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Feature: Is This the Year New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws Will Be Repealed?

For more than 35 years, New York state has had the dubious distinction of having some of the country's worst drug laws, the Rockefeller drug laws passed in 1973. While pressure has mounted in the past decade to repeal those draconian laws, the reforms made to them in 2004 and 2005 have proven disappointing. But now, in what could be a perfect storm for reform, all the pieces for doing away with the Rockefeller drug laws appear to be falling into place.

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June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally against the Rockefeller drug laws, NYC (courtesy 15yearstolife.com)
New York is now governed by an African American, David Paterson, who was arrested in an act of civil disobedience against the Rockefeller drug laws and who has vowed to reform them. The Democratic leader of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver, is on board for serious reforms. And for the first time in years, Democrats also control the state Senate. Add to that mix the budgetary crisis in which the state finds itself, and it would appear that this is the year reform or repeal could actually happen.

But it hasn't happened yet -- no bills have even been filed -- and there is opposition to real reform, mostly from district attorneys, representatives whose upstate districts depend on prisons as a jobs program, and the law enforcement establishment. Those folks may latch onto pseudo-reforms as a means of blocking real reform.

Their handbook could be the State Sentencing Commission report issued this week. That report, commissioned by Gov. Paterson last year, calls for marginal reforms in sentencing and parole, as well as limited judicial discretion, but leaves too much power in the hands of prosecutors, said reform advocates.

"The Sentencing Commission proposal was positive in that it would return some judicial discretion in limited cases," said Caitlin Dunklee, coordinator of the Rockefeller repeal coalition Drop the Rock. "But we hope and will press for more sweeping and meaningful reform of the Rockefeller laws. This report was the product of a commission composed of many prosecutors and corrections people, and it does not go far enough."

"I can't believe at this particular moment that they would put this out," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) New York state office. "Not only does it not include real reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but it takes a step backward," Sayegh continued. "The commission acted as though the political climate we're in is not happening. It's like they drafted this thing from a cave."

DPA wants judicial discretion and treatment programs, which are included in the Sentencing Commission report, Sayegh said. "The problem is that when you dig into the details of the recommendations, what they are actually saying is that their version of judicial discretion, expanding treatment, and expanding diversion opportunities are all crafted out of the prosecutorial perspective. Prosecutors would maintain their leading roles and their diversion criteria would eliminate half the people from even being considering for it. That's the substance of our objections to the report," Sayegh said.

While Sayegh criticized Gov. Paterson for allowing the commission to "continue with its bumbling," he also took heart from Paterson's non-response to the report's release. "Paterson was going to hold a public event around the release, but that got changed to a press conference, and then even that got cancelled," he noted. "We see that as a good sign, an indication that he will not lend his backing to this report."

Instead, Sayegh said, a much better starting point would be the report issued two weeks ago by Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, Breaking New York's Addiction to Prison: Reforming New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws. In that report, Silver laid out the "principles" of reform:

  • Ilegal drugs should remain illegal. Adults who sell drugs to children, individuals who use guns in drug deals, and drug kingpins deserve harsh punishment.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders must go. Mandating that judges sentence drug users and very low level street sellers to state prison has not impacted crime or reduced addiction but, rather, has led to a massive increase in New York's prison population with a disproportionate number of Latinos and African-Americans being incarcerated.
  • Real judicial discretion means an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences for Class B felony drug offenses and second time, nonviolent drug offenders and the placing of an equal emphasis on alternatives to incarceration and treatment. Except for the most serious crimes, judges in New York already have the discretion to fashion appropriate sentences for criminal acts. Judges should have the ability to make an informed decision whether circumstances warrant imposing a state prison sentence in drug crimes just as they do in cases of many assault, larceny, property damage and any number of other crimes.
  • District Attorneys should continue to play a key role in the process, but they should not be able to veto a judge's discretion. Indeed, to the extent there are district attorney-sponsored initiatives, such as Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) programs that have proven success rates with the limited populations they serve, judges will have the discretion to continue them.
  • Existing maximum determinate sentences for first and second class B level felony and below offenders should be maintained so that if a judge decided circumstances warrant, those who commit the crime will do serious time.

Partial reforms like those achieved in 2004 and 2005 are not going to cut it, said Caitlan Dunklee. "The reforms in 2004 and 2005 failed across the board... the only positive thing about them was that a few hundred people got to go home to their families, but they failed to address the underlying inequities of the Rockefeller drug laws. Specifically, they failed to return any discretion to judges, perpetuating the one size fits all justice that has led to huge levels of incarceration in New York."

The 2004 and 2005 reforms can be judged by their fruits. According to a Drop the Rock 2008 fact sheet, 5,657 people were sent to prison in 2004 for nonviolent drug offenses. That number increased to 5,835 in 2005, 6,039 in 2006, and 6,148 in 2007. About 40% of drug offenders behind bars in New York, some 5,300 people, are doing time simply for drug possession. And more than half of all drug offenders behind bars are doing time for the lowest level drug felonies, which involve only tiny amount of drugs. For example, it takes only a half-gram of cocaine to be charged with a Class D possession felony. More than 1,200 people are currently locked up for that offense.

So, is 2009 the year that real reform (or outright repeal) of the Rockefeller drug laws will happen? DPA thinks so, and held a conference two weeks ago to help make it happen. New Directions for New York: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy brought together numerous drug policy stakeholders in an effort to break the grasp of the criminal justice template on drug policy.

"This was the first time in state history where we had stakeholders ranging from the Medical Society of New York to needle exchange providers to people who actively use injection drugs and do outreach to reduce HIV to academics, prosecutors, and elected officials," said Sayegh. Although New York has good drug policy programs -- harm reduction offices, overdose prevention strategies in place -- the overall discussion is still framed too much by the criminal justice perspective, Sayegh said.

"There is an apparatus in place to lead the charge for more progressive drug policies, but the discussion is framed by the Rockefeller laws," he said. "At this conference, stakeholders who are focused on the Rockefeller laws met with groups who focus on treatment, harm reduction, and medical research. We used the four-pillars approach pioneered by Vancouver, which for many people was a new concept. This allowed them to look at drug policy and reform from a new conceptual perspective, and that's part of what will bring about change."

Sayegh is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for reform this year. "In the past, we hadn't been able to move forward because the prosecutors controlled the language and logic of the debate," he noted. "But now, we can provide the legislature with new language and a new framework, the logic of public health, not criminal justice. This will make the legislature much more willing to move on reform proposals. Who doesn't like public health?"

"I'm very optimistic," said Drop the Rock's Dunklee. "I think we'll see a progressive piece of legislation get passed this year that will include meaningful restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases. Hopefully, it will also include an expansion of funding for alternative to incarceration programs like job training and drug treatment."

Not everyone was so sanguine. "I'm optimistic that something will happen, but I don't think its going to be as profound as everyone would like," said Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which has been part of the Rockefeller repeal effort for years. "That's because there is no street movement anymore, not a lot of grassroots pressure.

While mobilizations in 2004 and 2005 put tens of thousands of people on the street calling for reform, the minor reforms achieved then took the steam out of the mass movement, Credico argued. "Some people thought incremental change would work then," he said, "but we said it's better to get no loaf than half a loaf. That way, the pressure would remain and build. But we got half a loaf, and four years later, all these guys are still in jail and all the air has gone out of the movement."

"And it's not just the Rockefeller drug laws -- we need to completely overhaul the criminal justice system, from sentencing to the appointment of judges to judge-shopping by prosecutors to racial profiling to banning stop and frisk searches. People need to focus on the overall criminal justice system, or just as many people will be going to prison as we have now."

Drop the Rock's Dunklee begged to differ with Credico over the state of the mass movement for reform. "Drop the Rock is the statewide campaign for repeal, and we haven't gone away," she said. "There is a movement. The 25,000 signatures we've gathered on our petition for repeal is a sign of that. Last year, we took more than 300 people up to Albany, and we will do it again this year."

Still, Dunklee conceded, the partial reforms of 2004 and 2005 did take a lot of air out of the movement. "The media spun that like they were real reforms, and that did weaken the movement," she said. "But in terms of movement building, we still find it easy to organize around this issue because people are so pissed off. I think there is still a lot of energy there."

That energy will be needed in the coming months. While New York's budget mess will occupy legislators for the next few weeks, they will eventually turn to the Rockefeller law reforms. No bills have been filed yet, but they are expected shortly. And hearings are set for May. This year's battle to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws is just getting underway.

Fixing Our Criminal Justice System Isn’t Political Suicide. Stop Saying That.

Washington Post has a whole story on Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s thoroughly awesome ideas about criminal justice reform:

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.

Sadly, one rarely hears a Washington lawmaker talk about our drug policy priorities in a way that makes any sense. So, fittingly, Washington Post dedicates plenty of space to the theory that Jim Webb’s gonna get massacred for his crazy blasphemous ideas:

"It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state."

"…as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers' minds."

"…Webb has never been one to rely on polls or political indicators to guide his way."

"Some say Webb's go-it-alone approach could come back to haunt him."

No, it won’t. Just watch as that completely fails to happen. Recent polls show that democrats and republicans agree the drug war has failed and that is just a fact. Too bad it’s fact that completely eluded The Post throughout a lengthy article about the politics of criminal justice reform. They found room to postulate endlessly about the supposedly disastrous political consequences of saying anything bad about our policies, but they couldn’t find a single line to show what the public actually believes.

Of course, to include actual relevant polling data would refute a central point of the article: that there’s something really mavericky and even reckless about Webb’s ideas. There isn’t. Those same ideas didn’t stop Obama from winning Virginia, so this whole political-suicide-by-drug-policy-reform narrative is garbage. Stop trying to recycle it. Just put it where it belongs.

Sentencing: US Jail and Prison Population Hits All-Time (Again) -- 2.3 Million Behind Bars, Including More Than Half a Million Drug Offenders

The number of people in jail or prison in the United States hit another record at the end of last year, according to a report from the US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics released Thursday. According to the report, Prisoners in 2007, 2,293,157 people were behind bars at the end of last year, roughly two-thirds of them serving prison sentences and one-third doing jail time.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from cdcr.ca.gov)
Drug offenders made up 19.5% of all people doing time in the states, or roughly 400,000 people. In the federal system, drug offenders account for well over half of the 200,000 prisoners (those numbers are not included in this report), bringing the total number of people sacrificed at the altar of the drug war to more than half a million.

Parole and probation violators accounted for about one-third of all new prison admissions last year. It is unclear how many violations were for drug-related reasons, but that number is undoubtedly substantial.

The imprisoned population continued to grow last year, albeit at a marginally slower rate than the decade as a whole. The number of those imprisoned grew by 1.8% last year, down from 2.8% in 2006, and slightly lower than 2.0% a year average since 2000.

The population behind bars continued to grow at a faster rate than the population as a whole last year. The number of people imprisoned per 100,000 population -- the imprisonment rate -- rose from 501 in 2006 to 506 last year. It was 475 per 100,000 in 2000. Since 2000, the number of people behind bars increased by 15%, while the US population increased by only 6.4%.

The prison populations in 36 states and the District of Columbia increased during 2007. The federal prison population experienced the largest absolute increase of 6,572 prisoners, followed by Florida (up 5,250 prisoners), Kentucky (up 2,457 prisoners) and Arizona (up 1,945 prisoners), resulting in 58.7% of the change in the overall prison population. Kentucky (12.3%), Mississippi (6.5%), Florida (5.6%), West Virginia (5.6%), and Arizona (5.4%) reported the largest percentage increases in their prison populations.

The prison populations in the remaining 14 states decreased. Michigan's (1,344) and California's (1,230) prison populations experienced the greatest absolute decrease, while Vermont (down 3.2%), Montana (down 2.8%), Michigan (down 2.6%), and New Mexico (down 2.6%) prison populations had the largest percent decreases.

America's position as the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita terms, remains unchallenged, and the war on drugs is playing a significant role. Interestingly, the BJS report comes one day after a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that 43 states face budget shortfalls next year. As for the federal budget deficit, well, who can even keep up with that?

The Prisoner's Family Conference

The United States is infamous for its burgeoning prisons. Are we doing something wrong? What does this mean for our families? Our communities? • Over 2.5 million of our children have parents in prison • Almost all of them live in poverty • As many as 70% of them will become prisoners themselves These children and their families live among us as a "hidden population," suffering in silence as they sit invisibly right next to us in our schools and places of work and worship. The Prisoner’s Family Conference offers a distinct opportunity to develop awareness and increase understanding of the uniquely disturbing circumstances and crucial needs of The Prisoner’s Family. It is the purpose of The Prisoner’s Family Conference to provide insight and initiate action that will elevate The Prisoner’s Family to integral, valuable and valued membership in the mainstream community. The Prisoner's Family Conference is vital to all who wish to join the effort to curb these tragic statistics. The conference is relevant for all who work with and serve children and families, as well as those in professions addressing issues affecting the prisoner’s family: • Addictions Professionals • Attorneys • Clergy/Chaplains • Educators • Government Officials • Jail & Prison Officials • Judges • Mental Health Professionals • Ministry Workers • Social Service Providers • Volunteers serving children & families • Youth Workers & • All Who Care to Learn and Wish to DO More For further information, please see http://solutionsforelpaso.org/?page_id=81 or contact: Community SOLUTIONS of El Paso at solutionsforelpaso@juno.com or 915-861-7733.
Date: 
Thu, 02/26/2009 - 8:00am - Fri, 02/27/2009 - 5:30pm
Location: 
1770 Airway Blvd.
El Paso, TX 79925
United States

The Plight of Women in the Penal System featuring Silja J.A. Talvi

The number of women in U.S. prisons has increased 757% in the last 30 years — and the prison system does not have proper services to deal with the population. Talvi, author of Women Behind Bars: the Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, will illuminate the system’s inability to deal with these issues. Free of charge. Full of substance. For more information call (505) 473-6282 or visit www.csf.edu. Sponsored by the College of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Reporter.
Date: 
Fri, 12/05/2008 - 7:00pm
Location: 
1600 St. Michael’s Drive
Santa Fe, NM 87505
United States

Europe: British Public Opinion Headed in Wrong Direction on Drug Policy, Poll Finds

If a comprehensive poll released last weekend is accurate -- and there is no reason to think it isn't -- British public opinion on drug policy is headed in the wrong direction. The poll conducted by ICM Research for the Observer and the Guardian newspapers found that public attitudes toward drug use, drug users, and drug sellers had grown decidedly more hard-line in recent years.

According to the poll, the proportion of people who think drug laws are "too liberal" has increased from 25% in 2002 to 32% now. At the same time, the number of people who think the drug laws are "not liberal enough" has dropped from 30% to 18%, and support for decriminalizing soft drugs has declined from 38% to 27%.

Respondents showed little sympathy for people who distribute drugs, whether they be professional drug dealers or merely sharing them with friends. About 70% said that all dealers should be treated the same -- with prison sentences. And 63% said drug addicts should be imprisoned.

Somewhat paradoxically, there is strong, though not majority, support for decriminalizing drug possession (38%) and making drugs available to addicts by prescription (44%).

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the newspapers hardening public attitudes were driven in part by concerns about stronger strains of cannabis. Both the Labor government and the British tabloid media have been engaged in a sometimes hysterical campaign to whip up fears about "skunk" in particular, as if that specific high-potency strain were somehow different from "regular" marijuana.

"This is a very important determinant of our decision to reclassify [cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug]. This is a different drug even to that which was reclassified from B down to C [in 2003]," she claimed. "People are now beginning to recognize this isn't just some kind of harmless thing, but can have a serious impact on young people's mental health." People also realized marijuana production involved organized crime, she added.

But Martin Smith, the director of Drugscope, told newspapers the media and the government had falsely portrayed the drug problem as worse than it really was. "Although overall illegal drug use has been falling and significant progress has been made in tackling drug-related crime, many people believe the problem at best is getting no better," he said.

Prisons Foundation: Dennis Sobin's "Letter From Jail #1"

Dennis Sobin's "Letter from Jail #1" November 2008 Dear Friends, Well, here I am back in jail. Again put here by my adult lawyer son and sister in an effort to silence me. The discord between us began in 2001 when my mother died. She was to leave a substantial part of her large fortune to the Prisons Foundation, a non-profit arts advocacy group which I had recently co-founded. The arraignment was to be handled by my attorney son with my sister's involvement and cooperation. A substantial share was also to go to each of them.In the end they got greedy and wanted it all; so they cut me and Prisons Foundation out. Over the years I have tried to find answers as to how such a thing could happen. My mother and I were close. She, a retired union organizer and former public school principal, was very supportive of the then infant Prisons Foundation. My son and sister reacted to my inquiries about the inheritance by getting repeated stay-away orders against me. This is the third time I've been charged with violating them. Previous stays in jail for such violations ranged from ten days to three months. This time the sentence has been harsher due to the influence and contacts my son and sister have. Due to their money and ambition, they have both risen to positions of power over the years. My sister Judy Sobin is a regional director of the United Way in Salt Lake City. My son Dennis Sobin is a D.C. assistant Attorney General working at City Hall here in Washington. The previous violation that my son had me prosecuted and jailed for was my attempt to resolve our differences by talking to his attorney. My sister put me in the slammer when I sent her an email on her birthday; sincerely wishing her happy returns and expressing hope that we could settle our "misunderstandings." I had forgotten that in Utah a stay-away order last three years, not one year as in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, my son has his stay-away order against me renewed year after year. This year he really lowered the boom when he learned that I was to testify at City Hall on behalf of the Prisons Foundation. He charged me with three violations for going or attempting to go to City Hall to give such testimony. That's why I am in jail now. The judge agreed with my son that the stay-away order called for me to keep away from his "place of work," and that City Hall was just that. My fine lawyer James Butler's impassioned argument that Darrin's "place of work" was in fact an office in City Hall that I had scrupulously avoided, that I came and left without incident, and that I never saw my son or attempted to see him, fell on unresponsive ears. The verdict of guilty on two counts hit me so badly both as a father and as a citizen that I collapsed, falling onto the defense table, and then taken to jail in an ambulance with a stop along the way at an area hospital that tested me and diagnosed me as having an anxiety attack. When I told my doctor and my nurses what had happened, they nearly fainted too. Now I'm sitting on a bunk in my jail cell, wearing my orange jumpsuit and writing several "Sobin's Letter's from the Jail" communiqués. I was sentenced to six months in jail, a half year. Given my son and sister's influence, coupled with their strong motivation to bury me even before my death, I expected it to be more severe. I will use my time to read and write books and work on my music. Of the two books I intend to write, one will be called Mentoring to Artists in Prison. It will be used in workshops to train mentors for imprisoned artists conducted by the Prisons Foundation (a program supported by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanity). If you care to help me I can use some blank paper. Please send me some loose sheets (up to 50) and I'll share any excess with other inmates (my roommate Michael is 18 and likes to write too). Also, I would appreciate a book or two. Any books sent to this institution must be paperback and sent directly by a bookseller (like Amazon.com). My favorite reading is American history, novelized or not, and music; particularly biographies of composers and songwriters, sheet music and song collections. I also ask that you support the Prison Art Gallery located at 1600 K Street NW, Suite 501, Washington, D.C. 20006. Telephone: 202-393-1511. It's currently being most ably run by Donovan Berry, Kevin Horrocks, Anita Winston and Jahi Foster-Bey. Except for Anita, the entire staff has all been to prison, and Anita is on her way there (to visit her son). Thank you deeply for your support. Yours for Justice, Dennis Sobin #206757 Central Detention Facility 1901 D Street S.E. Washington, D.C. 20003 *Note the views in this letter are those of the author alone. Please send your comments directly to him.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Seminar to Become a Mentor to Prison Artists

Thanks to a grant we received from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Prisons Foundation throughout the year has been conducting free all-day workshops for individuals who wish to become a mentor to imprisoned artists. We are now having our last workshop--a wrap up one that's just half a day long--and invite all to attend, whether or not you have been to a previous workshop. This summary workshop will feature the highlights of previous workshops. The workshop is free and refreshments will be served. It is ideal for anyone who attended any of the previous workshops as well as for new participants who seek to work either as a volunteer or paid staff member in a jail or prison. Attend this free workshop on Saturday, September 27, 1 to 5 pm. You'll learn what it takes to work in a jail or prison to foster artistic development among inmates. You'll receive this valuable training from experienced correctional officials (from both public and private jails) who have made presentations at our previous seminars. The highlights of their presentations will be show on video. You will also benefit from the insights and knowledge of ex-prisoner artists who will serve as workshop leaders. These knowledgeable people will share their experiences with you in a relaxed and fun setting at the Prison Art Gallery in downtown Washington, DC. This is a rare opportunity to make contacts and obtain valuable information. You can be part of it all. Whether you're looking for a one afternoon per month volunteer opportunity or a full-time paid career position, you will find this workshop very worthwhile. Please call us at 202-393-1511 or email staff@PrisonsFoundation.org to reserve your spot or for more information. Thank you.
Date: 
Sat, 09/27/2008 - 1:00pm - 5:00pm
Location: 
1600 K St. NW, Suite 501
Washington, DC
United States

Justice Policy Institute Press Release: Violent crime fell in 2007; Areas with lower incarceration rates experienced greater crime reductions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, September 15, 2008 Contact: LaWanda Johnson, (202) 558-7974x308; cell:(202) 320-1029 Violent Crime Fell in 2007; Areas with lower incarceration rates experienced greater crime reductions WASHINGTON, D.C.--Violent crime in the United States fell by 1.4 percent in 2007, according to an analysis released today by the Justice Policy Institute. The analysis, which is based on findings in the 2007 FBI Uniform Crime Report released today, finds that the drop in crime came at a time when the prison and jail growth rates fell from previous years. The analysis concluded that regions with the lowest incarceration rates also experienced the largest drops in violent crime. The number of violent and property crimes fell in three of the four regions of the country. The northeast region experienced the greatest drop in violent crime, and also has the lowest incarceration rates in the country. The southern region has the highest incarceration rates and witnessed a rise in violent crimes--the only part of the country to not experience a drop in crime. Furthermore, as the growth rates of prisons and jails fell, the violent crime rate fell as well, possibly indicating that lowering the number of people imprisoned can be an effective way to increase public safety. "The data clearly demonstrates that the use of incarceration as a means of increasing public safety is a failed public policy," said Sheila Bedi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. "This data underscores that investments in education, employment and housing are what make communities safer." The Uniform Crime Report also reinforces statistics around youth crime and suggests that punitive practices aimed at youth should be abandoned for more effective alternatives. According the UCR, adults are responsible for the majority of violent offenses, representing 84 percent of all violent crime arrests. For a more in-depth analysis of crime trends, and information on effective public safety practices, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org.

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