Incarceration, Asset Forfeiture, Arrests, Informants, Police Raids, Search and Seizure

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Drug War to Figure Prominently in Sen. Webb's Incarceration Hearing Tomorrow -- Available by Webcast

The state of Virginia has not traditionally been in the vanguard of criminal justice reform -- maybe the other way around -- but it does have some political figures who are enlightened on such issues. Rep. Bobby Scott of Richmond is one who has played a leading role in fighting this good fight for many years. Now, Virginia has Sen. Jim Webb. Last March we reported on remarks he had made on ABC about how mass incarceration is tearing the country apart and those are the kinds of issues he wants to work on. He's coming through. Tomorrow is Webb's first public hearing on the issue, "Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?" At the time of this writing, it is the top news link and prominently displayed on Webb's Senate home page. Follow the links from there and you'll find a lot of the things we've been saying for years, about incarceration in general and the drug war in particular. We've heard that at least one of the speakers is going to call for an end to the drug war. The venue where this is taking place is the Joint Economic Committee, comprised of members of both the Senate and House. New York's Chuck Schumer is the top Democrat on the committee, an influential figure in criminal justice policy. It's hard to tell in advance, but this feels like it could be a significant turning point, even if like most hearings it is likely to be a quiet one. Click here from 10:00am onward tomorrow morning to watch it live, or afterward for a video archive.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Feature: Marijuana, Drug Arrests Hit All-Time High -- Again

The number of people arrested for marijuana offenses in the US last year was a record 829,625, according to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report. The figure marks the fourth consecutive year and 11th time in the last 15 years that marijuana arrests hit an all-time high. More than five million people have been arrested for marijuana since 2000 alone.

Overall, some 1,889,810 people were arrested on drug charges last year -- another all-time high. More than eight out of ten of all drug arrests were for possession alone, and 89% of all marijuana arrests for possession.

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The continuing increases in drug arrests came as violent crime increased 1.9%, the second straight year of increases after a decade of declining violent crime rates. Property crime declined by 1.9%, mirroring the 10-year declining trend.

The total number of marijuana arrests in the US for 2006 far exceeded the total number of arrests in the US for all violent crimes combined, including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The number of total drug arrests was greater than that for any other offense.

No law enforcement organizations contacted by the Chronicle responded to requests for comment on the link (or lack of) between continuing high levels of drug arrests and violent crime, but representatives of groups that would like to see fewer drug arrests were quick to respond to the numbers.

"These numbers are sadly not too surprising because we put a lot of money into arresting drug users," said Doug McVay, policy analyst for Common Sense for Drug Policy. "That's what we're paying police to do. Law enforcement has to produce body counts to justify increased funding, and the way to do it is with drug users. There's an endless supply."

"These numbers refute the common myth that police will look the other way when it comes to personal marijuana possession," said Scott Morgan of Flex Your Rights, a group that instructs citizens on how to effectively exert their right to be free of unwarranted searches and seizures. "Liberal attitudes about pot have created a false sense of security for many, but the truth is that you can get in big trouble for it. In any police encounter, the best strategy is to refuse searches and not answer incriminating questions," he advised.

"The steady escalation of marijuana arrests is happening in direct defiance of public opinion," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Voters in communities all over the country, from Denver to Seattle to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and Missoula County, Montana, have passed measures saying they don't want marijuana arrests to be a priority, yet marijuana arrests have set an all-time record for four years running. It appears that police are taking their cue from White House drug czar John Walters, who is obsessed with marijuana, rather than the public who pays their salaries," he said.

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DEA post-raid publicity photo
"These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor marijuana offenders," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), who noted that at current rates, a marijuana smoker is arrested every 38 seconds in America. "This effort is a tremendous waste of criminal justice resources that diverts law enforcement personnel away from focusing on serious and violent crime, including the war on terrorism," he said.

McVay pointed to the low criminal offense clearance rates also contained in the Uniform Crime Report. For property crimes overall, the clearance rate is only 16%, while even for murder, it was only 60%. "Those numbers are criminal," said McVay. "There's only one chance out of six that the cops will find out who broke into your home or stole your car. If the police weren't busy arresting drug users, maybe we wouldn't be seeing such low clearance rates and this increase in violent crime."

"Two other major points standout from today's record marijuana arrests," St. Pierre continued. "Overall, there has been a dramatic 188% increase in marijuana arrests in the last 15 years -- yet the public's access to pot remains largely unfettered and the self-reported use of cannabis remains largely unchanged. Second, America's Midwest is decidedly the hotbed for marijuana-related arrests with 57% of all marijuana-related arrests. The region of America with the least amount of marijuana-related arrests is the West with 30%. This latter result is arguably a testament to the passage of various state and local decriminalization efforts over the past several years."

"The bottom line is that we are wasting billions of dollars each year on a failed policy," Kampia said. "Despite record arrests, marijuana use remains higher than it was 15 years ago, when arrests were less than half the present level, and marijuana is the number one cash crop in the US. Marijuana is scientifically proven to be far safer than alcohol, and it's time to start regulating marijuana the same way we regulate wine, beer and liquor."

Why Do Police Really Oppose Marijuana Legalization? Part II

Yesterday's post failed to address the prevalence of police officers who privately oppose the drug war, but silently uphold it even though they know it's wrong. My argument is quite incomplete without addressing this important phenomenon.

LEAP director Jack Cole has told me that police constantly admit to him in confidence that they agree with LEAP's arguments. Former Seattle Police Chief and LEAP speaker Norm Stamper has also stated that several high-ranking police officials have privately commended his efforts to end the drug war.

How then do we explain the behavior of police who carry out a war they don't believe in? Are they just following orders and collecting their paychecks? Are they fearful that speaking out will compromise their status within a profession they otherwise enjoy? Do they believe the laws are here to stay, so someone has to enforce them? Are some just waiting for their pension to kick in before joining LEAP?

I'm sure all of these factors contribute here, but I suspect that many officers have a more nuanced view of drug enforcement. I once asked a highly-regarded police sergeant what he thought of a controversial teenage curfew law aimed at curbing crime in D.C. "It's a useful tool," he replied, meaning that it gave him the authority to take action against suspicious youths in the absence of other evidence. If he can't prove they're out tagging cars, he can at least stop them and send them home.

Drug laws, particularly marijuana, perform a similar function by granting police the discretion to forgive or destroy individual suspects based solely on their demeanor and the contents of their pockets. Police can ignore the smell of marijuana when dealing with a polite citizen, or fabricate it entirely when they believe someone's hiding something. A law that criminalizes vast portions of the population, justifying detentions, searches and arrests, is a "useful tool" indeed. Officers needn't believe they're winning the war on drugs to find value in the vast authority it bestows upon them.

Wielding inflated drug war powers with the best of intentions may help some officers justify their participation in something they otherwise find distasteful. Of course, none of this justifies the massive collateral damage that occurs in the process, but it might help explain how conscientious people could engage in behavior that shocks the conscience.

Location: 
United States

Important Criminal Justice Hearings Coming Up in Senate

I've been hearing about this from one of our members who has a son in prison, and now it's been discussed in the Boston Globe: Sen. Jim Webb is holding hearings on October 4th dealing with the economic impact of incarceration. Webb crossed our radar screen last March when he remarked on George Stephanopoulos' program that mass incarceration is "tearing this country apart." Check out Life Sentence, a column published in the Globe Sunday by Christopher Shea, which uses the hearings as a hook to examine the issue and highlight works by some important scholars. There's a discussion taking place on the comment board too that you can join.
Location: 
United States

Asset Forfeiture in Drug Cases is Hurting Investment in the Inner Cities

One of our readers sent in the following observations about asset forfeiture and its impact on investing (and consequently economic development) in neighborhoods that are perceived to have illegal drug problems. (Forfeiture is not solely limited to drug cases, but drugs are the mainstay.)
I am in the real estate investment business. Increasingly I find investors staying away from investing in rental properties and neighborhoods perceived to have illegal drug problems. Investors more frequently state police can too easily forfeit their real estate because of one tenant's illegal activity at a rental property, e.g., selling drugs, even when it is unknown to the owner. Consequently investors' fears of forfeiture are depressing property values in certain neighborhoods and cities, driving downward the property tax base needed for tax revenues to support the infrastructure of the community. Consider: As governments more and more force landlords to act as attorney generals policing the lives of their tenants, and hold landlords accountable to police for not stopping their tenants from committing unknown or foreseen illegal acts, more investors say, "who needs this!" Constant police raids in certain neighborhoods may actually result in a financial net loss to a community where investors retreat, causing assessed property values and property taxes to decline. There is little incentive for investors to spend money upgrading rental property in neighborhoods where drug problems exist if the police are targeting rental property for asset forfeiture.
I think that pretty much speaks for itself. But it would be a shame to stop there. So, a few links:
  • click here to read how the Fulton County (Atlanta, GA) DA's office spent forfeiture funds on banquets and balloons and a superman costume;
  • click here to read about the Austin, Texas police department's criminal inquiry into possible misuse of forfeiture funds; and
  • click here for a recent report over what is basically an act of theft via forfeiture committed by New Mexico police. (Make them stop, Gov. Richardson!)
Read our asset forfeiture reporting on an ongoing basis here, or subscribe to it by RSS here. And of course, check out the organization Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR).
Location: 
United States

Obama is So Bad on Drug Policy, He Got Endorsed By Prison Guards

I guess the title says it all. Barack Obama is far and away the worst democratic contender when it comes to drug policy and criminal justice reform. It is unsurprising, therefore, that people who make a living off our grotesquely bloated criminal justice system are supporting his candidacy. Via Talkleft:
…one of the largest municipal jail unions in the country said Monday it would endorse Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois for president. The endorsement would be Obama's first from a union.


Obama said, "It's an honor to have the endorsement of these men and women who put themselves at risk every day to serve on the front lines of our nation's criminal justice system." [CBS News]
Ah, the ever-expanding front lines of our criminal justice system. Obama just keeps saying things like this. It remains perplexing to watch the so-called "change" candidate gaze with reverence upon our massive drug war and criminal justice system. Obama's support from incarceration specialists is richly deserved to be sure.

Update: At the risk of further emboldening the hysterical Obama fans in the comment section, it's only fair to add that Barack Obama has spoken in favor of needle exchange. Hillary Clinton, who's otherwise sounded good on drug policy (for a front-runner, anyway) wants to see more proof that it works, which, at this point, is like demanding proof that the sun will rise tomorrow. So Obama understands that issue, at least.

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
Location: 
United States

New Report: Half Million Incarcerated for Drug Offenses

Friends:

The Sentencing Project has released a new report that examines the burden of the "war on drugs" on the criminal justice system and American communities. A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society assesses the strategy of combating drug abuse primarily with enhanced punishments at the expense of investments in treatment and prevention. The report documents how the drug war has produced a record expansion of prison and jail systems and highlights additional indicators of the war's impact on the criminal justice system and communities, including:

-- Drug arrests have more than tripled since 1980 to a record 1.8 million by 2005;

-- Four of five (81.7%) drug arrests were for possession offenses, and 42.6% were for marijuana charges in 2005;

-- Nearly six in 10 persons in state prison for a drug offense have no history of violence or high-level drug selling;

-- Only 14% of persons in 2004 who report using drugs in the month before their arrest had participated in a treatment program, a decline of more than half from participation rates in 1991;

-- A shortage of treatment options in many low-income neighborhoods contributes to drug abuse being treated primarily as a criminal justice problem, rather than a social problem.

Our report also provides policy recommendations that can help effectively reinvest government resources in community safety by encouraging comprehensive drug treatment and prevention strategies to address drug addiction.

Location: 
United States

Feature: CAMP Makes Little Headway Against California Marijuana Growers

Fall has arrived, and with it the annual effort by law enforcement across the country to eradicate the outdoor marijuana crop. Nowhere is the effort more elaborate or impressive than California, where the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) has been heading out into the countryside to rip up pot crops since 1983. CAMP, an amalgam of 110 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, racks up big numbers every year, but there is little indication that the program has any impact whatsoever on the price or availability of marijuana in California.

Last year, CAMP raiders seized more than 1.6 million marijuana plants, the majority of them from large gardens nestled within the state's national parks and forests. This year, the total will be significantly higher, according to CAMP.

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CAMP photo (calguard.ca.gov)
"Our plant count is definitely higher this year, and we still have a few more weeks to go," said CAMP spokeswoman Bureau of Narcotics Affairs Special Agent Holly Swartz to Drug War Chronicle. "This year so far, we're at 2.49 million."

The numbers sound impressive at first glance, but not so much when compared to estimates of outdoor marijuana production in the state. According to researcher and policy analyst John Gettman's Marijuana Production in the United States (2006), which relied on official government statistics to arrive at its estimates, the 1.6 million plants CAMP eradicated made up less than 10% of the 17.4 million plants planted.

Similarly, while CAMP proudly boasts that over its near quarter-century history it has eradicated $27.6 billion worth of pot plants, Getttman puts the value of last year's outdoor crop alone at $12.3 billion. (Never mind for now that CAMP apparently values each plant at about $4,000, while Gettman assesses them at under $1,000).

While CAMP cannot claim to make a significant dent in California marijuana production, neither can it offer evidence that its efforts have increased prices or decreased availability. "We don't evaluate prices or availability," CAMP spokeswoman Swartz conceded, while insisting that the program was having an impact. "The majority of the gardens are run by Mexican trafficking organizations, and taking them out must have an impact," she said.

"Nobody has seen anything on price or availability from these folks for a long time, and as far as I can tell, prices here have been steady for a decade," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML.

"What they achieve is virtually nothing," said Bruce Mirken, the San Francisco-based communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The number of plants they manage to eradicate has risen twelve-fold over a decade, yet marijuana is by far the number one cash crop in the state. If the idea is to get marijuana off the streets, this is as crashing a failure as any program you've ever seen."

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CAMP photo (calguard.ca.gov)
But CAMP is also protecting the public safety, said Swartz. "It's a huge threat to public safety," she said. "You have people out enjoying public lands and they come across drug trafficking organizations and people with guns."

CAMP has seized a total of 34 weapons so far this year, up slightly from the 29 seized in 2006.

The threat is not just to the public, said Swartz. "Every year since the mid-1990s, there have been shots fired during at least one garden raid."

CAMP has brought it on itself, said Mirken. "CAMP has literally driven the growers into the hills," said Mirken. "There's a good case to be made that all this stuff they're moaning about being so terrible -- growing in the forests, the wilderness areas -- is the direct result of their efforts. All they do is aggravate the problems associated with marijuana production, all of which could be resolved if we treated it the same way we treat California's wine industry."

"This thing with the huge plantations in the national forest has really taken off since 2001, and I suspect it has to do with the border crackdown since then," said Gieringer. "I think some Mexican groups may find it easier to just grow it here. There has been really striking growth in the number of plants they are eradicating, and it will be even higher this year."

But the resort to the use of public lands by marijuana growers predates this decade and was driven by tough war on drugs tactics a generation ago, Gieringer noted. "This whole problem started during the Reagan administration, with the asset forfeiture laws they passed. Before that, people grew on their own land," he said. "Growing in the forests is one of the fruits of that aggressive enforcement strategy."

But despite the seeming ineffectiveness and unforeseen consequences of CAMP, the program is not facing any threat to its existence. Part of the reason is that it is relatively inexpensive. According to Swartz, the California general fund paid only $638,000 to fund CAMP last year, while the DEA and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program kicked in another $1.4 million and the Forest Service $20,000.

"It's not a huge amount of state money, but it would pay for a bunch of students who are getting their fees increased every year to go to the University of California," said Mirken. The figure also does not include the resources and staff time local law enforcement entities are putting into the program, he noted.

"It's just not that expensive," said Gieringer, "especially because they don't generally bother to chase down, arrest, and prosecute people."

In its more than 475 raids last year, CAMP arrested a grand total of 27 people. Swartz did not have arrest figures for this year.

There is another reason CAMP seems almost irrelevant, said Mendocino County Supervisor John Pinches. Mendocino is part of the state's famed Emerald Triangle, where marijuana-growing has been a local industry for decades now.

CAMP doesn't engender the hostility among his constituents that it once did, Pinches said, in part because it doesn't seem to have any effect on the county's number one industry. "Marijuana growing is out of control here," he said. "We hired economic consultants to analyze our economy, and they found that two-thirds of our economy is the marijuana business. With the medical marijuana and the cards and the caregivers, it's just blooming like crazy. Legal businesses can't hire help; they can't compete with growers paying $25 or $30 an hour to trimmers," he said.

But Pinches, who earlier this year authored a successful resolution at the Board of Supervisors calling for marijuana to be legalized, taxed, and regulated, said he now voted to participate in CAMP. "I had always voted against CAMP; I called it the best government price support system for any farm crop in the country," said Pinches. "But now it's so out of hand with gardens of tens of thousands of plants that we're almost forced to do something," he said. "Still, CAMP gets such a small percentage of the crop that I bet deer and wild hogs get more of it than CAMP, and they do it for free," he snorted.

For Pinches, a situation where his county's largest cash crop and economic mainstay is also the subject of continuing, though largely ineffective, law enforcement efforts is mind-boggling. "This is what inspired me to write that resolution we sent to all our congressmen and the president," said Pinches. "Didn't we learn anything from Prohibition days? Whether you love it or hate it, it's time to legalize marijuana."

That looks like the only way CAMP will be stopped. As Swartz noted: "We're law enforcement. We enforce the law. If they change the law, we will change our activities, but until then, we will enforce the law."

Announcement: Prison-Related Poetry Contest by Shot Caller Press, LLC

Shot Caller Press, LLC is conducting a poetry contest for prisoners, ex-prisoners, family members or friends of people in prison, prison guards, prison volunteers, or prison workers. The first place prize is $250, second place receives $100, and coming in third gets one $50.

The rules are that poems must be about the life, the events and the feelings associated with being in or involved with prison; they must be submitted with a signed consent form; must be no more than three pages long; must be readable (typed poems preferred, but handwritten poems are accepted as long as they are readable, with photocopies discouraged); and cannot be "found" poems that take the words of other published authors and are used to make a poem. In addition, poets can enter up to three poems (each poem needs to have a separate consent form); poets must consent to being published if picked for the book; any employees, friends or family members of any employee or member of Shot Caller Press, LLC cannot enter the contest; and all entries must be postmarked by December 31, 2007.

To enter, print out an entry form, then sign and mail it along with your poem(s) to: Shot Caller Press -- Poetry Contest, 8316 N. Lombard #317, Portland, OR 97203. Or, e-mail customerservice@shotcallerpress.com with the name and address of the person to whom you want an entry form sent. Click here for additional details and answers to frequently asked questions.

Law Enforcement: Asset Forfeiture Funds Spent on Banquets, Balls, and Balloons in Atlanta

A routine audit of the Fulton County (Atlanta) district attorney's office has turned up questionable spending of money seized from drug suspects under asset forfeiture laws. Less than a month ago, similar apparent abuses were uncovered in the Austin, Texas, police department.

According to auditor's reports, almost one-third of the 376 checks written out of the asset forfeiture account in 2006 were either questionable or not allowed under federal guidelines. Those questionable expenses totaled more than $2 million.

Under federal asset forfeiture laws, money seized by the feds and handed over to state law enforcement may only be used for law enforcement purposes. But District Attorney Paul Howard has a very expansive view of just what that means. According to auditor's reports gathered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the state open records act, Howard's asset forfeiture fund spending included:

  • $1,500 to sponsor the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys;
  • $5,150 for benefits, dinners, football tickets, fundraisers, and balls sponsored by various civic organizations -- none of them directly related to law enforcement;
  • $5,500 spent on rent and catering for a staff Christmas party;
  • $89 for a Superman-style red cape with "Super Lawyer" printed on it that an assistant prosecutor was encouraged to wear at the Christmas party;
  • $150 for a dinner party to celebrate the conviction of a murderer; and
  • $9,100 for Howard's perfect attendance program for students in Atlanta's public elementary schools.

DA Howard defended the expenditures, saying they were tools for fighting crime and boosting office morale. "We cannot pay our employees bonuses. We can't pay overtime," Howard said. "I tried to come up with ways to increase morale."

But county auditors questioned the propriety of the spending, saying Howard may have violated federal asset forfeiture rules. Auditors also raised flags about Howard's mixing various types of funding in the same account.

"This account has several types of funds commingled," the auditor wrote. "These commingled funds include victim witness funds, federal equitable sharing agreement funds and regular operating funds. Commingling these funds is strictly prohibited since all these funds are for a specific purpose."

Howard said there is nothing wrong with putting money from different sources in one account. "We tracked the money," Howard said. "The money was not misused." But he has since created separate accounts for the different funds.

The auditor's reports are not final. They are now being reviewed by a private auditor.

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