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Feature: 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conferences Opens Amid Optimism in Albuquerque

Hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, people poured into the Convention Center in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the Drug Policy Alliance's 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference got underway yesterday. Set to go on through Saturday, the conference is drawing attendees from around the country and the world to discuss dozens of different drug reform topics. (See the link above for a look at the program.)

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screening of near-final version of the next Flex Your Rights film, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police
This is the second time DPA has brought the conference to the distant deserts of the Southwest. In 2001, DPA rewarded libertarian-leaning New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) for becoming the highest ranking elected official in the US to call for ending drug prohibition by bringing the conference to his home state. Since then, the ties between DPA and New Mexico have only deepened.

As DPA New Mexico office head Reena Szczepanski explained at the opening plenary session, the Land of Enchantment is fertile ground for drug reform. "Back in 1997, when drug policy reform was little more than a twinkle in the eye, New Mexico passed a harm reduction act mandating the Department of Health to give out clean syringes for people with HIV/AIDS," she noted. "Then, when Gov. Johnson said it was time to end the war on drugs, DPA very wisely immediately opened an office here. In 2001, we passed the overdose prevention act, allowing for the distribution of naloxone. Then we passed opting out on the federal welfare ban, we passed asset forfeiture reform, we passed the 911 Good Samaritan Act -- saving somebody's life is more important than busting them for small amounts of drugs."

But wait, there's more. "Thanks to Gov. Bill Richardson, we became the 12th state to have legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill people," Szczepanski continued. "We're working on treatment instead of incarceration, we're working to end the war on drugs in New Mexico and this country. This is a very special place for drug policy reform."

New Mexico is also right next store to one of the drug war's bloodiest battlegrounds: the mean streets of Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas, which in turn in borders New Mexico. More than 2,200 people have died in prohibition-related violence in Juarez this year alone.

That violence just across the river inspired El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke to turn a motion expressing sympathy for El Paso's sister city into one that also asked for an open and honest debate on ending drug prohibition. The resolution passed the city council by a unanimous vote, only to be vetoed by the mayor. Then, as the council scheduled an override vote, the pressure came down.

"Each of us on the council got a call from Rep. Silvestre Reyes, our congressman and a very powerful figure," O'Rourke told the crowd Thursday. "He told us if we went forward with this, it will be very hard to get your district the federal funding you need. That's a powerful threat, since we rely on federal funding to deliver basic services. It was enough to get four members to change their votes."

While the resolution was defeated, the debacle opened the door for serious debate on drug policy in El Paso and generated support for ending prohibition as well, O'Rourke said. "Our local Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter came out very strongly and helped organize a global policy forum in El Paso. I received hundreds of calls, letters, and emails of support from around the country and the world," O'Rourke related to sustained applause.

If Councilman O'Rourke was a new face, Ira Glasser is a familiar one. Former executive director of the ACLU and president of the DPA board of directors, Glasser told the crowd he was more optimistic about the prospects for change than ever before.

"Today we stand on the brink of transformative progress," he said. "I have never said that before. We can almost touch the goals we have sought, the unraveling of the so-called war on drugs, which is really a war on fundamental freedoms and constitutional rights, on personal autonomy, on our sovereignty over our minds and bodies, a war against people of darker skin color."

Just as Jim Crow laws were the successor to the system of slavery, said Glasser, so the drug war has been the successor to Jim Crow. "It's no accident that after the civil rights revolution ended with the passage of the last federal civil right law in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected on the southern strategy against progress on civil rights," he noted. "Within months of taking office, Nixon declared the modern war on drugs."

Glasser wasn't the only one feeling uplifted. "I am feeling good, better than ever before," said DPA executive director and plenary keynote speaker Ethan Nadelmann. "The wind is at our back. We are making progress like never before. We have to move hard and fast. Historically speaking, there are moments when everything comes together," drawing a pointed comparison with the successful temperance movement that managed to get alcohol banned during Prohibition. But Prohibition generated its own counter-movement, he said, again drawing a pointed parallel.

"Now, we're in another moment," Nadelmann said. "We're hurting with the recession, state budgets are hemorrhaging. More and more people are realizing we can't afford to pay for our prejudices, we can't continue to be the world's largest incarcerator."

But it's not just the economy that is opening the window, he continued. "What's happening in Mexico and Afghanistan, where illicit drugs are ready sources of revenues for criminals and political terrorists, that has people thinking. We have two major national security problems causing people to think afresh."

Nadelmann had a suggestion: "Ending marijuana prohibition is a highly effective way of undermining that violence," he said. "Until we end it, buy American."

Just after the opening plenary session ended, reporters and other interested parties repaired to a Convention Center conference room to see the US unveiling of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation publication, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Regulation, a how-to manual on how to get to drug reform's promised land. Transform executive director Danny Kushlick was joined by Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, Deborah Small of Break the Chains, and DPA's Nadelmann as he laid out the case for moving beyond "what would it look like."

"There's never been a clear vision of a post-prohibition world," said Kushlick. "With this, we've tried to reclaim drug policy from the drug warriors. We want to make drug policy boring," he said. "We want not only harm reduction, but drama reduction," he added, envisioning debates about restrictions on sales hours, zoning, and other dreary topics instead of bloody drug wars and mass incarceration.

"As a movement, we have failed to articulate the alternative," said Tree. "And that leaves us vulnerable to the fear of the unknown. This report restores order to the anarchy. Prohibition means we have given up on regulating drugs; this report outlines some of the options for regulation."

That wasn't the only unveiling Thursday. Later in the evening, Flex Your Rights held the first public showing of its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" played to a packed and enthusiastic house. This highly useful examination of how not to get yourself busted is bound to equal if not exceed the break-out success of "Busted."

The conference, of course, continued Thursday afternoon and will go through Saturday, but your reporter was busy getting this week's Drug War Chronicle ready to go. Come back next week for fuller reports on the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

Law Enforcement: Drug Court Program Needs Serious Reforms, Defense Attorneys Say

Drug courts have spread all across the country since the first one was instituted in Miami 20 years ago by then local prosecutor Janet Reno, but now, the nation's largest group of criminal defense attorneys says they have become an obstacle to cost-effective drug treatment and a burden on the criminal justice system. In a report released Tuesday, America's Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform, the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL) argued that drug addiction should be considered a public health problem, outside the criminal justice arena.

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drug court
More than 2,100 drug courts are now in operation in the US, the group noted, but they have had no noticeable impact on drug use rates or arrests. Furthermore, the courts, which empower judges and prosecutors at the expense of defendants and their attorneys, too often limit treatment to "easy" offenders while forcing "hard cases" into the jails or prisons.

Minorities, immigrants, and poor people are often underrepresented in drug court programs, leaving them to rot behind bars at taxpayer expense. Drug courts also mean that access to drug treatment comes at the cost of a guilty plea, the group said.

"Today's drug courts have been operating for over 20 years yet have not stymied the rise in both drug abuse or exponentially increasing prison costs to taxpayers," said NACDL president Cynthia Orr. "It is time for both an extensive review of these courts and for the average American to ask themselves: Is our national drug policy working, and perhaps it is a public health concern rather than a criminal justice one?"

In the report, NACDL recommended the following reforms:

  • Treating substance abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one;
  • Opening admission criteria to all those who need, want and request treatment;
  • Enforcing greater transparency in admission practices and relying on expert assessments, not merely the judgment of prosecutors;
  • Prohibiting the requirement of guilty pleas as the price of admission;
  • Urging greater involvement of the defense bar to create programs that preserve the rights of the accused;
  • Considering the ethical obligations of defense lawyers to their client even if they choose court-directed treatment; and
  • Opening a serious national discussion on decriminalizing low-level drug use.

Sentencing Project Recommendations to U.S. Sentencing Commission

Dear Friend, Today the United States Sentencing Commission will be meeting in Washington, D.C. to establish its priorities for the 2009-2010 program year. In preparation for this meeting, the Commission has invited interested parties to recommend areas of focus on federal sentencing policy. On August 5, The Sentencing Project submitted a letter to the Commission highlighting four areas of attention. Our recommended issue areas are the following: 1. Prepare a Report for Congress on the Impact of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences - The last substantial report produced on mandatory sentencing is now nearly 20 years old. We recommend a fresh examination of these issues, including the impact of mandatory sentencing on public safety and racial disparity, and the utility of the federal "safety valve" sentencing provision. 2. Continue Recent Activity in the Area of Cocaine Sentencing Policy - The Commission should continue to play an active role in Congressional deliberations regarding changes in the penalty structure for crack and powder cocaine sentencing. 3. Prepare a Report for Congress on Alternatives to Incarceration - Building on evidence that alternatives are underutilized in the federal system, particularly for drug offenses, the Commission should examine options for expansion of alternatives and guidelines restrictions that need to be reconsidered. 4. Examine the Impact of Time Served in Prison on Crime, Costs, and Disparity - Between 1993 and 2006 time served in prison for federal offenses increased by 44%. The Commission should examine these changes to assess their value and cost regarding public safety outcomes. We hope you find these recommendations useful in your work, and we will keep you posted regarding the priorities established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. -The Sentencing Project

Drug Warriors for Sensible Drug Policy

Some interesting comments from former drug czar Barry McCaffrey at Huffington Post:

Our traditional justice system has been inadequate to the task of breaking the cycle of substance abuse and crime. Four out of every five offenses are committed by someone with a drug or alcohol problem; and we just keep locking them up!

Given the abysmal outcomes of incarceration on addictive behavior, there's absolutely no justification for state governments to continue to waste tax dollars feeding a situation where generational recidivism is becoming the norm and parents, children and grandparents may find themselves locked up together.

And here's Robert Weiner, former spokesman at the drug czar's office, writing in the Baltimore Sun:

Why…is the Obama administration proposing to spend an even higher percentage of its anti-drug resources on law enforcement than the administration of George W. Bush?

Mr. Kerlikowske has said, "It is only through a balanced approach - combining tough but fair enforcement with robust prevention and treatment - that we will be successful in stemming both demand and supply of illegal drugs." Yet, in the 2010 budget, there is a 3.3 percent reduction in treatment and prevention initiatives since 2008, exacerbating the bias toward enforcement, which now represents 65.6 percent of the budget, even higher than the last administration's 62.3 percent.

So why are these prominent drug warriors now criticizing U.S. drug policy for its perpetual focus on enforcement and incarceration? The short answer is probably that they now work as consultants with clients in the drug treatment industry who love seeing editorials like these.

But I'd like to think that on some level they feel maybe just a little bit responsible for their role in filling our prisons with an unfathomable number of people who don't belong there.

Tough Times: California Protests Over HIV/AIDS Budget Cuts -- Needle Exchange Funding at Risk, Prop. 36 Funding to Vanish

California's $24 billion budget deficit and the steep cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to reduce it provoked demonstrations by HIV/AIDS activists and harm reductionists last Friday in Los Angeles, Monday in Fresno, and Wednesday in Sacramento calling for the restoration of funding. Late last month, Schwarzenegger announced plans to slice $80.1 million in funding for critical HIV/AIDS services, including totally eliminating general fund support for all State Office of AIDS programs except the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which will lose $12.3 million in general fund support.

The cuts would zero out state funding for harm reduction services through the AIDS office, as well as most of the HIV/AIDS prevention funds that California cities use to provide grants for needle exchange programs. For most of the 40 needle exchanges in the state, those grants provided between 60% and 90% of their total funding.

HIV/AIDS and harm reduction groups have organized a coalition known as Stop the HIV Cuts in a bid to reverse the proposed cuts. In addition to the demonstration in Sacramento, protests were also held Wednesday in San Diego and Palm Springs.

Funding for Proposition 36, the voter-approved 2001 law that requires that low-level drug offenders be sent to treatment instead of jail or prison, is also on the line. Gov. Schwarzenegger wants the legislature to eliminate the $108 million line-item for the program, which enrolls some 36,000 drug offenders in the state.

But that would leave California in a strange bind. Prop. 36 is not a program, but a state law, approved by the voters, who mandated that the legislature fund the program through 2006. It prevents judges from sending Prop. 36-eligible offenders to prison, instead of requiring that they receive treatment. If the state does not provide funding, the burden will shift to counties and municipalities, which will not be able to make up the difference. That means that Prop. 36-eligible offenders may, in the near future, receive neither jail sentences nor treatment.

Sentencing: Poll Finds Public Open to Probation, Diversion Instead of Hard Time for Drug Possession, Other Nonviolent Offenses

According to a newly released poll, more than one-quarter of the population believes that incarceration is never necessary for nonviolent drug possession offenders. The poll does not ask whether drug possessors should be left alone, placed on probation, or forced into treatment, but the response suggests that a significant proportion of the public is ready for the effective decriminalization, or at least depenalization, of drug possession -- and not just for marijuana.

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overused
The poll was commissioned by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and conducted in April by Zogby International. It examined public attitudes toward incarceration for nonviolent, non-serious offenders, which it defined as "those convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual crimes in which the value of lost property did not exceed $400."

Overall, the poll found that a majority of American adults believe some crimes for which offenders are currently incarcerated do not demand jail time, with 77% agreeing that the most appropriate sentence for such offenders is probation, restitution, community service and/or rehabilitative services. The same percentage believes that such alternatives to incarceration to do not decrease public safety, while more than half (55%) believe that alternatives to incarceration would save money for state and local governments.

Regarding drug possession, the poll asked: "Please tell me if you think it is always, usually, sometimes, rarely, or never necessary to incarcerate a person in prison or jail who has been convicted of possession or use of illegal drugs, with no intention to sell and not while driving."

More than two-thirds (68%) responded it was either only sometimes (41%) or never (27%) necessary to jail drug users. Only 15% thought jail was usually necessary, while another 15% thought it was always necessary. Broken down by political affiliation, independents (52%) were more likely than either Republicans (39%) or Democrats (35%) to feel that jail is only sometimes necessary in such cases.

Drug users came out ahead of petty property criminals, with 60% saying the latter offenders should never or only sometimes be jailed, as well as people who solicit prostitutes (48%) and probation or parole violators (40%). On the other hand, 86% thought it was never or only sometimes necessary to jail people convicted of loitering or disturbing the peace and 79% thought that about public drunks. (One has to wonder about the 5% who thought it was always necessary to jail loiterers or peace disturbers.)

Feature: Twenty Years of Drug Courts -- Results and Misgivings

The drug court phenomenon celebrates its 20th birthday this year. The first drug court, designed to find a more effective way for the criminal justice system to deal with drug offenders, was born in Miami in 1989 under the guidance of then local prosecutor Janet Reno. Since then, drug courts have expanded dramatically, with their number exceeding 2000 today, including at least one in every state.

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drug court scene
According to Urban Institute estimates, some 55,000 people are currently in drug court programs. The group found that another 1.5 million arrestees would probably meet the criteria for drug dependence and would thus be good candidates for drug courts.

The notion behind drug courts is that providing drug treatment to some defendants would lead to better outcomes for them and their communities. Unlike typical criminal proceedings, drug courts are intended to be collaborative, with judges, prosecutors, social workers, and defense attorneys working together to decide what would be best for the defendant and the community.

Drug courts can operate either by diverting offenders into treatment before sentencing or by sentencing offenders to prison terms and suspending the sentences providing they comply with treatment demands. They also vary in their criteria for eligibility: Some may accept only nonviolent, first-time offenders considered to be addicted, while others may have broader criteria.

Such courts rely on sanctions and rewards for their clients, with continuing adherence to treatment demands met with a loosening of restrictions and relapsing into drug use subjected to ever harsher punishments, typically beginning with a weekend in jail and graduating from there. People who fail drug court completely are then either diverted back into the criminal justice system for prosecution or, if they have already been convicted, sent to prison.

Drug courts operate in a strange and contradictory realm that embraces the model of addiction as a disease needing treatment, yet punishes failure to respond as if it were a moral failing. No other disease is confronted in such a manner. There are no diabetes courts, for example, where one is placed under the control of the criminal justice system for being sick and subject to "flash incarceration" for eating forbidden foods.

Conceptual dilemmas notwithstanding, drug courts have been extensively studied, and the general conclusion is that, within the parameters of the therapeutic/criminal justice model, they are successful. A recently released report from the Sentencing Project is the latest addition to the literature, or, more accurately, review of the literature.

In the report, Drug Courts: A Review of the Evidence, the group concluded that:

  • Drug courts have generally been demonstrated to have positive benefits in reducing recidivism.
  • Evaluations of the cost-effectiveness of drug courts have generally found benefits through reduced costs of crime or incarceration.
  • Concern remains regarding potential "net-widening" effects of drug courts by drawing in defendants who might not otherwise have been subject to arrest and prosecution.

"What you have with drug courts is a program that the research has shown time and time again works," said Chris Deutsch, associate director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in suburban Washington, DC. "We all know the problems facing the criminal justice system with drug offenders and imprisonment. We have established incentives and sanctions as an important part of the drug court model because they work," he said. "One of the reasons drug courts are expanding so rapidly," said Deutsch, "is that we don't move away from what the research shows works. This is a scientifically validated model."

"There is evidence that in certain models there is success in reducing recidivism, but there is not a single model that works," said Ryan King, coauthor of the Sentencing Project report. "We wanted to highlight common factors in success, such as having judges with multiple turns in drug court and who understand addiction, and building on graduated sanctions, but also to get people to understand the weaknesses."

"Drug courts are definitely better than going to prison," said Theshia Naidoo, a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has championed a less coercive treatment-not-jail program in California's Proposition 36, "but they are not the be-all and end-all of addressing drug abuse. They may be a step forward in our current prohibitionist system, but when you look at their everyday operations, it's pretty much criminal justice as usual."

That was one of the nicest things said about drug courts by harm reductionists and drug policy reformers contacted this week by the Chronicle. While drug courts can claim success as measured by the metrics embraced by the therapeutic-criminal justice complex, they appear deeply perverse and wrongheaded to people who do not embrace that model.

Remarks by Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy hit many of the common themes. "If drug courts result in more people being caught up in the criminal justice system, I do not see them as a good thing," he said. "The US has one out of 31 people in prison on probation or on parole, and that's a national embarrassment more appropriate for a police state than the land of the free. If drug courts are adding to that problem, they are part of the national embarrassment, not the solution."

But Zeese was equally disturbed by the therapeutic-criminal justice model itself. "Forcing drug treatment on people who happen to get caught is a very strange way to offer health care," he observed. "We would see a greater impact if treatment on request were the national policy and sufficient funds were provided to treatment services so that people who wanted treatment could get it quickly. And, the treatment industry would be a stronger industry if they were not dependent on police and courts to be sending them 'clients' -- by force -- and if instead they had to offer services that people wanted."

For Zeese, the bottom line was: "The disease model has no place in the courts. Courts don't treat disease, doctors and health professionals do."

In addition to such conceptual and public policy concerns, others cited more specific problems with drug court operations. "In Connecticut, the success of drug courts depends on educated judges," said Robert Heimer of the Yale University School of Public Health. "For example, in some parts of the state, judges refused to send defendants with opioid addiction to methadone programs. This dramatically reduced the success of the drug courts in these parts of the state compared to parts of the state where judges referred people to the one proven medically effective form of treatment for their addiction."

Heimer's complaint about the rejection of methadone maintenance therapy was echoed on the other side of the Hudson River by upstate New York drug reformer Nicolas Eyle of Reconsider: Forum on Drug Policy. "Most, if not all, drug courts in New York abhor methadone and maintenance treatment in general," he noted. "This is troubling because the state's recent Rockefeller law reforms have a major focus on treatment in lieu of prison, suggesting that more and more hapless people will be forced to enter treatment they may not need or want. Then the judge decides what type of treatment they must have, and when they don't achieve the therapeutic goals set for them they'll be hauled off to serve their time."

Still, said Heimer, "Such courts can work if appropriate treatment options are available, but if the treatment programs are bad, then it is unlikely that courts will work. In such cases, if the only alternative is then incarceration, there is little reason for drug courts. If drug court personnel think their program is valuable, they should be consistently lobbying for better drug treatment in their community. If they are not doing this, then they are contributing to the circumstances of their own failure, and again, the drug user becomes the victim if the drug court personnel are not doing this."

Even within the coerced treatment model, there are more effective approaches than drug courts, said Naidoo. "Drug courts basically have a zero tolerance policy, and many judges just don't understand addiction as a chronic relapsing condition, so if there is a failed drug test, the court comes in with a hammer imposing a whole series of sanctions. A more effective model would be to look at the overall context," she argued. "If the guy has a dirty urine, but has found a job, has gotten housing, and is reunited with his family, maybe he shouldn't be punished for the relapse. The drug court would punish him."

Other harm reductionists were just plain cynical about drug courts. "I guess they work in reducing the drug-related harm of going to prison by keeping people out of prison -- except when they're sending people to prison," said Delaney Ellison, a veteran Michigan harm reductionist and activist. "And that's exactly what drug courts do if you're resistant to treatment or broke. Poor, minority people can't afford to complete a time-consuming drug court regime. If a participant finds he can't pay the fines, go to four hours a day of outpatient treatment, and pay rent and buy food while trapped in the system, he finds a way to prioritize and abandons the drug court."

An adequate health care system that provided treatment on demand is what is needed, Ellison said. "And most importantly, when are we going to stop letting cops and lawyers -- and this includes judges -- regulate drugs?" he asked. "These people don't know anything about pharmacology. When do we lobby to let doctors and pharmacists regulate drugs?"

Drug courts are also under attack on the grounds they deny due process rights to defendants. In Maryland, the state's public defender last week argued that drug courts were unconstitutional, complaining that judges should not be allowed to send someone to jail repeatedly without a full judicial hearing.

"There is no due process in drug treatment court," Public Defender Nancy Foster told the Maryland Court of Appeals in a case that is yet to be decided.

Foster's argument aroused some interest from the appeals court judges. One of them, Judge Joseph Murphy, noted that a judge talking to one party in a case without the other party being present, which sometimes happens in drug courts, has raised due process concerns in other criminal proceedings. "Can you do that without violating the defendant's rights?" he asked.

A leading advocate of the position that drug courts interfere with due process rights is Williams College sociologist James Nolan. In an interview last year, Nolan summarized his problem with drug courts. "My concern is that if we make the law so concerned with being therapeutic, you forget about notions of justice such as proportionality of punishment, due process and the protection of individual rights," Nolan said. "Even though problem-solving advocates wouldn't want to do away with these things, they tend to fade into the background in terms of importance."

In that interview, Nolan cited a Miami-Dade County drug court participant forced to remain in the program for seven years. "So here, the goal is not about justice," he said. "The goal is to make someone well, and the consequences can be unjust because they are getting more of a punishment than they deserve."

Deutsch said he was "hesitant" to comment on criticisms of the drug court model, "but the fact of the matter is that when it comes to keeping drug addicted offenders out of the criminal justice system and in treatment, drug courts are the best option available."

For the Sentencing Project's King, drug courts are a step up from the depths of the punitive prohibitionist approach, but not much of one. "With the drug courts, we're in a better place now than we were 20 years ago, but it's not the place we want to be 20 years from now," he said. "The idea that somebody needs to enter the criminal justice system to access public drug treatment is a real tragedy."

Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- New York Rockefeller Drug Law Reform on the Verge of Passage

A week ago today, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) and state Assembly and Senate leaders announced they had reached an agreement on reforming the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The agreement marked a partial retreat from the reforms envisioned in an Assembly bill passed earlier this year, but still offers a significant improvement over the status quo.

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long road to freedom: 2001 protest of Rockefeller drug laws, Albany (courtesy indymedia.org)
The measure was to have been voted on this week as part of the state's budget bill, but that hasn't happened yet, and that's making advocates nervous. While the consensus among advocates seems to be that the bill doesn't go far enough, most want to see it passed as a step in the right direction.

The Rockefeller drug laws were enacted in 1973 and mandate extremely tough prison sentences for the sale or possession of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although allegedly aimed at "drug kingpins," tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned under them, most of them low-level nonviolent offenders. Currently, some 12,000 people are doing time for drug offenses in New York, and they constitute one-fifth of the prison population. Nearly 90% of them are black or Hispanic.

Partial reforms in 2004 and 2005 did little to halt the imprisonment juggernaut. While providing some relief for some drug offenders, those reforms resulted in even more people being sent to prison on drug charges than before.

"While much more moderate than the reform bill passed by the Assembly last month, this proposal constitutes an important step forward in developing more effective drug policies based in public health and safety," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The legislature and governor should have made the proposal even more expansive, for instance by returning discretion to judges in every drug case, not only low-level cases. We believe, though, that this bill constitutes real reform, and should be enacted."

Under the tripartite agreement, the Rockefeller reform bill would:

  • Return judicial discretion in low-level drug law cases;
  • Expand treatment and reentry services;
  • Expand drug courts;
  • Allow for approximately 1,500 people incarcerated for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing;
  • Increase penalties for drug "kingpins";
  • Increase penalties on adults who sell drugs to young people.

In the reforms of 2004 and 2005, people serving A-level felonies -- the most serious -- were able to apply for resentencing, but not those serving B-level felonies, who constitute the bulk of Rockefeller prisoners. While the resentencing option would now be open for some 1,500 B-level offenders, that means that more than 10,000 New York drug war prisoners would remain without recourse.

The bill would also allow judges to divert some low-level drug offenders into drug treatment or other alternatives to imprisonment, but only if they convince judges they are addicts. Given that incarceration costs three times as much as treatment, the state stands to save millions if judges exercise that sentencing discretion.

"As a former prisoner under the Rockefeller drug laws, I support this legislation because it will rescue many of the prisoners who fell through the cracks of the prior reforms," said DPA's Anthony Papa. "This proposal will give people convicted of low-level drug offenses a chance to be reunited with their families and become productive tax paying citizens like myself."

"If this becomes law, it will be a big step forward," said Caitlin Dunklee of the Correctional Association of New York and coordinator of the Drop the Rock campaign. "This is the first major reform of the Rockefeller drug laws since their enactment. It dismantles mandatory minimum sentencing in a meaningful way. It also allocates money for alternatives to incarceration and drug treatment," she said.

But the package doesn't include everything reformers sought, Dunklee conceded. "It does leave intact some harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses and will lead to the incarceration of future low-level drug offenders -- about half of them will face mandatory minimums. Also, the retroactivity provisions are too limited; fewer than 1,500 of the more than 10,000 behind bars for drug offenses will be eligible to apply," she said. "We have family members asking when their loved ones are coming home, but very few are going to get out early."

"It's a lukewarm reform," said a disappointed Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Social Justice, long a key player in the Rockefeller repeal movement and now preparing to challenge Sen. Charles Schumer in next year's elections. "New York's criminal justice system needed a giant enema, and all the politicians did was pass gas."

"This proposal is a step forward," said Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Center for Community Alternatives, a New York organization that works on alternatives to imprisonment. "It is in the tradition of modest reform coming on the heels of the 2004 and 2005 reforms," he said. "It captures some of the same features, allows some resentencing as those did, but still leaves us with a pretty overbearing structure, and although a lot of attention is paid to treatment versus punishment, it still leaves an awful lot of room for punishment and a lot of people stuck in prison. From my perspective, I would give kudos to the legislators who supported this, but would certainly give fair warning to the public that there is still a lot of work to be done."

Rosenthal pointed out that while the reform would allow judges to exercise discretion, that doesn't mean they will. "Most judges come from a prosecutorial background," he noted. "It's not likely that they have an enlightened view of how counterproductive and destructive prison can be. At this point, I don't think things are going to look much different from when the DAs had the discretion. This will be a tiny spigot, and those judges are going to be trying to figure out who is worthy and who is not, who might look more dangerous because of class, skin color, or ethnicity. That sort of potential for coloring judicial decisions leaves us still needing broader reform and a broader understanding of how to deal with these issues."

Whether such partial reforms should be supported is a thorny question, said Rosenthal. "It is difficult to sit there and know that a smaller percentage than we would like are going to benefit, but it's also difficult to say we're going to hold out for everything knowing that if we do, some people are going to suffer under the yoke of imprisonment," he said. "The downside is the public impression that all that needs to be done has been done. Those still left in prison and their family members who are not getting any relief will understand there is more work to do, but the problem will be our ability to blow air into the balloon of public concern."

Sayegh defended the partial reform as the best that could be achieved. "Our job as advocates is to fight like hell to get the most we can get done. We are committed to that. After a hundred years of prohibition and drug wars, anyone who thinks we can accomplish the extraordinary and impossible in one legislative package is dreaming. We need to make the impossible possible and the possible inevitable, and that implies a process. We are here for the long haul," he vowed.

It may be a long haul. "A lot of people I talk to who are not involved in drug policy have told me they thought this was taken care of in 2004 and 2005," said Nicolas Eyle of ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy, an upstate drug reform group. "It will be the same thing again with this bill, but we still have long sentences, we have a kingpin proposal that sounds like it will fit your normal street corner drug crew, so we'll end up with these retail dealers doing 15-to-life. This bill is a step in the right direction, but it's only a baby step," he said.

Likening the Rockefeller repeal movement to the antebellum Abolitionist movement, Credico said the battle against slavery did not settle for half-measures. "The criminal justice system is the new slave power," he said, "and just like the Jim Crow laws, the drug laws will continue to be used to jail, convict, imprison, and disenfranchise people on a massive level. Everyone -- judges, DAs, defense attorneys, corrections officers, court officers, probation and parole officers, upstate politicians and contractors -- depends on these drug cases to stay busy and keep the prisons filled."

The coerced treatment provisions of the reform package are misguided, Credico said. "The drug reform community wants to use the false language of it's a health issue, but these people aren't sick addicts; they're dime bag desperados, the guys retailing on the street corners. Now, they're going to have to plead guilty and convince judges they're addicts," he argued. "If they can't prove they're addicts, they can still go to jail, and they'll be doing one to nine years. This at a time when we have black youth unemployment in the city at 65%. What else are they supposed to do?"

Like Credico, Dunklee was critical of the provision making only people who convince judges they are addicts eligible for diversion in B-level offenses. "This sets up a distinction between people addicted or not," she said, "and only people who are deemed substance dependent will be eligible for diversion. Those people who maybe don't need treatment, but could instead be helped in other ways will be facing mandatory minimum prison terms. We object strongly to that."

Addressing the increased sentences for "kingpins" and people who sell drugs to minors in the final bill, Dunklee said it was a sop to prosecutors. "Gov. Paterson wanted to avoid appearing soft on crime, so he endorsed sentencing enhancements for people the public demonizes," she said. "When the public hears about selling drugs to minors, they think about the guy in the trench coat in the school yard, not the 21-year-old selling to the 17-year-old. The judges will not be able to look at the circumstances of each case, and the young man will go to jail for a long time, but that's not what the public has in mind."

For Dunklee and Drop the Rock, the battle is not over. "We're not going out of business, we're going to keep the coalition intact," she said. "This partial reform has the potential to take the air out of the movement, but we are going to assess how to continue. Our people are committed to full repeal, and we are open to the possibility of broadening our agenda to include prison downsizing. We are going to be figuring out how to respond to the reforms and the new political climate," she said.

But, given that at this writing, the long-delayed final passage of the bill has not yet occurred and given that the Senate Democrats have a razor thin majority, this ex post facto analysis of the 2009 Rockefeller law reforms may be premature. "The bill hasn't passed yet," cautioned Sayegh. "Of course, they will pass a budget bill, but the question is what is going to be included in it. Right now, there are a number of legislators and prosecutors and rags like the Daily News putting out garbage. There is a lot of opposition to this provision, so we can't take its passage for granted. We're almost there, but we're not there yet," he said.

Southeast Asia: Indonesia to Treat Drug Users, Not Jail Them

In a surprise move, the Indonesian Supreme Court last Friday issued a memo to judges ordering them to send drug users to drug treatment centers, not prison. The memo is not retroactive, meaning people currently imprisoned for drug use or possession will not be eligible.

According to the memo, arrestees would be eligible for treatment only if the amount of drugs with which they were caught were below certain "personal use" quantities. For marijuana, the upper limit is 5 grams; for cocaine, heroin, and morphine, 0.15 grams, for methamphetamine, 0.25 grams.

In the memo, the Supreme Court said drug users in treatment must submit to drug tests on request, must obtain a letter of recommendation for treatment from a court-appointed psychiatrist, must not relapse, and must not be drug dealers.

While the move is arguably a step forward for drug users, it is causing concern in the Indonesian Judiciary Supervisory Committee, which worried that is could encourage corruption. "Drug suspects could easily pay investigators some money to change their status from drug dealers to drug users," the committee's Hasril Hertanto said Sunday. "Judges usually determine the status of drug case suspects based on the dossiers presented by police and prosecutors. So they are the ones who must be very cautious about this matter."

Southeast Asian nations are among the toughest in the world when it comes to punishing drug users. Even with reservations about coerced treatment, the Supreme Court's move is an advance in drug policy for the archipelago.

Incarceration: Too Many Americans Behind Bars at Too High a Cost, Says Pew Study

American states spent about $52 billion on corrections last year, the vast majority of it on prisons, and that's not smart, the Pew Center on the States said in a report released Monday. As a cost saving measure in a time of fiscal crisis at the statehouses, states should instead emphasize spending on community corrections.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/prison-overcrowding.jpg
overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (cdcr.ca.gov)
The study, 1 in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, reported that one in every 31 Americans is in jail or prison or on probation or parole. That's more than 7 million people under state supervision, and that's more than double the rate 25 years ago. The report adds that the real figure may be closer to 8 million because the numbers don't include people under state supervision in pre-trial diversion programs, such as drug courts.

The rates of correctional control vary by race and geography. One in eleven black adults (9.2%) are enjoying the tender mercies of the state, compared to one in 27 Hispanics (3.7%) and one in 45 whites (2.2%). With one of every 13 adults behind bars or on probation or parole, Georgia has the highest percentage of its population under surveillance, followed by Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio, and the District of Columbia.

"Violent and career criminals need to be locked up, and for a long time. But our research shows that prisons are housing too many people who can be managed safely and held accountable in the community at far lower cost," said Adam Gelb, director of the Center's Public Safety Performance Project, which produced the report.

But while prisons account for about 90% of the overall correction budget in the states, two-thirds of offenders are on probation or parole, not behind bars. Pressures to cut community corrections spending in the current crisis are penny wise but pound foolish, said the report.

"New community supervision strategies and technologies need to be strengthened and expanded, not scaled back," Gelb argued. "Cutting them may appear to save a few dollars, but it doesn't. It will fuel the cycle of more crime, more victims, more arrests, more prosecutions, and still more imprisonment."

The study recommended that states:

  • Sort offenders by risk to public safety to determine appropriate levels of supervision;
  • Base intervention programs on sound research about what works to reduce recidivism;
  • Harness advances in supervision technology such as electronic monitoring and rapid-result alcohol and drug tests;
  • Impose swift and certain sanctions for offenders who break the rules of their release but who do not commit new crimes; and
  • Create incentives for offenders and supervision agencies to succeed, and monitor their performance.

The report did not address the role of drug prohibition in swelling the nation's prison population, nor did it question whether drug offenders should be arrested in the first place, let alone placed under state surveillance or imprisoned.

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