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The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News & Updates - 4/26/07

Maryland: Governor Signs Legislation Restoring Right to Vote On Tuesday, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation restoring the right to vote to all formerly incarcerated individuals, ending the state's draconian lifetime voting ban. Coverage featuring the news included an "above-the-fold" front-page article in the Baltimore Sun. As a result of the legislation, which takes effect July 1, more than 50,000 Marylanders will be eligible to vote. Currently, those individuals convicted of two felonies can petition for vote restoration after their sentences and a three-year waiting period are completed. If both convictions are for violent offenses, the voting ban is permanent. "I went to prison, but it's not who I am," said Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland. "We still have some work to do in terms of people's perception of what a former felon is and what he looks like, but that scarlet 'F' that felons wear across their chests is greatly diminished by the signing of this legislation today." Colorado: House Committee Strikes Down Parolee Voting The House Committee on State, Veteran, & Military Affairs voted to strike SB 83, an amendment to a measure which would have given individuals on parole the right to vote, the Channel 7 News in Denver reported. Secretary of State Mike Coffman said the move to restore rights would have been unconstitutional as state law defines "full term of imprisonment" to include parole. The amendment was introduced by Sen. Peter Groff, D-Denver, at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union. International: Voting - and Not Voting - While Incarcerated The federal government last week allowed about 150 people incarcerated at the Birnin Kebbi prison in northwest Nigeria to vote in its presidential election, according to the News Agency of Nigeria. The individuals were taken to the polls via police vehicles in groups of 50. Two Shotts prison inmates in Scotland challenged legislation barring people in prison from voting in the Scottish elections claiming their human rights were breached, the BBC News reported. Their legal challenge was rejected at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, declaring the upcoming election lawful. The men may appeal.
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The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News & Updates - April 19, 2007

Florida: Making Up for Lost Time; Still Some Work to Do When he served as attorney general, Governor Charlie Crist investigated the murder of a Florida civil rights activist and his wife whose home was bombed as a result of their work in registering black voters in the 1950s. Though Crist was unable to bring justice to the case, according to the Florida Times-Union he has followed in the late activist's footsteps in reforming a 138-year-old policy that banned voting rights for ex-offenders. "That law, which was passed in 1868 and re-enacted 100 years later, had racist origins. Enacted after the Civil War, it bolstered the 'black codes,' which called for harsh punishments for vagrancy and other minor transgressions that newly freed slaves were likely to get caught up in," writes columnist Tonyaa Weathersbee. Though some formerly incarcerated individuals may first be concerned with garnering a job and re- applying for proper identification, voting rights are still a concern - and a right due them, Newsweek's Ellis Cose states in his coverage of the new rules. Crist's office reported that approximately 80 percent the state's criminal files involve nonviolent offenses that would be eligible for automatic restoration, a St. Peterburg Times opinion editorial reported. Fifteen percent (violent offenses) would be subject to "mid-level scrutiny" and the remaining five percent (murder and sex offenses) would still require a full-background investigation and hearing before the clemency board. Mark Schlakman's op-ed asserted that despite the new ruling, disenfranchisement continues in the state as a result of various stipulations, including the requirement of restitution payment, the inclusion of occupational licenses being revoked along with civil rights, and the fact that 20 percent of this community would remain disenfranchised. "The task is not complete," Schlakman stated. For the ACLU's similar opinion on the board's decision, click here. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information: Email: [email protected] web:
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Sentencing: New York Assembly Passes New Rockefeller Law Reforms

The continuing effort to undo New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws took another step forward Wednesday as the state Assembly passed a bill that would expand the availability of drug treatment and give judges greater discretion in sentencing. The push comes three years after the legislature enacted modest initial reforms, but since then only 177 of the state's 15,000 drug prisoners have won sentence reductions.

The new bill would:

  • Increase judges' discretion and allow some people convicted of first- and second-time drug offenses to receive treatment and probation instead of prison terms.
  • Set up drug courts in every county, to make efforts to get drug offenders into treatment programs.
  • Raise the weight thresholds for certain drug offenses so that the possible sentence times are reduced.
  • Create or expand "second chance" programs for low-level drug defendants, such as the Court Approved Drug Abuse Treatment program, in which offenders' cases can be dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors upon successful completion of treatment.
  • Create enhanced penalties for violent drug dealers and people who sell drugs to children.

"The modest reform to the Rockefeller Drug Laws enacted in 2004 and the extension in 2005 to provide for the re-sentencing of some class A-II offenders was a beginning, but unfortunately, despite pledges made by then Gov. George Pataki and the Senate to make additional changes, no further action was taken. The Assembly's repeated passage of significant drug law reform legislation for years went unnoticed by the former executive and the other house," said Speaker Sheldon Silver as the vote neared.

"This bill provides reforms that are long overdue," he continued. "It would expand the availability of drug treatment programs, allow judges to order non-violent, lower-level offenders into mandatory treatment for addiction and substance abuse and assure that prisons are most often used for serious drug offenders, offenders with violent histories and those who cannot or will not succeed in drug abuse treatment. We are confident that with the help of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the Assembly's long-standing commitment to make the state's drug laws smarter, fairer and more effective will become a reality," added Silver.

"The opposition will say we are soft on crime," said Jeffrion Aubrey (D-Queens) who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction and who authored the bill. "But we understand the revolving door of criminal justice and we want to shut that door."

Marijuana: After Denver Votes to Legalize It, Cops Arrest Even More

In November 2005, voters in Denver approved a municipal ordinance legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Denver police and prosecutors refused to play ball, continuing to cite people under the state marijuana law. Now, to add insult to injury, arrest figures from the police department show they are arresting more people for marijuana possession than ever.
SAFER's Chickenlooper activist (photo courtesy SAFER)
With 2,446 misdemeanor pot charges last year, Denver police busted 11% more people for pot in 2006 than they did in 2005. That's less than the increase in the overall number of arrests between the two years, which was up 14%.

But it was still too much for Mason Tvert, who as head of SAFER Colorado led the Denver legalization campaign. "If there's one, it's too many," Tvert told the Rocky Mountain News. "They (police) have the discretion not to arrest." Tvert also pointed out that the city's black population bears the brunt of marijuana law enforcement. Blacks make up 11% of the city's population, but are 32% of those arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges.

Tvert has led a band of activists on a campaign to embarrass Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper over the arrest figures. This week, the activists have trailed Hickenlooper as he conducted campaign forums called "A Dialogue With Denver." Hickenlooper, who owns the Wynkoop Brewing Company, has so far refused to answer any questions related to the arrest figures, despite being hounded by a man dressed in a chicken suit calling himself "Whine-Coop Chickenlooper" and holding a sign asking "What's So Scary About Marijuana?"

Medical Marijuana: California Begins Taxing Dispensaries

For more than a decade, Californians seeking medical marijuana have been able to purchase it through dispensaries. Now, the state of California wants a cut of the action, and the medical marijuana community is not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

In February, the state Board of Equalization sent a notice to medical marijuana retailers urging them to get a seller's permit like other retailers. "If you sell medical marijuana, your sales in California are generally subject to tax and you are required to hold a seller's permit," the notice said. It went on to warn sellers that "if you do not obtain a seller's permit or fail to report and pay the taxes due, you will be subject to interest and penalty charges."

Some club owners welcome taxation as part of the "normalization" of medical marijuana. But others worry that any tax information they submit could be used against them by federal drug enforcement agents.

"It's frustrating," Chris Moscone, an attorney for the San Francisco dispensary the Hemp Center, told the McLatchy Newspapers Monday. "There are basically two camps: Those that want to be treated like legitimate businesses, and the other side, where they're still rebels and don't want to be taxed."

It was a case involving the Hemp Center that led to the February letter from the Board of Equalization. As the board reviewed the Hemp Center case, it realized that while the dispensary was paying taxes on t-shirts, hats, pipes, and bongs, it was not paying taxes on the medical marijuana it sold. Upon review, the board determined that medical marijuana is subject to state sales tax because it is neither approved by the Food and Drug Administration nor supplied by a pharmacist.

To tax medical marijuana, the board had to update its guidelines. Under previous rules, sellers of illegal items could not get a seller's permit, but the dispensaries will be able to. The board will also allow dispensaries to sign a waiver instead of disclosing what they are selling, a move that could ease some concerns about federal authorities using tax records to persecute providers.

State officials estimate there are somewhere between 150 and 200 dispensaries. So far, only 27 have applied for and been issued seller's permits. But those numbers are likely to increase in the wake of the February letter.

Sick people need pot

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Chicago Sun-Times

Voting Rights: Florida Clemency Board Votes to Restore to Most Felons

Nearly five million ex-felons nationwide are banned from voting, but that number will shrink by around 600,000 because the state of Florida has decided to let most of its felons easily regain their rights. The move came Thursday, when Gov. Charlie Crist (R) persuaded the state's clemency board that it was time to "leave the ranks of offensive states" that uniformly bar ex-offenders from voting.

Up until now, Florida felons who had completed their sentences had to undergo a lengthy and torturous process to regain their civil rights. But now, all except convicted murderers, sexual predators, and "violent career criminals" will automatically regain those rights. That means up to 80% of an estimated 950,000 disenfranchised Floridians will be able to vote.

The decision came on a 3-1 vote by the clemency board. The only dissenter was notorious drug warrior and former US representative Bill McCollum.

Now, only Kentucky and Virginia automatically and uniformly deny voting rights to ex-felons.

Methamphetamine: Nevada Governor's Working Group Issues Preliminary Report

A panel appointed by Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons to study responses to methamphetamine use, manufacture, and trafficking in the state called last Friday for more treatment, more prevention, more police, and more laws restricting precursor chemicals, but rejected a bill that would have increased penalties for meth offenses. In its Preliminary Report, the Governor's Working Group on Methamphetamine Use warned that while home meth lab busts are down, Nevada is first in the nation in per capita lifetime meth use, past year meth use, and past month meth use.
not great, but could have been worse
The Working Group mainly focused on how to allocate some $17 million dollars allocated in the governor's executive budget for addressing amphetamine. It recommended that some of the money go to replace lost federal grants for community anti-drug coalitions and to state education programs, that funding be made available to address substantial waiting lists for drug treatment and to address co-occurring disorders, and "increased funding to hire additional law enforcement officers to be placed on existing and new task forces across the state."

The group also made recommendations about specific methamphetamine-related legislation before the legislature. It supported one bill, AB 148 that would impose state-level restrictions on the sale of meth precursors, but rejected a harsher one, AB 150, that would have required a prescription to obtain cold medications containing drugs like pseudoephedrine. It also rejected two measures that would have ratcheted up sentencing. The first, AB 116, would have reduced the amount of meth needed to trigger trafficking charges from four grams to three, while the other, AB 281 would have made possession of the tiniest trace of any Schedule I drug except marijuana a potential trafficking offense.

While the panel recommended restraining legislators' efforts to pile-on the meth penalties, it did not mention harm reduction and discussion of alternatives to drug prohibition were clearly not on the agenda. That is not surprising, given the panel's make-up, which included seven law enforcement officials, four elected officials, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, a health care executive, a school superintendent, a newspaper publisher, and the governor's wife. No harm reductionists or apparent past or present methamphetamine users were represented.

Medical Marijuana: New Mexico Becomes Twelfth State to Approve It

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) Monday signed into law a bill making the state the 12th to approve the medicinal use of marijuana. Richardson is a candidate for the Democratic Party 2008 presidential nomination. In signing the bill, he becomes the only major contender in either party to publicly endorse the medicinal use of marijuana.
Gov. Bill Richardson signing a bill into law
The Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, named after patients Lynn Pierson and Erin Armstrong, allows people who live with certain serious, chronic conditions to use and possess marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. But in a departure from the normal practice in other states, where patients or designated caregivers are allowed to grow their own medicine, the New Mexico law stipulates that only producers licensed by the state Health Department may grow medical marijuana.

The bill came only after being denied House floor votes in two previous sessions and after apparently being defeated this session. But thanks to strong lobbying by Richardson and groups like the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico office, it passed on a second, last-minute vote.

"This law will provide much-needed relief for New Mexicans suffering from debilitating diseases," said Gov.Richardson in a signing statement. "It is the right thing to do. I'm proud to sign legislation that makes patient care an important priority in this state," Richardson said. "It is time for Congress and the federal government to follow our lead and help those forced to endure painful, chronic diseases."

"By signing this bill, Gov. Richardson is showing his compassion for seriously ill people, and he is also reflecting the will of the majority of New Mexicans and the American people," said Reena Szczepanski, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico in a Monday statement. "I hope that other elected officials take note: Americans will stand behind those that believe in compassion and mercy for our most vulnerable, our sick and dying patients struggling for relief."

New Mexico now joins Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington as states that have approved medical marijuana.

Harm Reduction: New Mexico Governor Signs Overdose Death Reduction Measure

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) Wednesday signed innovative legislation that would protect friends or family members who seek medical attention for drug overdose victims. The law is the first of its kind in the country.

Too often, the companions of drug overdose victims fail to seek medical attention for them for fear of being arrested and prosecuted themselves. The 911 Good Samaritan Act (SB 200) seeks to encourage people to get help by providing limited immunity from drug possession charges when an overdose victim or friend seeks emergency medical services.

With nearly an overdose death a day, New Mexico has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. Six years ago, the state passed legislation removing criminal liability from people who prescribe the opiate reversal agent naloxone. That move is credited with saving hundreds of lives. This new law should save even more.

The measure was pushed by the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico affiliate. "By signing this legislation, the Governor is sending a clear message to New Mexicans: don't be afraid to seek medical help. This is definitely the next step in reducing the overwhelming number of preventable overdose deaths in New Mexico," said Reena Szczepanski, the group's New Mexico director in a Wednesday statement.

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