Alternatives to Incarceration

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UN Drug Czar: "Drug Use Is a Health Problem, Not a Crime"

Localização: 
Afghanistan
On his first visit to Afghanistan since assuming duties as UNODC Executive Director in September, Mr. Yury Fedotov visited Jangalak Treatment Center, in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week. The center offers treatment and follow up care for recovering drug users. "Drug use is a health problem, not a crime", said Mr. Fedotov. "Drug users are affected by a disease - addiction - and instead of punishment, what they need is treatment, care and social integration. They should not be stigmatized, repressed or further marginalized. Like all people, they deserve to be treated humanely. I believe in placing a strong emphasis on safeguarding health, human rights and justice", he added.
Publication/Source: 
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Austria)
URL: 
http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2010/November/putting-people-first-unodc-executive-director-visits-drug-treatment-centre-and-womens-prison-in-afghanistan.html?ref=fs1

Drug Prohibition Related Cases Clogging Philippine Courts

Localização: 
Philippines
Drug prohibition related cases are clogging the dockets of the country’s courts and, as a result, jails are filled with drug suspects. Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Adolf Azcuna and present head of the Philippine Judicial Academy, said, "If you want to restore the drug offenders, you should be improving the places where you help drug addicts recover from their addiction."
Publication/Source: 
Philippine Daily Inquirer (Philippines)
URL: 
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20101117-303661/Drug-related-cases-clogging-nations-courts

Growth of Ex-Offender Population in United States Is a Dramatic Drag on Economy (Press Release)

For Immediate Release:November 15, 2010
Contact: Alan Barber, (571) 306-2526

Washington, D.C.- Three decades of harsh criminal justice policies have created a large population of ex-offenders that struggle in the labor market long after they have paid their debts to society, according to a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Because prison records and felony convictions greatly lower ex-offenders' chances of finding work, the United States loses between $57 billion and $65 billion a year in lost output.

“It isn't just that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, we have created a situation over the last 30 years where about one in eight men is an ex-offender,” said John Schmitt, a Senior Economist at CEPR and a co-author of the report.

The new report, “Ex-offenders and the Labor Market,” found that in 2008 there were between 5.4 million and 6.1 million ex-prisoners and between 12.3 million and 13.9 million ex-felons in the United States. Over 90 percent were men.

In 2008, about one in 33 working-age adults was an ex-prisoner, and about one in 15 working-age adults was an ex-felon. Among working-age men in that same year, about one in 17 was an ex-prisoner and one in eight was an ex-felon.

Because ex-offenders face substantial barriers to employment, the authors estimate that the large ex-offender population in 2008 lowered employment that year by the equivalent of 1.5 million to 1.7 million workers.

"The rise in the ex-offender population overwhelmingly reflects changes in the U.S. criminal Justice system, not changes in underlying criminal activity," says Schmitt. "We incarcerate an astonishing share of non-violent offenders, particularly for drug-related offenses. We have far better ways to handle these kinds of offenses, but so far common sense has not prevailed."

The report warns that in the absence of reforms to the criminal justice system, the share of ex-offenders in the working-age population will rise substantially in coming years, increasing the magnitude of employment and output losses estimated for 2008.

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Drug-Addicted Criminals Will Be Spared Jail

Localização: 
United Kingdom
Criminals who are addicted to drugs will be spared jail and sent for treatment instead under plans being drawn up by Kenneth Clarke. He has publicly questioned whether prison is the best place to deal with offenders who are addicted to drugs.
Publication/Source: 
Daily Telegraph (UK)
URL: 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/8115834/Drug-addicted-criminals-will-be-spared-jail.html

Indonesian Police Say Jail Cells No Help in Drug War

Localização: 
Indonesia
The Jakarta Police are considering handing drug traffickers hefty fines rather than locking them up, arguing that imprisonment did not appear to be an effective deterrent and was getting too costly for the state. According to Jakarta Police Chief Inspector General Sutarman, it would be much wiser if drug users were not put in jail but in a rehabilitation center, which is currently not an option. "If jails are already full and people who violate the law are also set to become a burden for the state, why don’t we change this? I think we need a strategic decision, to be taken by the government and the legislature," he said.
Publication/Source: 
Jakarta Globe (Indonesia)
URL: 
http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/indonesian-police-say-jail-cells-no-help-in-drug-war/405000

Washington Prosecutor Candidate Makes Drug Reform a Key Issue [FEATURE]

Snohomish County, Washington, stretches from the Seattle suburbs in the south to the city of Everett in the north. It encompasses the Pacific Coast and the Cascade Range, and come November, its 700,000 citizens will be electing a new prosecutor. One of the candidates is staking out a very progressive position on drug policy.

Jim Kenny with firefighters (jimkenny.org)
The campaign pits incumbent prosecutor Mark Roe against challenger Jim Kenny. Both are long-time prosecutors, Roe in Snohomish County and Kenny in Seattle, and both are Democrats. But only one supported I-1068, this year's failed marijuana legalization initiative, and only one is trying to make drug policy reform a winning issue. That would be Jim Kenny.

Under Washington election law, the top two vote-getters in the primary go to the general election ballot, regardless of party affiliation. Roe won the primary with 67% of the vote, while Kenny came in second with 31%.

"You could say I'm the underdog," Kenny told the Chronicle this week. "But we do have a plan to turn those numbers around and win in the general election. We think we can double the turnout over the primary election," he said.

With both candidates running as Democrats and experienced prosecutors, the challenger is looking for issues to differentiate himself from the incumbent, and for Kenny, drug policy is one of those issues. Reformist stances are drug policy positions are prominently displayed on his campaign web site's issues page. Roe does not even have an issues page.

Kenny supported I-1068 because "it was the right thing to do," he said. "I supported 1068 for a variety of reasons," said the veteran prosecutor. "I think it was the right thing to do to end 40 years of the war on drugs and marijuana prohibition. It could have had financial benefits for the state through a redirection of law enforcement resources or potentially even a reduction in the need for those resources."

Kenny pointed out that there were 12,000 marijuana prosecutions in Washington in 2008. "Those prosecutions cost the state more than $18 million," he said. "If you legalize marijuana, you would reduce the need for all those arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations. You can save those resources, or redirect them to fight real crime."

"You could also tax marijuana, and those tax dollars would be a real financial benefit to the state," he said.

"Another reason 1068 made a lot of sense," Kenny continued, "is that it started allowing our community in the state of Washington to look at drugs within a public health model instead of a criminal justice model. We spent 40 years prosecuting people for drugs, but now the Obama administration has come out with a new drug control strategy that walks away from war on drugs rhetoric and talks about dealing with drugs as a public health issue. It didn't involve any changing of programs or funding, but I think it's significant for the federal government to disavow the term 'war on drugs.' That provides the opportunity for people at the local level, for prosecutors, to run with it. I'm afraid the federal government may not take more significant steps in that direction, but it is something local governments can run with."

Kenny also sought to draw a sharp line between himself and Roe on medical marijuana. "My opponent is prosecuting some sick and injured people as felons for marijuana distribution, and I think that's the wrong thing to do," Kenny said. "People with medical marijuana authorizations should be treated as patients, not criminals."

Talking drug policy reform could be a winning issue, or at least not a losing one in Western Washington, said Seattle attorney Rachel Kurtz. "I feel like we're pretty advanced here," she said. "[Drug reformer and state representative] Roger Goodman runs for office, and in his last election he was attacked for not doing enough on drug reform. In this financial climate, drug policy reform is seen as a way to save money and taxes. I don't think Kenny is going to lose because of his drug policy stances. The electorate is becoming smarter and you can use those old tactics anymore," she said.

Kenny isn't just talking about pot. He is also advocating innovative criminal justice measures to reduce incarceration levels and promising to bring transparency to police-involved shootings. It's all part of what he calls "smart on crime" policies, as opposed to "tough on crime."

"We need to continue to incarcerate serious and violent offenders, but for low- and mid-level offenders we can do more," Kenny said. "In other cities across the country, they are using some innovative ideas to help people help themselves by addressing root causes, such as mental health and drug and alcohol problems," he said, pointing to problem-solving courts, such as drug court, mental health court, and veterans' court.

Snohomish County, with a large naval base and veteran population, should have a veterans' court, Kenny argued. "It's a specialized court with a redirection of resources where you might take in all the vets' cases," he said. "It's really about asking these defendants what's going on with them, why are they doing this, looking at their criminal histories and asking how we can change this. Ideally, it involves additional resources, particularly getting people into alcohol and drug treatment. It's about slowing down the process and asking why, and that makes a real difference."

The county does have a drug court, Kenny noted, but needs more problem-solving courts. "Those programs have been expanded in places in the country and the state, and we need to bring them to Snohomish County."

He also favors alternative sentencing arrangements. "Work crews, electronic monitoring, community service -- all of those keep people out of jail and allow us to not have to build a second jail any time in the near future. If we can use these tools to reduce recidivism, especially without putting people in jail, that would be a good thing," he said. "My conservative opponents don't like to focus on the fact that jail can be a school for criminals."

Kenny is also taking a strong stand on accountability for police-involved killings. In the past 18 months, Snohomish police have shot six people to death and Tasered one to death. Those killings need a light shone on them, he said.

"That's a real concern. I want to establish mandatory inquests," he said. "Inquests are not a criminal case, but a fact-finding investigation to find out what happened and whether it was justified. We need some transparency for these incidents where police use lethal force in the name of the community. There is currently no inquest, so unless the decedent files a lawsuit, we may never hear what happened in that particular case. And even then, civil cases are settled out of court all the time. Bad things could be happening and we never learn the details of why."

Mandatory inquests would be "good for the community and good for the police," Kenny said. "It gives police the opportunity to take the stand and explain why they used lethal force. They should explain to the community why. It costs some money, but it will provide transparency, and the community can rely on the fact that the police are doing the right thing."

When, running on a drug reform platform, New York prosecutor David Soares defeated the incumbent in the Albany County district attorney race in 2004, it was a shock. It is a measure of how far we have come that if Kenny manages to pull off a long-shot victory in November, it will be no shock at all, just a pleasant surprise.

(This article 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.)

Everett, WA
United States

Capitol Hill Hearing -- Quitting Hard Habits: Efforts to Expand and Improve Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug-Involved Offenders

The Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House of Representative's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is holding this hearing to focus on front-end alternatives to incarceration for drug-involved offenders and abusers of illegal drugs. It will examine the extent to which and why (or why not) these efforts have been effective in reducing the levels and associated harms of incarceration, reducing recidivism, effectively treating drug abuse, and improving other social outcomes and which approaches (or mix approaches) are best suited to accomplishing these goals. This hearing is held as part of the Domestic Policy Subcommittee’s mandate as the authorizing committee for the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the House of Representatives.
Data: 
Thu, 07/22/2010 - 2:00pm - 5:00pm
Localização: 
Independence Avenue and South Capitol Street
Washington, DC 20003
United States

Press Release: Hearing to Assess Alternatives to Incarceration For Drug-Involved Offenders

For Immediate Release Contact: Nathan White, (202) 225-5871 Oversight Hearing to Assess Alternatives to Incarceration For Drug-Involved Offenders Washington D.C. – Chairman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) today announced a Domestic Policy Subcommittee hearing entitled “Quitting Hard Habits: Efforts to Expand and Improve Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug-Involved Offenders.” The hearing will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 22, 2010 in room 2154 Rayburn House Office Building. The purpose of the hearing is to focus on front-end alternatives to incarceration for drug-involved offenders and abusers of illegal drugs. It will examine the extent to which and why (or why not) these efforts have been effective in reducing the levels and associated harms of incarceration, reducing recidivism, effectively treating drug abuse, and improving other social outcomes and which approaches (or mix approaches) are best suited to accomplishing these goals. This hearing is held as part of the Domestic Policy Subcommittee’s mandate as the authorizing committee for the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the House of Representatives. http://oversight.house.gov/index.php?option=com_jcalpro&Itemid=1&extmode... ###
Localização: 
Washington, DC
United States

Incarceration Nation: Number of People in State Prisons Declines for First Time Since Nixon, New Report Finds

For the first time since President Richard Nixon won reelection in 1972, the number of people behind bars in state prisons declined last year, according to a new survey, Prison Count 2010, conducted by the Pew Center on the States. As of January 1, there were 1,403,091 people doing state prison time, a decline of 5,739, or 0.4%, from December 31, 2008.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/jail1.jpg
prison population at turning point?
The state prison population has increased seven-fold since 1972, driven by harsher sentencing laws, including drug laws, and an ever larger number of people under correctional supervision, who are eligible to be sent to or back to prison for violating the conditions of their probation or parole. People sentenced for drug offenses typically account for somewhere between 20% and 25% of state prison populations.

The drop was driven was by significant declines in prison populations in states like California, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, and Texas, where sentencing and parole reforms passed in recent years are beginning to take hold. California saw the largest decline in absolute numbers, shedding 4,257 prisoners last year, followed by Michigan (down 3,260), New York (down 1,699), Maryland (down 1,315), Texas (down 1,257), and Mississippi (down 1,233).

But there was also wide variation among the states. Twenty-seven states saw declines, while 23 saw increases, some significant. In the 23 states where the state prison population grew, more than half of the increase occurred in just five states: Pennsylvania (2,122), Florida (1,527), Indiana (1,496), Louisiana (1,399) and Alabama (1,053).

"After so many years on the rise, any size drop is notable. What's really striking is the tremendous variation among the states," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project."These numbers highlight just how much the decisions by state policymakers impact the size and cost of prison systems."

States have gotten smarter -- as opposed to tougher -- on crime, Gelb said. "The decline is happening for several reasons, but an important contributor is that states began to realize there are research-based ways they can cut their prison populations while continuing to protect public safety," he said. "In the past few years, several states have enacted reforms designed to get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars."

The trend pre-dated the economic recession, he noted. "These types of policy changes are not simply a response to the economic downturn," said Gelb. "Before this recession began, states like Texas recognized that by strengthening their probation and reentry programs they could cut corrections spending, protect public safety and hold offenders accountable for their actions."

It's a different story with the federal prison population, the report found. The number of federal prisoners continued to grow, increasing by 3.4% in 2009 to an all-time record 208,118. More than 60% of federal prisons are doing time for drug offenses.

The increase in federal prisoners was enough to outweigh the decrease among state prisoners, and the combined state and federal prison population grew by 1,099 last year.

The state and federal prison numbers do not include jail inmates. When they are added in, said Pew, the nation's incarceration rate remains unchanged, with some 2.3 million people behind bars.

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/marijuana-plants-smaller.jpg
marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ventura-dispensary-smaller.jpg
medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves-smaller.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugtestinglab-smaller.jpg
drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/prison-overcrowding-even-smaller.jpg
unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/malverde1-even-smaller.jpg
shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

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