Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The War on Drugs Is Really a War on Minorities

There is a subject being forgotten in the 2008 Democratic race for the White House.

While all the major candidates are vying for the black and Latino vote, they are completely ignoring one of the most pressing issues affecting those constituencies: the failed "war on drugs" -- a war that has morphed into a war on people of color.

Consider this: According to a 2006 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, African Americans make up an estimated 15% of drug users, but they account for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. Or consider this: The U.S. has 260,000 people in state prisons on nonviolent drug charges; 183,200 (more than 70%) of them are black or Latino.

Such facts have been bandied about for years. But our politicians have consistently failed to take action on what has become yet another third rail of American politics, a subject to be avoided at all costs by elected officials who fear being incinerated on contact for being soft on crime.

Perhaps you hoped this would change during a spirited Democratic presidential primary? Unfortunately, a quick search of the top Democratic hopefuls' websites reveals that not one of them -- not Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, not John Edwards, not Joe Biden, not Chris Dodd, not Bill Richardson -- even mentions the drug war, let alone offers any solutions.

The silence coming from Clinton and Obama is particularly deafening.

Obama has written eloquently about his own struggle with drugs but has not addressed the tragic effect the war on drugs is having on African American communities.

As for Clinton, she flew into Selma, Ala., to reinforce her image as the wife of the black community's most beloved politician and has made much of her plan to attract female voters, but she has ignored the suffering of poor, black women right in her own backyard.

Located down the road from her Chappaqua, N.Y., home are two prisons housing female inmates, Taconic and Bedford. Forty-eight percent of the women in Taconic are there for nonviolent drug offenses; 78% of those in the prison are African American or Latino.

And Bedford, the state's only maximum-security prison for women, is home to some of the worst victims of New York's draconian Rockefeller-era drug laws -- mothers and grandmothers whose first brush with the law resulted in their being locked away for 15 years or more on nonviolent drug charges.

Yet even though these prisons are so nearby, Clinton has turned a blind eye to the plight of the women locked away there, notably refusing to speak out on their behalf.

Avoidance of this issue comes at a very stiff price (and not just the more than $50 billion a year we're spending on the failed drug war). The toll is paid in shattered families, devastated inner cities and wasted lives (with no apologies for using that term).

During the 10 years I've been writing about the injustice of the drug war, I've repeatedly watched as politicians paid lip service to the problem but then ducked as the sickening status quo claimed more victims. In California, of the 171,000 inmates jamming the state's wildly overcrowded prisons, 36,000 are nonviolent drug offenders.

I remember in 1999 asking Dan Bartlett, then the campaign spokesman for candidate George W. Bush, about Bush's position on the outrageous disparity between the sentences meted out for possession of crack cocaine and those given for possession of powder cocaine -- a disparity that has helped fill U.S. prisons with black low-level drug users (80% of sentenced crack defendants are black). Federal sentencing guidelines dictate that judges impose the same five-year prison sentence for possession of five grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine.

"The different sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is something that there's no doubt needs to be addressed," Bartlett told me. But in the more than six years since Bush and Bartlett moved into the White House, the problem has gone unaddressed. No doubt about it.

Maybe the president will suddenly wake up and decide to take on the issue five days before he leaves office. That's what Bill Clinton did, writing a 2001 New York Times Op-Ed article in which he trumpeted the need to "immediately reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences" -- conveniently ignoring the fact that he had the power to solve it for eight years and did nothing.

When it mattered, he maintained an imperial silence. Then, when it didn't, he became Captain Courageous. And he lamented the failures of our drug policy as though he had been an innocent bystander rather than the chief executive (indeed, the prison population doubled on his watch).

The injustice is so egregious that a conservative senator, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), is now leading the charge in Congress to ease crack sentences. "I believe that as a matter of law enforcement and good public policy, crack cocaine sentences are too heavy and can't be justified," he said. "People don't want us to be soft on crime, but I think we ought to make the law more rational."

There's a talking point Hillary and Obama should adopt. It's both the right thing and the smart thing. Because of disenfranchisement statutes, large numbers of black men who were convicted of drug crimes are ineligible to vote, even those who have fully paid their debt to society.

A 2000 study found that 1.4 million African American men -- 13% of the total black male population -- were unable to vote in the 2000 election because of state laws barring felons access to the polls. In Florida, one in three black men is permanently disqualified from voting. Think that might have made a difference in the 2000 race? Our shortsighted drug laws have become the 21st century manifestation of Jim Crow.

Shouldn't this be an issue Democratic presidential candidates deem worthy of their attention?

By Arianna Huffington, Los Angeles Times

Florida judge pulls gun in Court

A Jacksonville judge pulled a gun in court and now the local public defender is questioning the incident.

Judge John Merrett says emotions were running high in court last Friday.

"Apparently a valve popped," says Merrett.

Judge Merrett says it was during a court hearing for Derrick McNiel. McNiel, 21, is charged with sexually battering a six-year-old boy. Merrett says during the hearing, the child's father got upset and jumped over the bar and attacked McNiel.

The incident took place right in front of the judge. The only problem is Judge Merrett couldn't see what was going on.

"I have a huge blind spot on either side of my bench, and all that I could tell was there was some kind of violence going on down on the floor. I didn't know if he was after me, or after the bailiffs, or after the defendants or what he was doing."

Judge Merrett carries a concealed weapons permit. The day of the incident, Judge Merrett was carrying his pistol too.

"I pulled out my sidearm and looked to see what was going on, and when I saw that there were no weapons involved and and it didn't appear that anybody was in any serious danger, I handed the pistol off to my clerk so I wouldn't have it in my hand when I went down there," says Merrett.

The incident has sparked a debate on whether judges should be able to carry a gun in court. By law, they are allowed to with a concealed weapons permit.

Judge Merrett says he never had his hand on the trigger or pointed the gun at anyone.

The public defender, Bill White, would only say he is concerned about judges carrying guns in court. White says he has a meeting with Chief Judge Moran about disarming judges on Thursday. White said he would say more about the incident then.

Chief Judge Moran did not return phone calls for comment.

The father of the boy was charged in the incident and released.

Friday, March 23, 2007

It's Been an 'All Out War' on Pot Smokers for 35 Years

Thirty-five years ago this month, a congressionally mandated commission on U.S. drug policy did something extraordinary: They told the truth about marijuana.

On March 22, 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana (sic) and Drug Abuse -- chaired by former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond P. Shafer -- recommended Congress amend federal law so that the use and possession of pot would no longer be a criminal offense. State legislatures, the commission added, should do likewise.

"[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use," concluded the commission, which included several conservative appointees of then-President Richard Nixon. "It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior, which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.

"... Therefore, the commission recommends ... [that the] possession of marihuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense."

Nixon, true to his "law-and-order" roots, shelved the report -- announcing instead that when it came to weed, "We need, and I use the word 'all out war' on all fronts." For the last 35 years, that's what we've had.

Consider this: Since the Shafer Commission issued its recommendations:

Approximately 16.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana violations -- more than 80 percent of them on minor possession charges.
U.S. taxpayers have spent well over $20 billion enforcing criminal marijuana laws, yet marijuana availability and use among the public remains virtually unchanged.
Nearly one-quarter of a million Americans have been denied federal financial aid for secondary education because of anti-drug provisions to the Higher Education Act. Most of these applicants were convicted of minor marijuana possession offenses.
Total U.S. marijuana arrests increased 165 percent during the 1990s, from 287,850 in 1991 to well over 700,000 in 2000, before reaching an all-time high of nearly 800,000 in 2005. However, according to the government's own data, this dramatic increase in the number of persons arrested for pot was not associated with any reduction in the number of new users, any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the black market price of marijuana.
Currently, one in eight inmates incarcerated for drug crimes is behind bars for pot, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion per year.
Perhaps most troubling, the factor most likely to determine whether or not these citizens serve jail time or not isn't the severity of their "crime," but rather where they live. Today there are growing regional disparities in marijuana penalties and marijuana law enforcement -- ranging from no penalty in Alaska to potential life in prison in Oklahoma. In fact, if one were to drive from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., he or she would traverse more than a dozen jurisdictions, all with varying degrees of penalties and/or tolerance toward the possession and use of pot.

Does this sound like a successful national policy?

There is another approach, of course. The Shafer Commission showed the way more than three decades ago.

Marijuana isn't a harmless substance, and those who argue for a change in the drug's legal status do not claim it to be. However, as noted by the commission, pot's relative risks to the user and society are arguably fewer than those of alcohol and tobacco, and they do not warrant the expenses associated with targeting, arresting and prosecuting hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

According to federal statistics, about 94 million Americans -- that's 40 percent of the U.S. population age 12 or older -- self-identify as having used cannabis at some point in their lives, and relatively few acknowledge having suffered significant deleterious health effects due to their use. America's public policies should reflect this reality, not deny it. It makes no sense to continue to treat nearly half of all Americans as criminals.

written by
Paul Armentano the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A New jail for Sarasota County? Part 6

A politically unpleasant decision to build new jail facilities for sentenced prisoners outside of downtown Sarasota will have to be addressed by Sarasota County elected officials, but only after a long-range planning exercise plays out.

On March 26, a six-person county contingent of jail administrators and others who must deal with the swelling prisoner population will leave for a detention services conference outside Denver that could provide some answers about how best to proceed.

"It should help us get better prepared for an April 3 workshop with the county commission," said James Schulz, the county's criminal justice coordinator. "We haven't determined exactly what this community needs yet. There are questions we have to answer."

What Sheriff Bill Balkwill, Schulz and others want to avoid is last-minute decisions handed down by cornered commissioners who are forced to address jail overcrowding while at the same time placating residents who don't want a facility near their neighborhood.

It happened in 1998 when the commission buckled to pressure from Laurel area residents and grossly overpaid for a downtown maximum security jail addition rather than build a medium security facility near the new landfill east of Interstate-75.

As a result, the sheriff's jail staff was unable to provide space for rehabilitative services such as life skills, job training and continuing education, or set up metal and sewing shops where sentenced prisoners could work while serving out terms of less than one year.

"Had I been here when the north wing [jail addition] was built," Schulz said, "I would have asked how long 288 new beds will last. The next steps taken need to be more long-term and provide flexibility. I'm telling everyone I know we're going to outgrow this downtown jail."

Last year, Balkwill asked the county to build a new medium security detention facility outside the city so approximately 200 sentenced prisoners could be removed from the jail population, which is rapidly reaching its capacity of 1,050 beds.

On Jan. 23, the commission balked when asked to approve more than $200,000 for a jail consultant's expert advice, but agreed to revisit the issue as part of a discussion that includes the possibility of a regional facility for sentenced prisoners.

Criminal justice officials were directed to contact both DeSoto and Manatee counties to determine whether they would consider jointly building and operating a new facility for sentenced prisoners. Those conversations have not taken place.

"We haven't rushed off to explore this option with DeSoto and Manatee yet," Schulz said. "DeSoto has also accepted an invitation to attend the conference in Colorado, so we'll be talking to them about partnering. We have time for a deliberative process."

At its Jan. 23 meeting, and in a follow-up discussion on Feb. 2, the commission agreed to resume deliberations after criminal justice officials : 1) investigate a regional jail; 2) analyze the existing jail; 3) identify what is needed in a new jail; and (4) make the case for a new jail.
written by Jack Gurney Pelican Press

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Judge jails stenographer over transcript

A stenographer who failed to deliver a transcript needed for an appeal was sentenced to jail for contempt of court.

Circuit Judge Charles Greene said Friday he will release stenographer Ann Margaret Smith, 44, as soon as she completes the transcript, The Miami Herald reported.

Smith's equipment and notes will be sent to the jail and the Broward Sheriff's Office will provide her a place to work, according to the judge's orders.

"You have a person in custody," Greene said. "No one can do a thing because you don't have a transcript."

An appeals court had asked the judge for a transcript from the trial of a man sentenced to three consecutive life terms for kidnapping a toddler from his bed, wrapping the boy's head with duct tape, and raping him, Greene said. He said the appeal can't move forward without the transcript.

In a contempt hearing on Feb. 9, the judge ordered Smith to finish the transcript by Feb. 28 and not to take on any more trials in Broward County until then. She was jailed when she failed to comply.

It was not immediately known if she had an attorney.
AP 3/10/07