Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (STDW)
[image:1 align:right caption:true]On conservative radio talker Hugh Hewitt's program Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions continued to bad mouth marijuana and suggested he might use laws enacted to go after the Mafia against the legal marijuana industry.
"I think it's a more dangerous drug than a lot of people realize. I don#39;t think we're going to be a better community if marijuana is sold in every corner grocery store," the attorney general told Hewitt.
The conservative talker then helpfully suggested that one way Washington could go after legal pot was by bringing racketeering charges against marijuana businesses.
"One RICO prosecution against one marijuana retailer in one state that has so-called legalization ends this façade and this flaunting of the Supremacy Clause. Will you be bringing such a case?" Hewitt asked Sessions.
Sessions didn't exactly jump on the idea, but neither did he reject it.
"We will um… marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws," Sessions said in response. "So yes, we will enforce law in an appropriate way nationwide. It's not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that's legalized it."
But Hewitt was not done chewing on that bone, asking Sessions if he couldn't just make an example out of somebody.
"I mean, if you want to send that message, you can send it. Do you think you're going to send it?" he asked.
Sessions had to clue in Hewitt about the difficulty of reining in the burgeoning the legal marijuana industry.
"Well, we'll be evaluating how we want to handle that," he said. "I think it's a little more complicated than one RICO case, I've got to tell you. This, places like Colorado, it's just sprung up a lot of different independent entities that are moving marijuana. And it's also being moved interstate, not just in the home state," he added.
Sessions has been a staunch foe of marijuana legalization, and the industry has been on tenterhooks since he was nominated as the nation's highest law enforcement officer. He attempted to soft-shoe his views during his confirmation hearings, suggesting that he wasn't going to aggressively go after the legal pot industry, but his comments with Hewitt may suggest otherwise.
Taken together with a memo on violent crime Sessions sent to federal prosecutors Wednesday in which he hinted at at rolling back Obama Justice Department policies directing federal prosecutors to not always seek the most serious charges in drug cases and to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences, his comments to Hewitt Thursday suggest that the Trump administration is about to head resolutely backwards on drug policy in general and marijuana policy in particular.
Listen to the Hewitt interview below:
Attorney General Sessions hints at a return to tough federal drug sentencing, Rhode Island Attorney General Kilmartin announces a campaign to fend off marijuana legalization, Bolivia's president signs a law nearly doubling legal coca cultivation, and more.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Florida Decriminalization Bills Filed. A pair of Democratic lawmakers has filed identical decriminalization bills in the House and Senate. State Rep Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) filed House Bill 1403, while state Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) filed Senate Bill 1662. The bills would make possession of up to an ounce a civil violation punishable by a fine of no more than $100. Under current Florida law, small time marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Rhode Island Attorney General Gins Up Anti-Legalization Campaign. State Attorney General Peter Kilmartin (D) launched a campaign against marijuana legalization Thursday. Kilmartin said he was mobilizing lawmakers, business leaders, and others concerned about public health and public safety issues to fight ongoing efforts in the legislature to legalize it. He's joining forces with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, among others.
Heroin and Prescription Opioids
Florida Bills Would Have Dealers Facing Manslaughter Charges for Opioid Overdose Deaths. A pair of Republican state lawmakers has filed identical bills that would allow prosecutors to bring manslaughter charges against people who sold opioids to people who overdosed and died on them. Sen. Gregg Steube (R-Sarasota) filed Senate Bill 150 Tuesday, while Rep. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) filed House Bill 477.
Attorney General Sessions Signals He Could Reverse Obama Policy of Seeking Less Serious Charges in Drug Cases. Sessions sent a memo to federal prosecutors Wednesday calling on them to crack down on violent crime, and in that memo, he hinted at rolling back Obama administration policies directing federal prosecutors to not always seek the most serious charges in drug cases and to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences by leaving drug quantities out of charging documents. "I encourage you to employ the full complement of federal law to address the problem of violent crime in your district," Sessions wrote. "Further guidance and support in executing this priority -- including an updated memo on charging for all criminal cases -- will be forthcoming."
Bolivian President Signs Law Nearly Doubling Amount of Legal Coca Grown. President Evo Morales, a former coca grower himself, signed into law Wednesday a bill that will increase the amount of coca that can be legally planted from 30,000 acres to 55,000 acres. "We want to guarantee coca supplies for life," he said.
Ominous noises from AG Sessions on marijuana and drug policy, asset forfeiture reform advances in three states, the feds threaten to shut down the Las Vegas Cannabis Cup, and more.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Sessions Makes Ominous Noises on Marijuana Policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions restated his opposition to marijuana use Monday and warned that marijuana legalization efforts could open states to "violence" and a response from the federal government. "I don't think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot," Sessions said to reporters Monday at the Department of Justice. "I believe it's an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we're seeing real violence around that." He had more disturbing things to say Tuesday. See below.
Feds Threaten to Shut Down Las Vegas Cannabis Cup. Nevada US Attorney Daniel Bogden has sent a letter to the Moapa Paiute tribe warning that the Cannabis Cup trade show set for tribal lands next weekend would violate federal marijuana prohibition laws. "I am informed that the tribal council is moving forward with the planned marijuana event referred to as the 2017 High Times Cannabis Cup because it is under the impression that the so-called 'Cole Memorandum' and subsequent memoranda from the Department of Justice permit marijuana use, possession and distribution on tribal lands when the state law also permits it. Unfortunately, this is an incorrect interpretation of the Department's position on this issue," Bogden wrote in a February 16 letter.
New Mexico Legalization Bill Killed. An effort to legalize marijuana died Monday in the House Business and Industry Committee after members voted 9-1 to kill it. House Bill 89 went down at least in part because of uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration's posture toward legal marijuana. It would have created a 15% tax on marijuana sales from licensed shops, with revenues earmarked for schools, the judiciary, and drug treatment programs.
Idaho Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances. A bill to require police to demonstrate an actual connection between drugs and seized property before seizing it and to clarify that possession of cash alone is not grounds for seizure has passed the House Judiciary Committee. House Bill 202 now heads for a House floor vote.
Indiana Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances. A bill that would end asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction and would bar prosecutors from circumventing state law by passing cases off to the feds has passed the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law. Senate Bill 8 now heads for a Senate floor vote.
New Mexico Senate Passes Bill to Close Asset Forfeiture Loophole Used By Cities. The Senate has approved Senate Bill 202 on a unanimous vote. The state ended civil asset forfeiture in 2015, but police in Albuquerque and other cities claimed the law did not apply to their municipal asset forfeiture programs. This bill clarifies that it does. It is now before the House Judiciary Committee.
Sessions Says DOJ Will Prioritize Drugs, Violent Crime. In remarks before the National Association of Attorneys General Tuesday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged that crime was at historically low levels, but vowed to pursue gun and drug offenses. "[I]llegal drugs flood across our southern border and into cities and towns across our country, bringing violence, addiction and misery. In particular, we've seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs,"Sessions said. "As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire,"he continued. "In recent years, we've also seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting gun and drug offenders at the federal level. While numbers don't tell the whole story, I still find the following statistics troubling: at the end of 2015 there were more than 7 percent fewer federal gun prosecutions than five years before. In that same five-year period, federal drug prosecutions declined by 18 percent. "Under my leadership at the Department of Justice, this trend will end,"he said.
West Virginia Bill Would Create Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Adults Who Make or Transport Drugs Around Minors. The House of Delegates' Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse has approved House Bill 2648, which would set a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for any adult found guilty of transporting or manufacturing drugs in front of a minor. The bill now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.
Poll Has Four of Five Danes Favoring Medical Marijuana. A new survey from Analyse Denmark has support for medical marijuana at 80%, "with the remainder saying they did not have an opinion." The poll comes as the country awaits a medical marijuana pilot project set to begin on January 1. The poll also asked about marijuana legalization, but only 36% were in favor, with 45% opposed.
Chronicle AM: AL Bill Has Mandatory Life w/o Parole for Possessing Ounce of Fentanyl, More... (2/17/17)
The Alabama legislature ponders harsh drug sentences not seen since the last century, decriminalization is picking up some support in Texas, China announces scheduling controls on fentanyl, and more.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Cannabis, Drug Policy Reform Advocates Commend Congressional Members on Formation of Congressional Cannabis Caucus. In a joint statement Thursday, major marijuana and drug reform groups commended congress members for forming the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Don Young (R-AK). After commending the representatives, the joint statement noted that "the establishment of a Cannabis Caucus will allow members from both parties, who represent diverse constituencies from around the country, to join together for the purpose of advancing sensible cannabis policy reform. It will also facilitate efforts to ease the tension between federal prohibition laws and state laws that regulate cannabis for medical and adult use."
Texas Decriminalization Bill Picks Up Some Support. Law enforcement officials joined House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Joe Moody (D-El Paso) at the capitol Thursday to express support for a measure to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of weed, House Bill 81. The bill is currently before the committee. Harris County, the state's most populous, just announced plans to institute decriminalization there.
Georgia Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Bill, But Advocates Say It's a Step Backwards. The Senate Thursday approved Senate Bill 16, but advocates said it was a retreat because it lowers the amount of allowable THC in cannabis oil from 7% to 3%. Some senators wanted to reduce it to 1%. The bill now goes to the House, where Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), who wrote the original CBD bill, said he hopes to rewrite it to restore the 7% figure.
Utah Medical Marijuana Research Bill Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted Thursday to approve House Bill130, which would allow universities in the state to do research on the medicinal effects of marijuana. The bill has already passed the House and now awaits a Senate floor vote.
Arizona Industrial Hemp Bill Advances. A bill that would legalize the production and processing of industrial hemp has passed two key committees. Senate Bill 1337 passed the Public Safety Committee on a 6-1 vote Monday and the Appropriations Committee Tuesday on a 10-0 vote. It still needs to go before the Senate Rules Committee before it heads for a floor vote.
North Dakota Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances. The House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 1170 on an 11-4 vote Thursday. The bill would require a criminal conviction before property could be seized in most situations and bans prosecutors from circumventing state law by handing cases off to the federal government. The measure now heads for a House floor vote.
Alabama Bills Would Increase Heroin, Fentanyl Sentences. Under bills currently before the state legislature, prison sentences would go up for people who possess or sell heroin and fentanyl. Under one bill, anyone convicted of their possession would face mandatory prison sentences, and under another, Senate Bill 154, people possessing as little as one ounce of fentanyl would face a mandatory sentence of life without parole. The state instituted sentencing reforms several years back; some legislators worry these bills would undo those efforts.
China Announces Scheduling Controls of Carfentanil and other Fentanyl Compounds. China announced Thursday that it will begin scheduling controls of four fentanyl-class substances -- carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, valeryl fentanyl, and acryl fentanyl -- beginning March 1. Chinese pharmaceutical factories have been identified as major producers of the synthetic opioids, which are linked to thousands of drug overdose deaths in the US.
Medical marijuana and harm reduction measures advance in New Mexico, a police drug field test kit maker is being sued by a Florida man busted for the glaze on his Krispy Kreme donuts, Idaho considers ending mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and more.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Virginia Lieutenant Governor Calls for Decriminalization. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northum (D) called Monday for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, saying enforcement is costly and aimed disproportionately at African-Americans. The move comes weeks after Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) requested that the Virginia Crime Commission study the issue. That move froze pending decriminalization legislation sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).
Washington State Bill Would Repeal Legalization. Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kenniwick) has filed House Bill 2096, which would repeal "all laws legalizing the use, possession, sale, or production of marijuana and marijuana-related products." The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming.
Wyoming Senate Committee Scales Back Marijuana Sentencing Reforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to amend House Bill 197, weakening proposed sentencing reforms by doubling the period during which previous convictions would result in a longer sentence from five years to 10 years. More importantly, the amendment removes the plant form of marijuana from the bill completely, meaning the new tiered sentencing system would apply only to edibles.
New Mexico Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The Senate voted 29-11 Monday to approve Senate Bill 177, which would expand the state's program by increasing the amount of marijuana patients may possess to five ounces and increasing the number of plants commercial providers can grow. The bill now goes to the House.
Idaho Bills Would Alter State's Drug Laws. The House Judiciary and Rules Committee voted Monday to introduce a package of three bills that would reform the state's harsh drug laws. One bill would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and another would bar the seizure of vehicles for simple drug possession and require that property found near drugs be seized only if it is meaningfully connected to the crime. The third bill, however, is a step in the opposite direction -- it would allow heroin sellers to be charged with murder in the event of fatal overdoses.
Florida Field Drug Test Kit Company Sued By Man Jailed for Possessing Donut Glaze. A Florida man is suing the police field drug test kit manufacturer Safariland LLC after an Orlando police officer using one of its field kits charged him with possessing methamphetamine although the substance being tested was actually the glaze from a Krispy Kreme donut. The drug test is either ineffective or unreliable, Daniel Rushing charges in his lawsuit, twice registering a positive result for meth and resulting in his false arrest and imprisonment before felony charges were dropped.
Federal Appeals Court Upholds Student Drug Legalization Group's Free Speech Rights. The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Iowa State University cannot bar a student group from using the university's logo and mascot on t-shirts calling for the legalization of marijuana. Iowa State NORML had sued in 2014 after the university first gave its okay, but then refused permission after pressure from high-ranking state officials, including the governor's office. Instead, the university suddenly changed its guidelines, with new rules prohibiting designs "that suggest promotion of dangerous, illegal, or unhealthy products." Last year a federal district court filed an injunction prohibiting the school from using its new policy to block NORML from printing new t-shirts, and now the appeals court has upheld that permanent injunction.
New Mexico Senate Approves Pair of Harm Reduction Bills. The state Senate Monday overwhelmingly approved two bills aimed at reducing the number of fatal drug overdoses in the state. Senate Bill 47 would improve the state's 911 Good Samaritan law to include alcohol overdoses and eliminate the prospect of criminal liability for violating drug laws while seeking medical assistance for an overdose. Senate Bill 16 would require health care providers to counsel patients on the risk of overdose and to offer prescriptions for the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bills now go to the House.
Trump Administration Accuses Venezuela VP of Drug Smuggling. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of being an international drug kingpin. Treasury said that El Aissimi facilitated drug trafficking in his previous post of Aragua state. The Treasury Department placed him on a list reserved for "specially designated narcotics traffickers," part of what's known as the Kingpin Act.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
In a sharp break with the Obama administration, which distanced itself from harsh anti-drug rhetoric and emphasized treatment for drug users over punishment, President Trump last week reverted to tough drug war oratory and backed it up with a series of executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America."
[image:1 align:right]"We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in," Trump told law enforcement professionals of the Major Cities Chiefs Association last Wednesday. "We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence."
Trump also lambasted the Obama administration for one of its signature achievements in criminal justice reform, opening the prison doors for more than 1,700 drug war prisoners who had already served sentences longer than they would have under current, revised sentencing guidelines. Obama freed "record numbers of drug traffickers, many of them kingpins," Trump complained.
And in a sign of a return to the dark days of drug war over-sentencing, he called for harsher mandatory minimum prison sentences for "the most serious" drug offenders, as well as aggressive prosecutions of drug traffickers and cracking down on "shipping loopholes" he claimed allowed drugs to be sent to the US from other countries.
In a New Hampshire campaign speech during the campaign, Trump called for more treatment for drug users and more access to overdose reversal drugs, but there was no sign of that side of the drug policy equation in Wednesday's speech.
Last Thursday, Trump backed up his tough talk with action as, at the Oval Office swearing in of Attorney General Jeff Session, he rolled out three executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America," but which appear to signal an increasingly authoritarian response to crime, drugs, and discontent with policing practices.
The first, which Trump said would "reduce crime and restore public safety," orders Sessions to create a new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Policy, which will come up with "strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and violent crime," propose legislation to implement them, and submit a report to the president within a year.
The second, regarding "transnational criminal organizations and preventing drug trafficking," directs various federal law enforcement agencies to "increase intelligence sharing" and orders an already existing interagency working group to submit a report to Trump within four months describing progress made in combating the cartels, "along with any recommended actions for dismantling them."
"I'm directing Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people," Trump said Thursday.
The third directs the Justice Department to use federal law to prosecute people who commit crimes against police officers, even though they already face universally severe penalties under existing state laws.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]"It's a shame what's been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "That's going to stop as of today."
The tough talk and the executive orders provoked immediate alarm and pushback from human and civil rights advocates, drug reformers, the Mexican government, and even the law enforcement community. The apparent turn back toward a more law-and-order approach to drugs also runs against the tide of public health and public policy opinion that the war on drugs has been a failure.
In a report released last Friday, dozens of senior law enforcement officials warned Trump against a tough crackdown on crime and urged him to instead continue the Obama administration's efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
The report was coauthored for Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration by former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who won wide praise for his response after a gun man killed five of his officers last year.
"Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: Today's crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety," the report said.
The president's crime plan would encourage police to focus on general lawbreaking rather than violent crime, the report said. The Justice Department already spends more than $5 billion a year to support local police, much of it spent on "antiquated law enforcement tools, such as dragnet enforcement of lower-level offenses" and Trump's plan would "repeat this mistake," the officials wrote. "We cannot fund all crime fighting tactics."
Drug reformers also sounded the alarm.
"This rhetoric is dangerous, disturbing, and dishonest," said Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We have had a war on drugs. It has failed. Tough talk may look good before the cameras, but history has taught us that cracking down on drugs and building walls will not stop the supply or use of drugs. It mostly causes the death and destruction of innocent lives. Trump must tone down his outrageous rhetoric and threats, and instead reach out to leadership from both parties to enact a humane and sensible health-based approach to drug policies that both reduce overdose and our country's mass incarceration crisis."
Indeed, most public health experts argue that the prohibitionist approach to drugs has been a failure. They point to research such as a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal that found that despite billions spent on drug prohibition since 1990, drug prices have only decreased and purity increased, making getting high easier and more affordable than ever before.
"These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing," the authors conclude.
Public health analysts also point to research showing that between 1991 and 2001, even when the drug war was in full effect, the rate of illicit drug use among teens rose sharply, while their cigarette smoking rate fell off a bit and their alcohol use dropped sharply. The substances that are legal for adult use were less likely to see increases than ones that are prohibited, the analysts point out.
Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray also chimed in to note that there wouldn't be any Mexican drug cartels without American demand for drugs and to remind Washington that it's not just what's being exported from Mexico that is a problem, but what's being imported, too.
"For years, from the Mexican perspective, people say, 'OK, the problem with drugs -- that it's creating so much violence, so many deaths of young people in Mexico -- is because there's demand for drugs in the US,''" Videgaray said. "We happen to be neighbors to the largest market for drugs. From the American perspective, it's just the other way around," he said, adding that both countries need to get past "the blame game."
And if the US is serious about helping Mexico disrupt the cartels "business model," it needs to stop the southbound traffic in cash and guns.
"We need to stop illegal weapons flowing from the U.S. into Mexico," Videgaray said. "We always think about illegal stuff moving through the border south to north, but people forget that most guns -- and we're not talking small guns, we're talking heavy weapons -- they get to the cartels and create literally small armies out of the cartels."
[image:3 align:right caption:true]Human Rights Watch reacted to a comment from Attorney General Sessions at his swearing in ceremony that crime is a "dangerous permanent trend that places the lives of American people at risk," by noting that crime is down dramatically by all measures over the past 20 years despite a slight increase in violent crimes between 2014 and 2015. "There is no 'dangerous permanent trend' in violent or non-violent crime," it pointed out.
And Amnesty International swiftly reacted to the executive order calling for new federal penalties for crimes against police.
"Law enforcement officers face unique hardships and challenges due to the nature of their work," said Amnesty's Noor Mir. "Authorities are already able to vigorously prosecute crimes against law enforcement officers, and there is no history to suggest that officers are not fully protected by current laws. This order will not protect anyone, and instead it creates additional penalties that could cause people to be significantly over-prosecuted for offenses including resisting arrest.
There is a better way, said Mir, but that would require going in a radically different direction than where the Trump administration is headed.
"This order does nothing to address real and serious problems in the US criminal justice system," he said. "Relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve could instead be improved by investing in reform of the criminal justice system and better training for officers. Police already have laws protecting them, but there is no federal standard for the prosecution of officers who unlawfully kill civilians. Implementing a standard for lethal force in line with international standards will protect both police and civilians."
The Trump administration has outlined an approach to drugs and criminal justice policy with dark Nixonian and Reaganite underpinnings, promising more, more, more heavy-handed policing, more swelling prison populations, and more -- not less -- distrust and suspicion between police and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect.
And, in typical Trump fashion, his brash, draconian approach to the complex social problems around crime and drugs is creating a rapid backlash. Whether the rising opposition to Trump can rein in his authoritarian impulses and regressive policy approaches to the issue remains to be seen, but a battle to stop the slide backward is brewing.
After decades of the war on drugs and other "tough on crime" policies, America seems finally to have begun to come to its senses. The imprisonment rate has leveled off, and we're no longer seeing year after year after year of ever-increasing numbers of people behind bars in the land of the free.
[image:1 align:right]We've seen that change at the federal level, with the Fair Sentencing Act, softening of the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, and Justice Department instructions to prosecutors to avoid hitting bit players with mandatory minimum sentences. We've seen that at the state level, with sentencing reforms in dozens of states leading to an actual reduction in the number of state prisoners. And we've even seen it at the local level -- the nation's system of city and county jails -- through things like marijuana decriminalization and reforms in bail practices.
That's all well and good, but we're still the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita term, with more than two million people locked up (China only has 1.5 million). Tens of thousands of them are non-violent drug offenders sentenced under draconian laws enacted before the fever broke -- confined not for years, but for decades -- and writing less brutal sentencing laws now isn't much help to them.
In his waning days in office, President Obama struck a bold blow for justice and made modern presidential history by granting clemency to more than 1,700 federal drug prisoners. Let's be crystal clear here: These were not pardons granted to people who had finished their sentences and long ago returned to society and now wanted their records wiped clean. Obama's commutations meant that people currently spending their lives behind prison walls walked free -- years or decades before they otherwise would have. Hundreds, mostly third time drug offenders serving life sentences, would have died in prison.
But the president can only grant pardons or commutations to people in the federal system, and the vast majority of American's prisoners are in state prisons. Each state governor holds a pardon power similar to the federal chief executive's, but it is used sparingly, some might even say stingily, and has certainly never been wielded in a mass fashion to achieve a social justice end like Obama did at the federal level.
That's a crying shame -- and a potential focus of reform organizing -- because a governor's signature can liberate a human being who not only deserves a chance to breathe the air of freedom, but who may actually make our world a better place by being in and of it instead of being locked away from it -- and us.
Ask Tony Papa. He was a young New York City family man with his own business who, short on cash, took an offer to make a few hundred bucks by delivering some cocaine back in the 1980s, when New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws were still in full effect. It was a sting, and Papa got popped. Like thousands of others, the luckless he quickly entered the state's drug war gulag, sentenced to 15 years to life.
In an earlier work, 15 to Life, Papa told the story of his bust, his seeming eternity behind bars, his slammer-honed artistic talent, and how an anguished self-portrait that seemed to encapsulate the horror and madness of crushing drug prohibition resulted in some high-placed interest, followed by media attention, a public campaign on his behalf, and his release after 12 years when he was granted clemency by then-Gov. George Pataki. It is a remarkable tale of punishment, perseverance, and redemption.
And now, he's back with the rest of the story. In This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, the personable Papa tells the tale of his life after rebirth -- and makes achingly clear how the trauma of years-long incarceration lingers in the psyche of the freed. There is a clear public policy moral buried in these pages, too: Getting out of prison is only the first step, reentry into society is hard, society itself seems to make it even harder, a virtual obstacle course for people taking the baby steps of freedom, but if we as a society are smart, we will make the effort, for our own collective sake as well as out of a humanitarian impulse.
Compared to most newly freed prisoners, Papa had it good. The campaign for his release had made him connections, he could find work, he could revive his familial ties, yet still he struggled, and understandably so. When you've spent a dozen years being told what to do, freedom isn't easy.
Papa had his demons, and part of the way he fought them was by resolving not to forget the prisoners he left behind. Within a year of his release, inspired by the courageous years-long struggle of the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, those survivors of the thousands taken and killed by the military dictatorship of the 1970s, he and comic/political gadfly Randy Credico formed the New York Mothers of the Disappeared along with family members of the thousands imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws.
Papa, Credico, and the Mothers played a critical role in early efforts to overturn the Rockefeller drug laws, and his tales of feckless politicians, preening celebrity intervenors, and back room double-dealing are the inside dirt on the glacial process of bringing some sanity to the state's drug laws. It ain't pretty, but reform did happen -- eventually -- and Papa got his social justice payback. If that isn't redemption-worthy, I don’t know what is.
This Side of Freedom is one part memoir, one part social history, one part heart-felt manifesto. Papa is an effective, engaging writer who tells his story in discrete episodes and has a knack for jumping from the personal to the political like a quivering quantum particle. You'll meet a range of colorful characters and experience the gamut of human emotion -- the highs, the lows, the ennui -- as you follow Papa's path.
His is one portrait of life in turn-of-the-21st Century America: mindless cruelty and brutality, mixed with racial injustice, but leavened with the will to resist. Read and ask yourself: How many other Tony Papas are out there, watching their lives tick away as they're locked in the cells, when they could be out here helping the rest of us make our world a better, more just and humane place?