Saturday, July 28, 2007

Pleas on Larry King for Lohan, But What About Other Drug Offenders?

Within hours after ill-fated model-actress Lindsay Lohan was busted on suspicion of drunk driving and drug possession in Santa Monica her teary eye father, and a parade of Hollywood celebrities, and some of Lohan's friends and associates, made sobbing, heart wrenching pleas on the Larry King show for public understanding of Lohan's ordeal. Lohan's attorney made his pitch for public understanding, calling addiction a terrible and vicious disease.

The kid glove protective attitude of many in the entertainment industry toward Lohan is hardly surprising. She has been released each time within hours on low bond, wears a SCRAM monitoring bracelet, and alcohol monitor on her ankle, gets tested regularly, and got top notch treatment at a posh Malibu, California rehab center. Her film," I Know Who Killed Me," which is scheduled for release almost certainly will pack audiences in, if for no other reason out of curiosity and her rogue name.

There's nothing wrong with Lohan's entertainment industry friends, and a star-struck public, pleading for empathy for her and urging the courts to spare her a jail sentence, and to give her the help that she obviously needs. But there are thousands of drug offenders that need the same compassion and help as Lohan. The big difference is that these drug abusers aren't high-profile, bankable screen commodities. They are mostly poor blacks and Latinos. The estimate is that nearly one-fourth of the more than one million blacks that pack America's prisons are there for non-violent, drug-related crimes. It costs billions to keep them there.

Putting them behind bars has had staggering consequences. It has torn apart families and communities. It has been the single biggest reason for the bloat in federal and state spending on prison construction, maintenance, and the escalation in the number of prosecutors needed to handle the flood of drug cases. Also, few poor, black and Latino drug offenders will be immediately released by police, as Lohan continues to be, and then be allowed to luxuriate in a posh drug treatment center.

The pampered treatment of celebrities such as Lohan carries another public pitfall. It could fuel a backlash to the mounting efforts by many drug reform advocates and public officials to push Congress to eliminate the gaping racially-warped disparity in the drug sentencing laws. These laws mandate minimum sentences for petty drug offenses for those tried in federal court. Far more black and Latino drug offenders, than whites, are tried there. Former President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno twice gave half-hearted approval to the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recommendation that the drug sentencing laws be softened. Twice Congress has refused to act.

Lohan's repeated busts could also cripple efforts by drug reform advocates to win wider public support for state-wide initiatives such as Proposition 36 passed overwhelmingly by California voters a few years ago. The law mandates treatment, not jail for non-violent, first time drug offenders. Since then, other states have either passed or proposed similar laws that proscribe drug rehab rather than tossing the key on drug offenders. It's part a cost cutting measure, and part recognition that jails have been a grossly ineffective way to fight illicit drug abuse.

Drug warriors loath these initiatives. They claim that treatment, rather than severe jail sentences, encourages drug abusers to laugh at the courts and the law and puts the public at greater peril.

The notion that celebrities such as Lohan thumb their noses at the law has also stoked public anger over the celebrity double standard. That was glaringly evident in the recent tragicomic drama involving Lohan's other bad girl celebrity counterpart, Paris Hilton. Hilton's early release by L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca brought the wrath of an angry public down on his head. The early release and her later puff ball treatment in jail was a blatant play of the celebrity double standard card. But it did at least momentarily open a small window of opportunity for prison reformers to use the Hilton case to demand the same medical treatment Hilton got for other female inmates.

That window slammed shut fast. L.A county officials haven't uttered a peep since the Hilton episode about spending more on treatment and rehab programs for drug abusers. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's department also has been mute on whether other inmates will get some facsimile of the medical treatment Hilton got.

A few years back a spokes person for the California Department of Corrections publicly declared that they would consider placing repeated celebrity drug abuser Robert Downey, Jr. in a residential treatment facility rather than the county jail. The spokesperson said without a hint that he recognized the celebrity double-standard, "We don't want to just lock them up." He meant the well-to-do and famous, such as Downey and now Lohan, not the thousands of poor and unknown. There are no such qualms about locking them up.

And we darn well know, there's won't be any teary-eyed pleas for understanding for them on the Larry King show.

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, New America Media
Posted on July 26, 2007, Printed on July 28, 2007

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

View this story online at:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Drug war enforcement hits minorities hardest

On Ohio Street, just north of Garfield Park in Chicago, three drug dealers stood on a corner surrounded by litter, vacant lots and boarded-up houses, waiting for customers who strolled up on foot and pulled over in cars. Some passed right underneath a flashing police surveillance camera less than a block away.

Only a few weeks earlier in this same West Side neighborhood, Chicago police had shut down a bustling open-air market selling fentanyl-laced heroin, arresting more than a dozen members of the Conservative Vice Lords street gang. A patrol cop later described the bust as an example of the mushroom effect -- pull one out and several more just pop up in its place.

In the suburbs, police say drug dealing has an entirely different, more private face.

"There are some who work out of their apartment or residence, some who will just meet you wherever they feel safe in meeting you. Some people will do it out of their work," said Lombard Police Chief Raymond Byrne. "It's kind of the opposite of the city."

Twenty-five years after President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs, many law-enforcement officials and criminologists say drugs are now cheaper and more potent, and as easily available as ever.

What the war did do was help drive the nation's prison population to more than quadruple its size from 1980 to 2005, with urban blacks and Latinos hardest hit -- a dramatically disproportionate result of the different networks that developed to distribute drugs.

According to federal data, blacks make up just 13 percent of the nation's illicit drug users, but they are 32 percent of those arrested for drug violations and 53 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons for drug crimes.

In Illinois, studies show that more than 70 percent of the state's illicit drug users are white, while 14 percent are black. But 65 percent of arrests for drug offenses are of African-Americans. And 66 percent of inmates in Illinois prisons for drug offenses are black, and Illinois' incarceration rate of blacks for drug possession is the highest in the country.

The never-ending flow of drugs, and the disparity in punishment, are leading an increasing number of judges, attorneys and criminologists to the conclusion that the nation's efforts to fight drug use with the criminal justice system will not, by itself, get the job done.

Tim Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, said more people in the criminal justice system now recognize that treatment and other options are far more effective in reducing drug use.

"There was a thought back in the 1980s that it was better to be tough on crime than to be said not to be tough on crime; that if you just lock these people away that somehow that's going to solve everything," Evans said. "Hasn't worked. And I believe now the pendulum is swinging away from lock 'em up and throw away the key back toward trying to find a rational way of solving this problem."

Impact of 'safe zone' laws

And the more lawmakers try to fine-tune drug laws, the more pronounced the imbalance becomes.

A Tribune analysis of recent "safe zone" laws, increasing penalties for drug sales near schools, churches, parks and other public places, shows the laws blanket many densely populated minority neighborhoods, further boosting the punishment level for urban dealers.

In explaining the disparity in incarceration, criminologists point to a basic difference in the way drugs are sold in cities and suburbs, one that makes African-Americans more vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment for drug possession and sales.

Drug dealing in inner-cities happens largely in open-air markets controlled by street gangs, who run a sophisticated, organized crime enterprise that, police say, is responsible for the bulk of violent crime in urban areas. Police target these marketplaces because that's where most calls for police services originate.

Open-air drug markets are rarer in white, middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, where dope dealing typically occurs within social networks, in places that draw little police attention, criminologists say.

"Police go looking for this stuff in cities where they don't look for it in suburbs because it's not causing the same kind of violence," said John Klofas, a criminologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "And if you're only looking at this as punishment for drug use, then it's a complicated set of circumstances that in the end produces this outcome that is, in fact, quite unfair."

In Illinois, the racial disparity in drug arrests is driven mainly by Chicago. In 2005, Chicago police made 47,000 arrests for drug offenses, and 79 percent of those arrests were of African-Americans, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Illinois does not track arrests by ethnicity, so it is impossible to pinpoint how Latinos fit on this spectrum.

But anecdotally, police say black neighborhoods are home to nearly all of Chicago's open-air drug markets, mostly in high-crime, high-poverty areas on the city's South and West Sides. Law-enforcement officials estimate the drug trade is responsible for up to 70 percent of the violent crime in the city.

"Most of the violence in Chicago on the West Side and the South Side is gang-related and it always stems back to some kind of fight over narcotics or narcotics turf or a narcotics corner," said Walter P. Hehner, deputy chief of narcotics prosecutions for the Cook County state's attorney's office. "Drug dealers, hookers, panhandlers, all hanging out there looking for money so they can get high."

Imprisoned at home

Ald. Walter Burnett's West Side 27th Ward was the site of the first open-air drug market shut down by police this year. Burnett said he is constantly fielding calls from residents who want police to shut down drug operations in the area.

Not only do residents feel they are imprisoned in their homes by the gang violence, he said, but they are also frustrated by the constant property crimes and street hustling committed by the drug users traveling into the neighborhood to buy dope.

"They steal everything," Burnett said. "They steal water hoses, they steal garbage cans, they steal gutters off of buildings. They break into houses, they break into cars. If you have children or a wife, you don't want them outside because these [drug users] are going to be walking all around looking like zombies."

Shutting down these outdoor markets is a centerpiece to the police's strategy of attacking guns, gangs and drugs in Chicago. Last year, Chicago police shut down 56 open-air drug markets, amounting to nearly 600 arrests. Frank Limon, chief of the Chicago police's Organized Crime Division, said police are pushing aggressive street operations such as undercover surveillance, drug buys and reverse stings, in which cops pose as drug dealers to snag buyers.

"That's all we continually do is set up operations where we can arrest buyers and go after sellers," Limon said. "Even though it's one corner, it's one less open-air drug market that's available for users to go to."

Police efforts have not gone unnoticed by drug users. Angel, a 32-year-old heroin user from Chicago who frequents West Side open-air markets, said the threat of arrest for buying drugs is greater now than he can remember in his 12 years as a heroin addict. Angel claims that he's been arrested five times for drug possession after buying, and that he's been stopped by police dozens more just being near a West Side drug market.

"It's hot," Angel said. "Hotter now than ever. You go out there at the wrong time and you're just looking to get locked up."

But Angel continues to buy drugs from open-air markets.

"I've been locked up and it's no joke," he said. "But when you're dope sick, you're going to go out and cop."

Nicole, a 21-year-old heroin user from Park Ridge, said it's much easier for her to buy drugs in the suburbs, but she goes to Chicago's West Side markets because she believes the quality is better. Stories of overdoses from fentanyl-laced heroin sold in the city only serve as an enticement for suburban heroin users, she said.

"The twisted part is, when I hear about a spot where people have died because it's so good, I want to go there," Nicole said.

Disturbing trend in Chicago

Chicago alone accounts for two-thirds of all drug offender arrests in Illinois. But what disturbs some like Cook County Assistant Public Defender Kristina Yi is the homogeneity of those arrested for drug crimes passing through the Cook County Criminal Courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue.

"You can't miss once you walk into that building that the majority of civilians coming in for their own cases or a loved one's case are predominantly black people," Yi said. "There are some female blacks arrested for simple possession, some older blacks, very few and far between some Caucasian males brought in for simple possession. But rarely did we get a case that involved someone that's not a minority. Usually they were young male blacks."

Arthur J. Lurigio, professor of criminal justice at Loyola University, said police are simply following reports of crime.

"If you live in a suburb that has a small police department and low crime, the chances of you being stopped when you're walking down the street or driving in your car is significantly less than if you live in Englewood or Harrison or Wentworth," Lurigio said. "The police are not there because they're racists, the police are there because there's more crime there and there's more calls for service there. So if there's more police in a neighborhood, you're just more likely to be stopped, no matter what."

Hehner, of the state's attorney's office, said arrests for drug possession often result from other kinds of police stops -- officers are looking for violent offenders, but they see suspects trying hurriedly to get rid of their drugs, so-called "drop cases." It's an unavoidable part of good police work, he said.

Bob Lee, of the Felony Trial Division at the Cook County's public defender's office in Bridgeview, views it differently. He says many of the drop cases he sees in court stem from police efforts to curtail drug use by sweeping whole neighborhoods.

Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., believes that what's driving aggressive policing in black neighborhoods is simple racial profiling. Butler said police, including black officers, selectively enforce the drug laws in the black community because they believe that blacks simply need more drug law enforcement.

"Police and prosecutors use the statistics about the number of African-Americans who get arrested for drug use as a reason to look more closely at African-Americans for that crime," Butler said. "And, of course, if you're especially looking among African-Americans, then you'll find more African-Americans. There's an important relationship between looking for something and finding it."

Not only are blacks more likely to be arrested for possession and sale of drugs, they are also more likely to face stiffer punishment for those crimes because of sentencing enhancements tied to particular drug offenses. Federal law, for instance, mandates tougher sentences for crack cocaine, the smokable version of cocaine popular among inner-city drug users, than for powder cocaine, a form of the drug more prevalent among suburban whites.

Blacks are also disproportionately affected by amendments to the Illinois Controlled Substances Act that prescribe mandatory prison terms for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of places such as schools, churches, public housing and parks. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, 90 percent of Illinois inmates with a primary offense of violating these so-called "safe zone" laws are African-American.

A Tribune analysis examining the locations of churches, schools, public parks and public housing developments found that nearly 70 percent of Chicago is within 1,000 feet of one or more such site.

A sampling of predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Chicago revealed that 97 percent of East Garfield Park, 99 percent of West Garfield Park, 98 percent of Woodlawn, 96 percent of Englewood and 82 percent of Austin fall within "safe zones."

"Chicago is going to have huge pockets of its square mileage that are in protected zones," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale). "It would be useful to see how the drug-free-zone laws have worked. And if it hasn't worked, either modify it or take it off the statute books."

'Intimate sales' in suburbs

That density of public facilities does not exist in most suburbs. Neither, suburban police say, do the open-air drug markets that make obvious targets.

"Open-air markets are very unusual out here," said Paul Marchese, supervising attorney of the Narcotics and Gang Unit of the DuPage County state's attorney's office. "I've been here for 16 years and I can count in the single digits what we would imagine an open-air drug market in DuPage County."

Without the open-air drug markets and the attendant violent and property crime that orbit them, suburban police officers don't make the huge number of arrests for drug offenses like in Chicago, according to Terry Lemming, statewide drug and gun enforcement coordinator for the Illinois State Police.

"Open-air drug markets are an immediate problem because of all the related violence that goes with them," Lemming said. "The intimate sales of the suburbs are not a situation where the safety of citizens is at risk. The more intimate drug sales in the suburbs have to be attacked with a different way of enforcement."

The disparity in arrests has contributed to a lasting perception that blacks use illegal drugs at much higher rates than other racial groups.

However, a 2003 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Survey Research Laboratory found that rates of illicit drug use in Illinois were in fact essentially equal across racial groups. Nationally, similar results were found by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

"One of the very significant misconceptions about drug use is that we sort of spontaneously assume that the majority of people who use illegal drugs would be minorities, which is not true," said Young Ik Cho, a professor with the Survey Research Lab at UIC. "Over and over again we have been emphasizing the fact that it is not really specific or exclusive to certain groups. It's all over."

That's the essential problem with using the criminal justice system to wage a war on drugs, said Camille Kozlowski, a chief of the Cook County public defender's office in Skokie.

"African-Americans and minorities have always been overwhelmingly overrepresented in the criminal justice system," she said. "So it stands to reason when you're going to fight this war on drugs, it's going to be the same thing.

"But if what you're really trying to do is stop people from using drugs, then wouldn't it be logical to go after everyone equally?"

By Darnell Little Chicago Tribune

Monday, July 23, 2007

Study of Wrongful Convictions Raises Questions Beyond DNA:

In April, Jerry Miller, an Illinois man who served 24 years for a rape he did not commit, became the 200th American prisoner cleared by DNA evidence. His case, like the 199 others, represented a catastrophic failure of the criminal justice system.

When an airplane crashes, investigators pore over the wreckage to discover what went wrong and to learn from the experience. The justice system has not done anything similar.

But a new study does. Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, has, for the first time, systematically examined the 200 cases, in which innocent people served an average of 12 years in prison. In each case, of course, the evidence used to convict them was at least flawed and often false — yet juries, trial judges and appellate courts failed to notice.

“A few types of unreliable trial evidence predictably supported wrongful convictions,” Professor Garrett concluded in his study, “Judging Innocence,” to be published in The Columbia Law Review in January.

The leading cause of the wrongful convictions was erroneous identification by eyewitnesses, which occurred 79 percent of the time. In a quarter of the cases, such testimony was the only direct evidence against the defendant.

Faulty forensic evidence was next, present in 55 percent of the cases. In some of those cases, courts put undue weight on evidence with limited value, as when a defendant’s blood type matched evidence from the crime scene. In others, prosecution experts exaggerated, made honest mistakes or committed outright fraud.

Most of the forensic evidence involved problems with the analysis of blood or semen. Forty-two cases featured expert testimony about hair, an area that is, Professor Garrett wrote, “notoriously unreliable.”

Informants testified against the defendants in 18 percent of the cases. (In three cases, it turned out they had an unusually powerful motive for their false testimony, as DNA evidence proved they were in fact guilty of the crime they had pinned on the defendant.)

There were false confessions in 16 percent of the cases, with two-thirds of those involving defendants who were juveniles, mentally retarded or both.

The 200 cases examined in the study are a distinctive subset of criminal cases. More than 90 percent of those exonerated by DNA were convicted of rape, or of both rape and murder, rape being the classic crime in which DNA can categorically prove innocence. For other crimes, there is often no biological evidence or, if there is, it can give only circumstantial hints about guilt or innocence.

Only 14 of those exonerated had been sentenced to death, 13 in rape-murders. There is a widespread misconception that DNA evidence has freed many inmates from death row, but it is actually a rare murder not involving rape in which biological evidence can provide categorical proof of innocence.

“DNA testing is available in fewer than 10 percent of violent crimes,” said Peter Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, which was instrumental in securing many exonerations. “But the same causes of wrongful convictions exist in cases with DNA evidence as in those cases that don’t.”

Professor Garrett’s study strongly suggests, then, that there are thousands of people serving long sentences for crimes they did not commit but who have no hope that DNA can clear them.

In a second forthcoming study of false convictions, this one focused on capital cases, two law professors — Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State — cautioned that “exonerations are highly unrepresentative of wrongful convictions in general.”

“The main thing we can safely conclude from exonerations is that there are many other false convictions that we have not discovered,” the Michigan study said. “In addition, a couple of strong demographic patterns appear to be reliable: black men accused of raping white women face a greater risk of false conviction than other rape defendants; and young suspects, those under 18, are at greater risk of false confession than other suspects.” Professor Garrett also found that exonerated convicts were more apt to be members of minority groups than was the prison population generally. For instance, 73 percent of the convicts cleared of rape charges were black or Hispanic, compared with 37 percent of all rape convicts.

The courts performed miserably in ferreting out the innocent. Thirty-one of the 200 exonerated prisoners, for instance, had appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but the justices refused to hear 30 of the cases. In the one case they did hear, they ruled against the inmate. Of course, appeals courts do not typically reconsider a jury’s factual findings, focusing instead on asserted procedural errors. Only 20 of the 200 even appealed on the ground that they were innocent; none of those claims were granted.

Perhaps the most troubling finding in Professor Garrett’s study was how reluctant the criminal justice system was to allow DNA testing in the first place. Prosecutors often opposed it, and 16 courts initially denied requests for testing.

Yet DNA evidence can do more than free the innocent. In many cases, it also identified the person who actually committed the crime.

In 40 percent of the cases handled by the Innocence Project, Mr. Neufeld said, DNA not only exonerated the innocent prisoner but also provided evidence that helped identify the person who committed the crime. “In every single one of those cases that perpetrator had committed violent crimes in the intervening years,” he said.

The era of DNA exonerations should be a finite one. These days, DNA testing is common on the front end of prosecutions, meaning that in a few years, the window that the 200 exonerations has opened on the justice system will close. We should look carefully through that window while we can.

By ADAM LIPTAK New York Times July 22, 2007

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Crack in the System

For the fourth time in 20 years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has asked lawmakers to reform mandatory cocaine sentencing policy. Might this be the year Congress listens?

A flurry of recent legislative activity may finally signal an end to what critics call a blatantly racist federal sentencing policy. Now over 20 years old, the sentencing guidelines set forth in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandate a minimum incarceration of five years for possession of five grams of crack cocaine -- the same penalty that is triggered for the sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine, or 100-times the minimum quantity for crack. Opposition to the so-called "crack disparity" has grown steadily through the years and today spans the political spectrum from the conservative Rand Corporation to the American Civil Liberties Union. The guidelines have also drawn the ire of more than a few federal judges, some of whom have begun testing the boundaries of the law by refusing to instate the mandatory crack minimum. The seven-member U.S. Sentencing Commission, which serves under presidential appointment, has repeatedly asked Congress to reform the law. In 1995, the Commission attempted to overturn the crack disparity on its own by attaching an amendment to its recommendation, but that effort was defeated by a strong bipartisan backlash. Since then, the Commission has seen fit to leave it up to Congress to reform the guidelines, and has made it a point to say so every five years. That the law has yet to be repealed is a testament to the persistence of age-old fallacies regarding race and class. While drug use rates are similar among all racial groups, African American drug offenders have a 20 percent greater chance of being sentenced to prison than white offenders, according to Commission statistics. In 2005, more than 80 percent of crack cocaine defendants were black. Meanwhile, President Bush's recent commutation of Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's "excessive" 30-month prison sentence for outing a CIA agent has only added insult to injury. "If President Bush truly believes that the power of commutation is necessary to correct injustice, there is no shortage of cases of people languishing in federal prisons for unconscionably lengthy sentences who are deserving of such attention," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. Mauer's group -- along with others such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) -is part of a vocal coalition aimed at pressuring lawmakers to take action to reform the law. Mauer recently testified before a House subcommittee hearing on mandatory minimums, telling Congress that mandatory penalties for crack cocaine "inevitably result in disproportionate prosecutions of low-level offenders, precisely the opposite of what federal policy should encourage." At its core, the crack law is a glaring example of the bad policy decisions that often follow a national tragedy -- in this case the overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. Within months of Bias' death in June 1986, Congress pushed through the law with overwhelming support from both parties, and in 1988 extended the mandatory penalty to include simple possession of crack. "Congress was responding to a media and political frenzy and passed the law in record time, really, without any input from experts or drug abuse specialists to determine what the appropriate response might be," explains Mauer. "It was a very narrow approach that failed to take into account the broad subject of substance abuse."
"The effect has been significant," says Mauer. "The Sentencing Commission has laid out in clear terms that this policy was a failure; that it isn't an effective way of addressing the problem of drug addiction -- that is, it just isn't working -- and because of the obvious racial disparity that was built into it." The racial component of the law is especially troubling. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 1994 and 2003, the average time African American drug offenders served in prison increased by 77 percent, compared to an increase of 28 percent for white drug offenders. As a result, African Americans now serve, on average, virtually as much time in jail for drug offenses as whites do for violent crimes. "The policy of the federal government is having a devastating effect on our communities and that these laws continue to be maintained show, at the very least, a callous disregard for our people and our communities," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau, testifying before the Sentencing Commission in November. "It is this disregard for the fate of our people and our community that continues to erode our confidence in our nation's criminal justice system." This year, as it has four times in the past two decades, the Commission recommended that lawmakers repeal the crack sentencing mandate. In a 202-page report released on May 15, the Commission maintained its consistently held position that the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio significantly undermines the various congressional objectives set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act and urged Congress to take legislative action to reform the system. Some lawmakers appear to have finally taken that message to heart. "I think increasingly there's been a bipartisan movement for some kind of reform," says Mauer. "Back in 2002, Senators Jeff Sessions and Orrin Hatch introduced a sort of compromise proposal that would have raised the threshold for crack while lowering the threshold for powder. That was significant because it was coming from two leading conservatives. That was a turning point of sorts; I think since then both in the House and Senate there's been more support for change." Currently there are six bills making their way through Congress aimed at addressing the disparity; but not all legislation is created equal. In June, senators Hatch (R-Utah) and Joseph Biden (D-DE) each introduced legislation aimed at reforming the law, and a similar bill introduced in January by Sessions (R-AL) is currently on the docket of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the House, Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Charles Rangel (D-NY) each have bills pending. But the bills vary greatly in their approach, ranging from Bartlett's Machiavellian H.R. 79 -- which wouldn't reduce the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine at all, but rather would apply the same five-year minimum to powder cocaine -- to Biden's Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007, which would repeal the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack and focus federal attention away from street-level dealers and onto so-called "cocaine kingpins." In a floor statement introducing the bill, Biden railed against the crack law's misguided rationale. "This is a terrible flaw in the criminal justice system, based on the bogus notions that the crack form of cocaine is inherently more addictive than the powder form and crack users are more violent than powder users," Biden said. "That logic just hasn't played out." A similar bill, the bipartisan Fairness in Drug Sentencing Act of 2007, was introduced by Hatch, along with senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Arlen Specter (R-PA). But like the earlier Sessions bill, it would only reduce the crack/powder disparity to a ratio of 20-to-1, not eliminate it altogether.

For his part, Mauer says it's encouraging that legislators are finally addressing what he calls the "unconscionable racial disparities" inherent in the federal crack sentencing guidelines; but he insists it's only a first step. "This is by far the most significant pace of reform we've seen in some time," says Mauer of the legislation currently in process. "Under the circumstances, I think equalization is the only defensible alternative, but even then they impose a mandatory sentence, which we think is fundamentally flawed. Crack is just part of the broader issue of mandatory minimums, and it's typical of what's wrong with this system."

Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based writer and reporter and a frequent contributor to The American Prospect Online. He is senior editor of the monthly online magazine Common Sense.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

This was one budget cut they refused to make.

Sarasota County commissioners agreed Thursday to direct Sheriff William Balkwill to find $762,000 in cuts elsewhere in his budget and not close the Venice holding facility, as Balkwill proposed at Tuesday's budget workshop.

The facility, though not actually a jail, acts as a station to process South County inmates before they are transported to the jail in Sarasota.

The possible closing of the Venice facility brought strong reactions from Venice Police Chief Julie Williams and North Port Chief Terry Lewis.

Williams said the closing would have a "potentially devastating impact," because it would reduce the number of officers on the road and in the community.

"When I heard they were going to close the facility Tuesday, you could say it shocked me," Williams added.

Lewis agreed, citing he could lose officers for up to five and six hours at a time should they be forced to haul their inmates up to Sarasota for booking.

"I understand the budget constraints the sheriff's office is under, but we're all under constraints," Lewis said.

Pay scales

County Commissioner Shannon Staub believed Balkwill could locate funds elsewhere in his budget to save the Venice holding facility.

"Find $762,000 out of an $85 million budget? I think I could find that," Staub said. "There's all kinds of (cuts) that don't include personnel."

Staub suggested Balkwill could reduce "non-person things" in his budget, such as helicopter flyovers, training and travel.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta suggested Balkwill could cut at least 2-5 percent more from his budget, much of it in salaries.

"Just flipping pages (in Balkwill's budget), I see overtime (totaling) $100,000," Barbetta said. "And when I look at the pay scale of how many majors and captains there are, I don't know if the public understands what the cost is for each one of these -- $120,000, $116,000. Lieutenants, $110,000. There's a lot of high-ranking officers that maybe if you just held back on the promotions for a year or two, you'd find another $1-2 million."

"And has he tried to work with the cities (of North Port and Venice) to see if they would somehow help out?" Staub said.

"I can't state strongly enough that I think the sheriff ought to get together with the chiefs of police in both jurisdictions to come up with a solution," echoed Commissioner Paul Mercier.


That was the subject of a letter that went out to Balkwill from the commissioners Thursday, asking him to "see if you might sharpen your pencil a bit more such that you would be able to maintain operations of the Venice facility within your proposed fiscal year 2008 budget."

The letter went on to suggest North Port and Venice "should get together on expenses maintaining the facility" since their operations both benefit through its existence.

Lt. Chuck Lesaltato of the sheriff's office acknowledged receipt of the letter and said a formal answer would come later.

"Sheriff Balkwill needs to go over the numbers again to prepare a response," Lesaltato said.

Balkwill made some points at Tuesday's budget workshop, however, on the topic of how cuts affect his department.

"The more you cut into law enforcement services, the tougher it gets for us," Balkwill said. "When you start cutting back on vehicles, start cutting back on manpower, start cutting back on whether we can give people raises or not, it can have a huge impact. It's hard times right now and it's sad that what's happened in the Legislature is now affecting us in the county."

By Steven J. Smith Sun Herald