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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.

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.

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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.

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.

Feature: Prisons Under Pressure -- Corrections Budgets in the Age of Austerity

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Arizona State Prison Complex at Douglas
If there are any silver linings in the current economic, fiscal, and budgetary disaster that afflicts the US, one of them could be that the budget crunch at statehouses around the country means that even formerly sacrosanct programs are on the chopping block. With drug offenders filling approximately 20-25% of prison cells in any given state, prison budgets are now under intense scrutiny, creating opportunities to advance sentencing, prison, and drug law reform in one fell swoop.

Nationwide, corrections spending ranks fourth in eating up state budget dollars, trailing only health care, education, and transportation. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, five states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont -- spend more on prisons they than do on schools.

The US currently spends about $68 billion a year on corrections, mostly at the state level. Even at a time when people are talking about trillion dollar bail-outs, that's a lot of money. And with states from California to the Carolinas facing severe budget squeezes, even "law and order" legislators and executive branch officials are eyeing their expensive state prison systems in an increasingly desperate search to cut costs.

"If you look at the amount of money spent on corrections in the states, it's an enormous amount," said Lawanda Johnson of the Justice Policy Institute. "If they could reduce prison spending, that would definitely have an impact on their state budgets. Now, a few states are starting to look at their jail and prison populations," she said.

Among them:

Alabama: The state Department of Corrections is facing a 20% budget cut in 2009. Alabama Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen is telling legislators he will try to "dampen down" the number of new inmates by working on sentencing reform, community corrections, new pardon and parole rules, and a supervised reentry program. The number of Alabama prisoners jumped from nearly 28,000 in March 2006 to more than 30,000 in December 2008, an increase Allen said was caused in part because the legislature had created 67 new felony crimes since 2001.

California: With a prison population of more than 170,000 and the state facing budget deficits of gargantuan proportions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has suggested eliminating parole time for all non-serious, nonviolent, and non-sex offenders. His plan would cut the parole population by 65,000 people, more than half the 123,000 currently on parole. It would also reduce by tens of thousands the number of people behind bars in the Golden State by increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation. That move could cut the prison population by 15,000 by June 2010. Schwarzenegger's proposal is opposed by -- you guessed it -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for which mass imprisonment is a job security issue.

Colorado: Gov. Bill Ritter (D) has proposed extensive cuts in the state corrections system, including closing two state prisons, delay the construction or expansion of two other prisons, and selling a department-owned 1,000-acre ranch. Those cuts would eliminate at least 71 jobs and save $13.6 million in the coming fiscal year.

Kentucky: Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and state legislators last year granted early release to some 1,800 prisoners, including some violent offenders, in a bid to take a bite out of the state's $1 billion budget deficit. Although Beshear and the legislature have protected the Corrections Department from budget cuts afflicting nearly all other state agencies and programs, the state's dire financial straits are making passage of a treatment-not-jail bill for drug offenders more likely this year. That could save the state $1.47 million.

Michigan: Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) will propose keeping prison spending near the $2 billion mark in 2010, 57% higher than a decade ago, but legislators are about to chew on proposals for reform from the Council of State Governments Justice Center to cut the number of state prison inmates by 5,000. That would save about $262 million by 2015, far short of the $500 million annual savings now being called for by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, among others. The Justice Center proposals include cutting the average time above the minimum sentences inmates serve from 27% to 20%. Some 12,000 inmates have already served more than their minimum sentences. Deputy Corrections Director Dennis Schrantz said those proposals were only the beginning, noting that the state had closed nine prisons since 2003 and will close three more this year.

Mississippi: Faced with an emergency $6.5 million (2%) budget cut for the current fiscal year, the state Department of Corrections is moving to reduce the number of inmates in county and regional jails and private prisons. The state pays counties $20 per inmate per day to house them and pays private prison companies at least $31.70 per inmate per day. The state will remove 300 inmates from county jails and 50 from private prisons. Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also has sent a list of 2,900 nonviolent inmates to the parole board for possible early release. The department may also grant early release to prisoners with severe medical problems, allowing the state to cut costs by not having to provide medical care for them.

New York: With a $15 billion budget deficit and a Department of Correctional Services eating up $2.5 billion a year -- more than any other state agency -- Gov. David Paterson (D) is seeking to release 1,600 offenders early and reform or repeal the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The prison budget has continued to increase despite a whopping 35% drop in crime in the last decade and a prison population at the lowest levels since the 1980s. Now Correctional Services Director Brian Fischer wants to close prison camps and correctional annexes sitting empty with a thousand beds, saving the state $100 million and cutting the 31,000 corrections department employees by about 1,400 through attrition. It's a start.

South Carolina: After running in the red for the last two years, the state's prison director, Jon Ozmint, told legislators he needed $36 million for the current fiscal year, leaving the solons with three choices: cut spending for health, education, or other services; finance corrections through the reserve, or close prisons. Legislators last year rejected Ozmint's suggestion that they save money by releasing prisoners early and closing prisons. This year, Ozmint is suggesting that the state reduce the requirement that serious felons serve 85% of their sentence to 70%. The prison crisis in South Carolina has prompted the normally pro-prison Charleston Post & Courier to call for "alternative sentencing that could keep nonviolent offenders out of prison" and "revising mandatory minimum sentences."

Virginia: Telling legislators "we want to lock up people we're afraid of and not ones we're mad at," Virginia corrections director Gene Johnson said this week Gov. Tim Kaine (D) wants to release some nonviolent offenders 90 days early to save the state $5 million a year. Nearly 1,200 inmates would qualify for early release, he said. Virginia has already closed five prisons employing 702 people, and may resort to limited lay-offs, Johnson told legislators.

This is by no means a list of all the states grappling with prison spending in the current crisis. Correctional costs are on the agenda at statehouses across the country, but as the list above suggests, the economic squeeze is providing openings for reform.

"In the handful of states that have already opened legislative sessions this year, the corrections budget is frequently raised in budget conversations," said Ryan King, an analyst for The Sentencing Project. "A number of governors have raised the issue. It will definitely be on the table. With the recession really taking hold this year, it will be a major, major issue," he said.

"With each passing year, there is a little greater acknowledgement that we are in a position where states are spending far too much money to incarcerate and can't build their way out of it, but the prison population is still increasing each year," said King. "If we want to talk about a sustainable reduction in the prison population, we need to revisit who is going and for how long, as well as a critical evaluation of sentencing laws, repealing mandatory minimums, and expanding parole eligibility. Those are the big steps that need to be taken."

There is still resistance to reform, King said, but things are changing. "There is now much broader consideration of amending parole and probation policies, along with diversion of drug offenders," he said. "Those are probably the two most widely achieved reforms in the last few years. We will probably see more of that, but if we're going to move this from diverting a few thousand people to really addressing the 1.5 million in prison, we are going to have to start asking whether people belong in prison for decades, whether life without parole is really necessary. The real engines of growth for the prison population are admissions and sentence lengths, and a lot of policymakers are still uncomfortable having that conversation."

After decades of seemingly endless sentence increases and prison-building, perhaps the wheel is beginning to turn. Politicians immune to "bleeding heart" pleas for humanity are not immune to pocket-book issues. But while change is starting to come, the US remains a long way from losing its crown as the world's leading jailer.

Sentencing: Texas Judges Call for Reducing Drug Possession Penalties

Two years ago, Houston State District Court Judge Michael McSpadden stood alone when he called on Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to support lowering simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Last year, he was still alone. But this year, McSpadden is making the same call, and this time, he has the support of 15 more judges.

As the state legislature got underway last week, McSpadden and his colleagues sent a letter to top state officials and Houston's state representatives urging them to change what he called the state's "draconian" drug laws. The judges want to see possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance reduced from a state jail felony to a misdemeanor.

"Sixteen of us feel that it's just unfair to be convicted for a residue amount and be labeled a felon, which changes your whole life," McSpadden said. "We're not talking about legalizing it; we're talking about making it a misdemeanor."

In addition to calling for a downgrading of drug possession charges, McSpadden's letter urged mandating drug treatment for offenders and funding misdemeanor drug courts. He said simple possession drug felonies account for 25% to 30% of Harris County's 22 criminal district court dockets and that Harris County prosecutors routinely charge as felonies offenses that are charged as misdemeanors in other parts of the state, leading to disparate treatment among counties.

"The 'War on Drugs' isn't working, and we as judges realize it, and the public realizes it," wrote McSpadden, along with fellow Republican judge cosigners Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, Jeannine Barr, Vanessa Velasquez, Denise Collins, Marc Carter, Belinda Hill, Joan Campbell and Jim Wallace, and Democratic judge cosigners Ruben Guerrero, Shawna Reagin, Kevin Fine, David Mendoza, Randy Roll, Hazel Jones and Maria Jackson.

But will the legislature listen? Last year, McSpadden's efforts never made it out of the House crime committee. But now, the budget squeeze is on, and McSpadden has come up with some reinforcements, so perhaps the proposal will get a little further down the legislative road.

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.

Feature: Sentencing Reform Initiative Defeated in California, "Tough on Crime" Initiatives Win in Oregon

Tough on crime can still trump smart on crime, if Tuesday's elections results on sentencing initiatives in two of the nation's most progressive states are any indication. In Oregon, voters approved two competing initiatives that will increase sentences and prison populations, while in California, a multi-million dollar campaign to dramatically reform sentencing went down in the face of opposition from prison guards and politicians, and another initiative that will see longer sentences and more prisoners was approved by voters.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from cdcr.ca.gov)
In California, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Campaign for New Drug Policies pumped nearly $8 million into the effort to pass Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offenders Rehabilitation Act (NORA). NORA would have deepened and vastly expanded the "treatment not jail" sentencing reforms passed in 2001 as Prop. 36. While the Legislative Analyst's Office estimated it would cost $1 billion a year to implement, it also estimated that it would save $1 billion a year in prison costs, as well as $2.5 billion in savings from prisons that would not have to be built.

NORA had the near unanimous support of the drug treatment community, as well as the League of Women Voters of California, the Children's Defense Fund-California, the California Nurses Association, the California Federation of Teachers, the California Society of Addiction Medicine, the California State Conference of the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, among others.

But a deep-pocketed opposition led by five current and former governors whose policies helped to create California's seemingly never-ending prison crisis and financed largely by the people who most directly benefit from increased prison populations, the California prison guards' union, undermined public support for NORA. The measure was also opposed by another group whose ox would have been gored, the drug court professionals -- arguably a part of the treatment community, but just as arguably a part of the law enforcement community. Several prominent state newspapers and actor Martin Sheen joined the opposition as well.

"It is a great threat to our neighborhoods," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at a news conference featuring the assembled governors outside the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles last Thursday. "It was written by those who care more about the rights of criminals."

The measure "will cost dollars and it will cost lives," chimed in former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, neglecting to mention that it would have saved many more dollars than it would have cost.

It wasn't just the governors. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Attorney General Jerry Brown, also Democrats, opposed the measure too, and taped TV commercials against it. "Say no to drug dealers," Feinstein said in her ad, while Brown -- whose spot was paid for by the prison guards union -- called it "a complicated measure" that would "limit court authority over drug dealers and addicts who refuse treatment."

All told, the organized opposition pumped nearly $3.6 million into defeating NORA, more than half of it coming from the prison guards' union. And it worked -- on election day, NORA went down to defeat by a margin of 61% to 39%.

In a statement Tuesday evening when the outcome became apparent, Yes on 5 campaign spokeswoman Margaret Dooley-Sammuli laid the defeat at the door of the opposition. "Today we saw special interests overpower the public interest," she said. "California's prison guards poured millions of dollars into stopping Prop. 5 and securing this victory for the poison politics of crime."

Stopping NORA would be a pyrrhic victory, Dooley-Sammuli predicted, citing a looming federal court hearing on whether to take control of the overcrowded, under-budgeted prison system.

"The prosecutors and prison guards who led the campaign against Prop. 5 got their way tonight -- but they've really lost. The next step for our prisons will probably be a federal takeover. Prop. 5 was Californians' last, best chance to avoid a takeover and make our own choices about how to address prison overcrowding. Now federal judges are likely to impose solutions that no one will be happy about."

The effort to pass NORA was "not in vain," Dooley-Sammuli added. "Prop. 5 presented a vision for a future in which we do more for young people with drug problems, and improve the way we provide court-supervised treatment in California. There is plenty to build on going forward," she said.

But Golden State voters were still seduced by the "tough on crime" message that has played so well in California since the days of Ronald Reagan. While defeating NORA, they passed Proposition 9, also known as the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, by a margin of 53% to 47%. Naturally enough, the measure is concerned primarily with victims' rights, but also includes provisions that block local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the state fund corrections costs as much as necessary to accomplish that end. It also lengthens the amount of time a prisoner serving a life sentence who has been denied parole must wait before re-applying. Currently, he must wait one to five years; under Prop. 9, he must wait three to 15 years. Prop. 9 would also allow parolees who have been jailed for alleged parole violations to be held 15 days instead of the current 10 before they are entitled to a hearing to determine if they can be held pending a revocation hearing, and stretches from 35 to 45 the number of days they could be held before such a hearing. These last two provisions, as well as one limiting legal counsel for parolees, all conflict with an existing federal court order governing California's procedures.

But if "tough on crime" still sells, another measure, Proposition 6, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, was too hard-sell even for California's crime-weary electorate. That measure, which was aimed primarily at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, also included provisions increasing penalties for methamphetamine possession, possession with intent, and distribution to be equal to those for cocaine, and provided for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. The measure also mandates increased spending for law enforcement. It lost 69% to 31%.

"Tough on crime" worked this year in Oregon, too, with two competing measures that would ratchet up sentences and prison populations both passing. Measure 57, a legislative measure placed before the voters, and Measure 61, the brainchild of inveterate Oregon crime-fighter and initiative-generator Kevin Mannix, won with 61% and 51% of the vote, respectively.

The Mannix measure, the tougher of the two, would have set mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including drug sales, and is projected to add between 4,000 and 6,000 new inmates to the prison system over the next five years at a cost of between $500 million and $800 million. But because it garnered fewer votes than Measure 57, the latter is the one that will actually become law.

Measure 57 increases some sentences for repeat offenders and includes funding for behind-bars drug treatment. It is estimated to generate 1,670 additional prisoners over the next five years at a cost of $411 million, as well as requiring the state to borrow another $314 million for new prison construction.

Even with the national economy in a free-fall and state budgets increasingly feeling the squeeze, it looks like it's still easier to win with the politics of fear than with the politics of justice and compassion.

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