How Many Innocent People Are in Jail on Drug Charges?

Submitted by smorgan on
It's a question I've often pondered and one that anybody with strong opinions about drug policy should consider, regardless of where you stand on the issue. Surely, there exists no realistic formula with which to approximate an answer, but one need only observe and understand what the drug war is and how it works to know that grave injustices are forever embedded into the drug war equation.

The question resurfaced this week in an AP report that tells the story of Jose and Maximo Colon. The brothers were arrested and charged with cocaine distribution stemming from an alleged encounter with undercover officers in a sketchy NY bar. The case imploded when surveillance tape from the establishment revealed that the pair had simply not committed the crime or even interacted with the agents. They were arrested moments later by a back-up team, without a clue as to the reason why. Worse still, an outdoor camera captured footage of the undercover investigators "literally dancing down the street" afterwards, apparently pleased with their accomplishment.

It's a striking and gratuitous example of police misconduct to be sure, but the larger question is how many similar cases have led to convictions and prison time for their victims:

Jose quickly got the tape to defense attorney Rochelle Berliner, a former narcotics prosecutor. She couldn't believe what she was seeing.

''I almost threw up,'' she said. ''Because I must've prosecuted 1,500, 2,000 drug cases ... and all felonies. And I think back, Oh my God, I believed everything everyone told me. Maybe a handful of times did something not sound right to me. I don't mean to sound overly dramatic but I was like, sick.''

If it were only possible somehow to reveal the full scope of wrongful, fraudulent convictions in the war on drugs, I don't doubt that the entire nation would be stunned and sickened. Yet, for anyone who's paying attention, it's not necessary to fantasize about the true extent of injustice and corruption that the drug war has unleashed on innocent people. You can read about it in the newspaper all the time.

In Ohio, we saw a DEA agent indicted for helping frame 17 innocent people. In Atlanta, we saw police plant drugs in the home of an innocent 88-year-old woman after shooting her to death. In Tulia, TX we saw a rogue narcotics officer frame and arrest most of the black people in town. In Hearne, TX we saw the same damn thing. And across the country, we've seen dozens of innocent people who might well have ended up in prison if they hadn't been killed first by the police who raided their homes.

Behind all of this lies a matrix of perverse incentives, loose evidentiary requirements, and diminished accountability mechanisms that make mind-blowing miscarriages of justice more than inevitable. A central element of modern drug enforcement involves the use of informants, who trade information on other people for leniency in their own criminal cases. They have every incentive to lie and they do so constantly, as we've seen over and over again. Prosecutors offer leniency in exchange for "substantial assistance" in helping convict others, a practice that inherently favors the guiltiest party. Inevitably, those most directly involved in a criminal conspiracy are armed with names and other critical details that prosecutors crave, while peripheral players and innocent bystanders who become entangled in drug investigations are placed at a remarkable disadvantage.

Of course, it shouldn't be necessary to persuade anyone that our drug laws are designed to make things easy for police and hard for criminal suspects. These vast drug war powers are bestowed on police and prosecutors by legislators who are eager to provide law-enforcement with every necessary tool in the fight against crime. That much power creates countless innocent casualties even at the hands of our most honest public servants, and it's a nightmare when passed along to corrupt cops like the men who framed the Colon brothers.

Yet, when these dramatic fiascoes get exposed, police can often be found downplaying it and insisting that you can't fight the drug war without these sorts of aggressive and dirty tactics. If that's even remotely true, then the war on drugs is just far too filthy and corrupt to tolerate in a free and civil society.

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