the ratcheting-up of the war on drugs and include:

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, under which local housing agencies and others who supervise federally assisted housing have the discretion to deny housing when any household member uses alcohol in a way that interferes with the "health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment" of the premises by other tenants, illegally uses drugs, or is convicted of drug-related criminal activity. People who are evicted or denied housing under the law are cut off from federal housing assistance for three years.

According to a GAO report on the working of laws designed to deny benefits to drug offenders, some 500 individuals or families were evicted under the act in 13 large public housing agencies GAO surveyed in 2003 and about 1,500 were denied admission by 15 agencies in the same year. The agency reported that public housing agencies nationwide evicted about 9,000 people and denied admission to another 49,000 because of criminal convictions in 2003, with drug convictions consisting of some unknown but significant subset of those. While concrete numbers are hard to come by, it seems clear that tens of thousands of people are adversely affected by laws barring drug offenders from receiving public housing or Section 8 assistance.

Subsequent changes in federal laws and accompanying regulations have enshrined housing authorities' discretion and it was further solidified in a 2002 Supreme Court decision. In that case, the high court upheld an Oakland public housing authorities right to use its discretion to evict 64-year-old long-time tenant Pearlie Rucker, her mentally disabled teenage daughter, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild after the daughter was caught with cocaine three blocks from the building.

Only one class of drug offender is specifically prohibited from obtaining public housing -- persons who have been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines. They, along with society's other favorite demonized group, registered sex offenders, are the only groups of offenders singled out for prohibitions.

The 1990 Denial of Federal Benefits Program, which allows state and federal judges to deny drug offenders federal benefits such as grants, contracts, and licenses. According to the GAO, some 600 people a year are affected by this program in the federal courts.

Section 115 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (more familiarly known as the welfare reform act), under which persons convicted of a state or federal felony offense for selling or using drugs are subject to a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps. Convictions for other crimes, including murder, do not result in the loss of benefits. Section 115 affects an estimated 92,000 women and 135,000 children.

The welfare reform act contains a provision allowing states to opt out, although if they fail to act, the lifetime bans remain in effect. In 14 states where legislators have not acted, drug felons still face the federal ban, even though their sentences may be long-finished and their offenses decades old. But in 36 states, legislators have acted to limit the ban in some fashion, allowing drug offenders to get public assistance if they meet certain conditions, such as participating in drug or alcohol treatment, meeting a waiting period, if their conviction was for possession only, or other conditions.

Public Law 104-121, which blocks access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) for people whose primary disability was alcohol or drug dependence. This 1996 law replaced a 1972 SSI "Drug Abuse and Alcoholism" program that allowed people in drug treatment, which was mandatory, to designate a payee to manage benefits to ensure they would not be used to purchase drugs or alcohol. The Social Security Administration estimates that more than 123,000 people lost benefits when this law went into effect, while another 86,000 managed to retain them by virtue of age or by being reclassified into a different primary care disability category.

The 1998 Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision (also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which states that people with drug convictions cannot receive federal financial aid for a period of time determined by the type and number of convictions. This law does not apply to others with convictions, including drunk-driving offenses, violent crimes, or other criminal offenses. Last year, the provision was reformed to limit its applicability to offenses committed while a student is enrolled in college and receiving federal aid. Since the law went into effect in 2000, some 200,000 have been denied student financial aid.

The Hope Scholarship Credit, which allows for income tax deductions for people paying college tuition and fees. The credit allows taxpayers to take up to a $1,000 credit for tuition and additional credits for related expenses. It specifically excludes the credit for students who were convicted of a drug offense during the tax year in question, or their parents paying the bills.

While GAO notes that "thousands of persons were denied postsecondary education benefits, federally assisted housing, or selected licenses and contracts as a result of federal laws that provide for denying benefits to drug offenders," it is low-balling the real figure, which, according to its own numbers, is in the hundreds of thousands. Additionally, the GAO report does not factor in the number of people who simply did not apply for housing, welfare benefits, or student loans because they knew or believed they were ineligible.

"The focus of all of those provisions is punishing people who've made a mistake as opposed to helping people find treatment," said Donovan Kuehn, a spokesman for NAADAC, the Association of Addiction Professionals, the nation's largest grouping of counselors, educators, and health care professionals dealing with addiction issues. "As addiction treatment professionals, we're very hopeful that with a change in leadership in the Congress, we could move toward helping people find personal solutions to their problems as opposed to criminalizing them."

Kraig Selken, a senior studying history at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, would like to see that happen. He knows first-hand the sting of the HEA drug provision. After being arrested with a small amount of marijuana, Selken paid his fine and sat through court-ordered drug treatment. He thought he had paid his debt to society. It was not until Selken began reading up on the HEA drug provision after his conviction that he realized his punishment wasn't over. Because of his misdemeanor marijuana conviction, he became ineligible for student financial assistance for two years.

"Ironically, today was fee payment day at school. I had to write my own check instead of paying for it with student loans," Selken told the Chronicle last week. "The lack of access to student loans hit me hard," he said. "Last semester, the only reason I could afford to go to school without loans was because my great-grandmother died and left me a little bit of money. Otherwise, I would not have been able to attend."

Selken said he plans to go on to law school, but even though he will be eligible for financial assistance again, he will still have to pay a price. "I'm still going to have to answer 'yes' on the federal financial aid form and I will have to go through the whole rigamorale of providing documentation to show that I am again eligible."

The HEA drug provision, authored by leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-I), may be the first barrier to drug offenders' reintegration to fall. The provision took effect in 2000, but in the face of rising opposition led by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Souder retreated, and the act was amended last year to count only offenses committed while a student was in school and receiving financial aid. But that move failed to quiet the calls for outright repeal, and with a Democratic majority in the Congress, advocates hope to finally get their way.

"We are very optimistic that this harmful and discriminatory penalty will finally be repealed by this Congress," said Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the most active groups in the CHEAR coalition.

"There is so much wrong with the HEA drug provision, I hardly know where to begin," said Drug Reform Coordination Network associate director David Guard, CHEAR's coordinator. "The drug provision disproportionately hurts the children of low- and middle-income families -- the very people the HEA is designed to assist -- and it disproportionately affects minorities, who, even though they use drugs at the same rate as whites, are much more likely to be arrested. Students who are forced out of college by losing their financial aid are less likely to come back to school," Guard said. "Let's hope Congress moves to repeal it this year," he said.

The HEA drug provision also hurts students seeking state financial aid. While states are under no obligation to blindly follow the federal financial aid guidelines when it comes to drug offenders, many do so, often merely because it is convenient. In at least one state, Maryland, legislative efforts are under way end the state's reflexive echo of the federal penalty.

There is also a chance of progress this year on the food stamp program, which, as part of the passage of the food bill, will be up for consideration early this year. According to the Food Research and Action Center, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will soon begin hearings on Title IV of the food bill, which includes food stamps, and the center is preparing the way for renewed discussions on relief for states which have not opted out of the ban.

While it was politically expedient to attempt to further punish some of society's most despised individuals -- drug users and offenders -- serious studies of the impact of these measures have led to calls for their reform or repeal. In 2003, the Join Together coalition, which supports community-based efforts to advance effective alcohol and drug policy, prevention, and treatment, put together a prestigious policy panel, headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to examine ways of ending discrimination against drug users.

In its final report, that panel made a number of recommendations. Those included:

  • People with drug convictions but no current drug use should face no obstacles getting student loans, other grants, scholarships, or access to government training programs.
  • Persons with nonviolent drug convictions but no current drug use should not be subject to bans on receiving cash assistance and food stamps.
  • Public housing agencies and providers of Section 8 and other federally assisted housing should use the discretion given to them in the public housing law to help people get treatment, rather than permanently barring them and their families from housing.
  • People who are disabled as a result of their alcohol or other drug disease should be eligible for Social Security Disability Income and Supplemental Security Income.

The American Bar Association has also weighed in against doubly penalizing drug offenders and drug users. In a 2004 resolution, the group adopted recommendations based on those of the Join Together policy panel. Like Join Together, the ABA called for alcoholism and drug addiction to be considered as a chronic treatable disease and public health matter. It also urged that "people seeking treatment or recovery from alcohol or other drug diseases should not be subject to legally imposed bans or other barriers based solely on their addiction. Such bans should be identified and removed."

While a movement to undo federal laws and programs that doubly penalize drug offenders or users is growing and has significant support among some Democratic members of Congress, with the exception of the HEA, little progress has been made in cutting them back, although that could change now that Democrats are in control of the Congress.

For a sense of how previous Republican-led congresses have felt about rethinking these punitive laws and programs, one need only look at the fate of the bill filed by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and cosponsored by 10 other legislators, including sole Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That bill, which would have temporarily waived provisions denying federal benefits to drug users or offenders in areas affected by the storm, went nowhere.

Feature: Arkansas Law Punishing Mothers Whose Newborns Test Positive for Drugs Accomplishes Little, Study Finds

As legislators at statehouses across the country ponder laws that criminalize or civilly punish drug use by pregnant women, researchers in Arkansas have evaluated the working of a similar law there -- and found it wanting. Meanwhile, bills are pending in at least five states -- Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming -- that would do the same thing. Proponents of such laws portray them as aimed at "saving the children," but critics argue such laws do little for children and are really aimed at controlling drug use by punishing young, poor, and minority women.

In 2005, Arkansas legislators passed a bill popularly known as Garrett's Law, after a baby supposedly born with methamphetamine in his system. [Editor's Note: Be wary of any law named after a victim; they seem to pass easily in a rush of emotion with science and reason brushed aside.] Under Garrett's Law, the mothers of newborn infants who test positive for illegal drugs are presumed to be guilty of parental neglect under the state's civil code, and medical personnel can report them to police and child protective service workers.

Last fall, at the request of policy analysts studying the law, the Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Children and Family Services commissioned a report on how the law had been implemented and what its impact had been. Among that report's key findings:

  • There were 412 referrals under Garrett's Law in the 12-month period examined. With some 38,405 births recorded during that period, Garrett's Law referrals amounted to a rate of 10.7 per every thousand births.
  • Marijuana was by far the most commonly found drug, mentioned in just over half of all cases, while amphetamines and cocaine were found in about 25% of cases and heroin, barbiturates, or prescription drugs were found in about 7% of cases.
  • In two-thirds of cases, "no health problems" were reported in the infants. On the other extreme, eight infants died, but there is no evidence that the mother's drug use was the cause of death. Marijuana was most likely to be associated with no health problems, while health problems were more likely to be associated with stimulant use by the mother. Instances of death appear to be most commonly associated with barbiturate use.
  • A finding of child neglect was found to be "substantiated" in two-thirds of all cases referred and a Protective Services case was formally opened in 62% of all cases.
  • Slightly less than one-fourth (23%) of children involved with referrals were removed from the family home. The drug most associated with removal of children was cocaine, followed closely by amphetamines.
  • Only 5% of children removed from parents received any medical treatment related to the alleged maltreatment, although the report says it does not have complete numbers.
  • Either 6.6% or 20% of mothers reported received drug treatment. Again, the report complains of sloppy reporting and does not resolve the different figures.
  • Some 64% of mothers reported received some sort of "service," but in most cases that "service" was only drug testing.

"This report basically says there is nothing in the data that supports the notion these kids have health problems," said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "This law is not about children's health, but has everything to do with controlling drug use in certain populations. They say people who use drugs are bad parents, but I say show me some evidence-based research that documents the extent to which drug use and parenting ability are truly associated," she said. "You have 72 million people admitting to having used marijuana -- are they all bad parents?" Paltrow continued.

While some analysts supported the law because of the broad goals of protecting the health and welfare of infants and their mothers it is supposed to advance, even they had serious concerns about its impact. "While it is critically important that women who are pregnant and giving birth and have an illegal drug in their system need to be looked at closely -- it is an indicator that something is going on -- there are several problems with Garrett's Law," said Paul Kelly, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, who sits on the Garrett's Law advisory group. "One thing we have found is that there are a lot of women who are not being tested. That means we are relying on the judgment of the attending physician to decide who is and is not being tested."

Kelly raises an interesting question about who is being subjected to the law. The report on the law's working does not provide a race and class breakdown of who is being reported, although that information is presumably readily available. The report does provide a breakdown by age, and not surprisingly, most of the women reported under the law were in their twenties.

"Another problem with the law is that in many cases, the finding of substance use is the sole cause of the finding of mistreatment," Kelly continued. "They may have other children who are doing well, are well-cared for, doing well in school, yet they may be taken from their mother because of substance use without any consideration of other factors involved."

The report's low figures on treatment for women in the report -- either 6.6% or 20%--also raise concerns. "There is a terrible lack of treatment available to these women," said Kelly. "We take their children away from them, yet we are not providing appropriate treatment. Are we here to help or punish? This law has had some consequences that need to be corrected."

An effort to do just that is just getting under way early in the legislative season. "We're in the middle of trying to revise Garrett's Law to make it a little less punitive and more family-friendly," said Cynthia Crone, executive director of the Arkansas Center for Addictions Research, Education and Services (Arkansas CARES), which, among other things, runs the state's largest treatment program specifically aimed at mothers suffering from substance abuse.

Advocates are in the final stages of drafting reform language and now have a sponsor in the statehouse, Kelly said. "There are several things we are looking at. We don't want the fact that an illegal substance was found in the child's body at birth to be the sole determinant of whether there is child abuse going on," he said. "If the only finding is that these women have drugs in their system, they should not be placed on the child abuse registry, but given the opportunity to seek treatment. We don't want to ruin their ability to care for their children and have gainful employment because of making foolish mistakes."

"This report doesn't find a strong association between any kind of prenatal exposure to drug use and health problems in the infant," said Paltrow. "For legislators to focus on maternal drug use as the primary threat to children's health when there are eight million children without health insurance is absurd. If we focus on things like this, it distracts our attention from much larger issues, like the 46 million uninsured, the lack of treatment, no paid maternity leave, those fundamental problems. They say it's about the kids, but the result is not more funding or treatment; instead, we're out arresting mothers."

Feature: The Conviction That Keeps On Hurting -- Drug Offenders and Federal Benefits

Some 15 to 20 million people have been arrested on drug charges and subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system in the past two decades. But, thanks to congressional drug warriors, the punishments drug offenders face often extend far beyond the prison walls or the parole officer's office. A number of federal laws ostensibly aimed at reducing drug use block people with drug convictions from gaining access to federal benefits and services. These laws have a disproportionate impact on society's most vulnerable or marginalized members -- the poor, people of color, and women with children -- and in some cases, do not even require that a person actually be convicted of a drug offense to be punished.

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No conviction is needed to be evicted from public housing for drugs -- even someone else's.
A growing number of groups and individuals ranging from the American Bar Association to welfare rights organizations, public health and addiction groups, drug reform organizations, and elected officials have called for changes in these laws or their outright repeal, saying they are cruel, inhumane, counterproductive, and amount to "double jeopardy" for drug offenders trying to become productive members of society.

"We feel that these laws are discriminatory and tend to focus on an illness as opposed to a crime," said Alexa Eggleston of the Legal Action Center, one of the key groups in the movement to adjust those laws. "We also think that if you have a conviction, you should be able to serve your time and come out and resume your life. We say we want people to get sober, get treatment, get a job, get housing, but then we set up all these barriers and roadblocks that seem designed to stop them from moving forward. These lifetime bans are very destructive of people's ability to reintegrate into society and move forward with their lives as productive citizens."

"These discriminatory laws represent incredible barriers in terms of people getting on with their lives, which is why they are part of our platform for change," said Pat Taylor, director of Faces and Voices of Recovery, a national alliance of individuals and organizations committed to securing the rights of people with addictions. "If you can't get housing, can't get a job, it's really hard to get your life back on track."

"One of the problems we constantly face is helping people who have been convicted of a drug crime," said Linda Walker of All of Us or None, a California-based initiative organizers prisoners, ex-prisoners, and felons to fight the discrimination they face because of their criminal convictions. "Why do they ask about that on the student loan applications? Why do they face lifetime bans on public housing? These are people did their time, paid their restitution, they've moved on and matured, and now, because of something they did in their twenties, they can't get into senior housing."

Walker knows a bit about the plight of the ex-con. She was convicted not a drug offense, but for a crime committed in an effort to get money to buy drugs. While Walker's status as a non-drug offender means she is not barred from receiving food stamps or public housing, she still wears the scarlet letter of the ex-con. "I currently work for a county office, and each time I go up for a position or promotion, this becomes a problem," she explained. "I've been out of the criminal justice system for 14 years now, but I'm still being told that because of my criminal history I can't be considered for this job or that."

These "double jeopardy" laws have been formulated in the last 20 years as part of the ratcheting-up of the war on drugs and include:

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, under which local housing agencies and others who supervise federally assisted housing have the discretion to deny housing when any household member uses alcohol in a way that interferes with the "health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment" of the premises by other tenants, illegally uses drugs, or is convicted of drug-related criminal activity. People who are evicted or denied housing under the law are cut off from federal housing assistance for three years.

According to a GAO report on the working of laws designed to deny benefits to drug offenders, some 500 individuals or families were evicted under the act in 13 large public housing agencies GAO surveyed in 2003 and about 1,500 were denied admission by 15 agencies in the same year. The agency reported that public housing agencies nationwide evicted about 9,000 people and denied admission to another 49,000 because of criminal convictions in 2003, with drug convictions consisting of some unknown but significant subset of those. While concrete numbers are hard to come by, it seems clear that tens of thousands of people are adversely affected by laws barring drug offenders from receiving public housing or Section 8 assistance.

Subsequent changes in federal laws and accompanying regulations have enshrined housing authorities' discretion and it was further solidified in a 2002 Supreme Court decision. In that case, the high court upheld an Oakland public housing authorities right to use its discretion to evict 64-year-old long-time tenant Pearlie Rucker, her mentally disabled teenage daughter, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild after the daughter was caught with cocaine three blocks from the building.

Only one class of drug offender is specifically prohibited from obtaining public housing -- persons who have been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines. They, along with society's other favorite demonized group, registered sex offenders, are the only groups of offenders singled out for prohibitions.

The 1990 Denial of Federal Benefits Program, which allows state and federal judges to deny drug offenders federal benefits such as grants, contracts, and licenses. According to the GAO, some 600 people a year are affected by this program in the federal courts.

Section 115 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (more familiarly known as the welfare reform act), under which persons convicted of a state or federal felony offense for selling or using drugs are subject to a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps. Convictions for other crimes, including murder, do not result in the loss of benefits. Section 115 affects an estimated 92,000 women and 135,000 children.

The welfare reform act contains a provision allowing states to opt out, although if they fail to act, the lifetime bans remain in effect. In 14 states where legislators have not acted, drug felons still face the federal ban, even though their sentences may be long-finished and their offenses decades old. But in 36 states, legislators have acted to limit the ban in some fashion, allowing drug offenders to get public assistance if they meet certain conditions, such as participating in drug or alcohol treatment, meeting a waiting period, if their conviction was for possession only, or other conditions.

Public Law 104-121, which blocks access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) for people whose primary disability was alcohol or drug dependence. This 1996 law replaced a 1972 SSI "Drug Abuse and Alcoholism" program that allowed people in drug treatment, which was mandatory, to designate a payee to manage benefits to ensure they would not be used to purchase drugs or alcohol. The Social Security Administration estimates that more than 123,000 people lost benefits when this law went into effect, while another 86,000 managed to retain them by virtue of age or by being reclassified into a different primary care disability category.

The 1998 Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision (also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which states that people with drug convictions cannot receive federal financial aid for a period of time determined by the type and number of convictions. This law does not apply to others with convictions, including drunk-driving offenses, violent crimes, or other criminal offenses. Last year, the provision was reformed to limit its applicability to offenses committed while a student is enrolled in college and receiving federal aid. Since the law went into effect in 2000, some 200,000 have been denied student financial aid.

The Hope Scholarship Credit, which allows for income tax deductions for people paying college tuition and fees. The credit allows taxpayers to take up to a $1,000 credit for tuition and additional credits for related expenses. It specifically excludes the credit for students who were convicted of a drug offense during the tax year in question, or their parents paying the bills.

While GAO notes that "thousands of persons were denied postsecondary education benefits, federally assisted housing, or selected licenses and contracts as a result of federal laws that provide for denying benefits to drug offenders," it is low-balling the real figure, which, according to its own numbers, is in the hundreds of thousands. Additionally, the GAO report does not factor in the number of people who simply did not apply for housing, welfare benefits, or student loans because they knew or believed they were ineligible.

"The focus of all of those provisions is punishing people who've made a mistake as opposed to helping people find treatment," said Donovan Kuehn, a spokesman for NAADAC, the Association of Addiction Professionals, the nation's largest grouping of counselors, educators, and health care professionals dealing with addiction issues. "As addiction treatment professionals, we're very hopeful that with a change in leadership in the Congress, we could move toward helping people find personal solutions to their problems as opposed to criminalizing them."

Kraig Selken, a senior studying history at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, would like to see that happen. He knows first-hand the sting of the HEA drug provision. After being arrested with a small amount of marijuana, Selken paid his fine and sat through court-ordered drug treatment. He thought he had paid his debt to society. It was not until Selken began reading up on the HEA drug provision after his conviction that he realized his punishment wasn't over. Because of his misdemeanor marijuana conviction, he became ineligible for student financial assistance for two years.

"Ironically, today was fee payment day at school. I had to write my own check instead of paying for it with student loans," Selken told the Chronicle last week. "The lack of access to student loans hit me hard," he said. "Last semester, the only reason I could afford to go to school without loans was because my great-grandmother died and left me a little bit of money. Otherwise, I would not have been able to attend."

Selken said he plans to go on to law school, but even though he will be eligible for financial assistance again, he will still have to pay a price. "I'm still going to have to answer 'yes' on the federal financial aid form and I will have to go through the whole rigamorale of providing documentation to show that I am again eligible."

The HEA drug provision, authored by leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-I), may be the first barrier to drug offenders' reintegration to fall. The provision took effect in 2000, but in the face of rising opposition led by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Souder retreated, and the act was amended last year to count only offenses committed while a student was in school and receiving financial aid. But that move failed to quiet the calls for outright repeal, and with a Democratic majority in the Congress, advocates hope to finally get their way.

"We are very optimistic that this harmful and discriminatory penalty will finally be repealed by this Congress," said Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the most active groups in the CHEAR coalition.

"There is so much wrong with the HEA drug provision, I hardly know where to begin," said Drug Reform Coordination Network associate director David Guard, CHEAR's coordinator. "The drug provision disproportionately hurts the children of low- and middle-income families -- the very people the HEA is designed to assist -- and it disproportionately affects minorities, who, even though they use drugs at the same rate as whites, are much more likely to be arrested. Students who are forced out of college by losing their financial aid are less likely to come back to school," Guard said. "Let's hope Congress moves to repeal it this year," he said.

The HEA drug provision also hurts students seeking state financial aid. While states are under no obligation to blindly follow the federal financial aid guidelines when it comes to drug offenders, many do so, often merely because it is convenient. In at least one state, Maryland, legislative efforts are under way end the state's reflexive echo of the federal penalty.

There is also a chance of progress this year on the food stamp program, which, as part of the passage of the food bill, will be up for consideration early this year. According to the Food Research and Action Center, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will soon begin hearings on Title IV of the food bill, which includes food stamps, and the center is preparing the way for renewed discussions on relief for states which have not opted out of the ban.

While it was politically expedient to attempt to further punish some of society's most despised individuals -- drug users and offenders -- serious studies of the impact of these measures have led to calls for their reform or repeal. In 2003, the Join Together coalition, which supports community-based efforts to advance effective alcohol and drug policy, prevention, and treatment, put together a prestigious policy panel, headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to examine ways of ending discrimination against drug users.

In its final report, that panel made a number of recommendations. Those included:

  • People with drug convictions but no current drug use should face no obstacles getting student loans, other grants, scholarships, or access to government training programs.
  • Persons with nonviolent drug convictions but no current drug use should not be subject to bans on receiving cash assistance and food stamps.
  • Public housing agencies and providers of Section 8 and other federally assisted housing should use the discretion given to them in the public housing law to help people get treatment, rather than permanently barring them and their families from housing.
  • People who are disabled as a result of their alcohol or other drug disease should be eligible for Social Security Disability Income and Supplemental Security Income.

The American Bar Association has also weighed in against doubly penalizing drug offenders and drug users. In a 2004 resolution, the group adopted recommendations based on those of the Join Together policy panel. Like Join Together, the ABA called for alcoholism and drug addiction to be considered as a chronic treatable disease and public health matter. It also urged that "people seeking treatment or recovery from alcohol or other drug diseases should not be subject to legally imposed bans or other barriers based solely on their addiction. Such bans should be identified and removed."

While a movement to undo federal laws and programs that doubly penalize drug offenders or users is growing and has significant support among some Democratic members of Congress, with the exception of the HEA, little progress has been made in cutting them back, although that could change now that Democrats are in control of the Congress.

For a sense of how previous Republican-led congresses have felt about rethinking these punitive laws and programs, one need only look at the fate of the bill filed by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and cosponsored by 10 other legislators, including sole Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That bill, which would have temporarily waived provisions denying federal benefits to drug users or offenders in areas affected by the storm, went nowhere.

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