Skip to Content

Top Stories (STDW)

Syndicate content
Updated: 23 hours 37 min ago

Drug-Induced Homicide Charges Draconian and Ineffective, Study Finds [FEATURE]

Sat, 11/11/2017 - 22:17

A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance shines a harsh spotlight on a strategy that some police, prosecutors, and elected officials are embracing in response to the opioid overdose crisis -- charging sellers with drug-induced homicide -- which the evidence suggests is intensifying, rather than helping, the problem.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]The opioid overdose crisis is real enough -- a record of more than 60,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, most of them from opioids -- but claims that charging drug sellers with murder is an effective deterrent are unproven, according to the report, An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane.

Instead, such laws actually deter people not from selling drugs but from seeking life-saving medical assistance in case of overdose. That's because drug-induced homicide prosecutions typically don't target high-level "kingpins," but zero in on the very people best positioned to actually save lives in the event of an overdose: family, friends, and low-level drug sellers, often addicts themselves.

Like Amy Shemberger. In August 2014, she took a ride to score some heroin for herself and her boyfriend, Peter Kucinski. She snorted one bag on the way home and gave the other to Peter when she got home. Suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal, he needed the heroin to feel better. He snorted a $10 bag, then stopped breathing. Amy called 911, but it was too late, and her boyfriend of 18 years was gone -- and then so was their 5-year-old son, taken into custody by child protective services.

Two months later, Amy was charged with drug-induced homicide for sharing her score with her life partner. She's now serving seven years in state prison.

Amy Shemberger is not an outlier. Police and prosecutors routinely abuse their discretion by going after the people best positioned to actually save the lives of overdose victims -- their friends, family members, fellow drug users, and small-time drug sellers. The report offers several examples: In New Jersey, 25 of 32 drug-induced homicide prosecutions in the 2000s targeted friends of the victims who were not involved in significant drug sales. In Wisconsin, 90% of the most recent cases targeted friends or relatives of the victim. In Illinois, a study of these prosecutions found that prosecutors typically charged the last person known to be with the victim.

And, as with everything else in the war on drugs, it's worse if you're not white. Hampered by a felony record, when James Linder, 36, lost his job at a bakery, he resorted to selling small amounts of drugs, making enough money to get a haircut for his son and to help out his sister. But in January 2015, he sold three packets of heroin to Cody Hillier. Hillier's girlfriend, Danielle Barzyk died of an overdose later that same day. Despite never even metting Barzyk, Linder was charged with drug-induced homicide in her death. He was sentenced by an all-white jury in rural Illinois. Unlike Shemberger, he didn't get seven years; he got 28 years in prison.

Linder and Schemberger are by no means alone. Drug-induced homicide laws, originally passed in the depths of 1980s drug war excess, lay largely dormant until rising drug overdose numbers led police and prosecutors to revive them. Currently 20 states -- Delaware, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming -- have drug-induced homicide laws on the books. Other states without such laws also manage to charge these people with the offense of drug delivery resulting in death under various felony-murder, depraved heart, or involuntary or voluntary manslaughter laws.

"This is a wasteful, punitive policy that compounds the tragedy of an overdose by locking up even more people in the name of the failing war on drugs," said Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance and author of the report. "By placing the blame for an overdose death on the single person who supplied the drugs, all the structural factors that lead to addiction and overdose are ignored, as are the solutions that could actually make a difference. While there's no evidence in support of the effectiveness of drug-induced homicide laws, the good news is that there are proven health and harm reduction interventions that can save lives."

Those include policies and practices such as 911 Good Samaritan laws, which protect people reporting drug overdoses from arrest; expanded access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan), expanded access to opioid-assisted treatment, and expansion of harm reduction programs such as supervised drug injection sites, where users can shoot up under medical supervision and be connected with social service agencies.

There is no national database of drug-induced homicide prosecutions, so the Drug Policy Alliance report relied on media mentions of such cases to chart their spread. It found 363 articles mentioning such cases in 2011, but by 2016, that number had jumped to 1,178, a 300% increase in just five years. And this without any evidence of their effectiveness in reducing drug use or sales or preventing overdose deaths.

The resort to drug-induced homicide charges varies from state to state. Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota have been the most aggressive in prosecuting drug-induced homicides, with northeastern states Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York and southern states Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee rapidly expanding their use of these laws. And the move remains politically popular: This year alone, elected officials in at least 13 states -- Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia -- introduced bills to create new drug-induced homicide offenses or strengthen existing drug-induced homicide laws.

But the increased criminalization of people who use and sell drugs only exacerbates the very problem prosecutors are supposedly trying to address. It increases stigma, drives people away from needed care, and will likely result in the same racial disparities now synonymous with other drug war tactics.

"This is no time to ratchet up enforcement responses to addiction and overdose -- we can't afford to repeat the mistakes of the past," warned LaSalle. "Overdose deaths are skyrocketing and it could be your loved one who dies from a preventable drug overdose, simply because someone was too scared to call 911."

Categories: Latest News

Senate Heavyweights File Sentencing Reform Bill [FEATURE]

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 22:20

A bipartisan group of Senate heavy-hitters have filed a bill aimed at reducing the swollen federal prison population by moving away from harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences, among other reforms. But it's not completely reformist.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]The measure is a mixed bag, a product of lengthy discussions among senators seeking a compromise that could actually pass the Senate. While it has a number of progressive sentencing reform provisions, it also includes new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, including some drug offenses. Those provisions will provide political cover to conservatives fearful of being tagged "soft on crime," but tired of perpetuating failed drug war policies.

The federal prison system has swollen dramatically since President Reagan reinvigorated Nixon's war on drugs. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, the federal prison population has increased eight-fold since 1980, and while it peaked in 2012 and 2013, before Obama era sentencing reforms began to bite, there are still 192,000 people currently behind bars in the federal system.

The federal incarceration boom has largely been driven by the war on drugs. While the prison population jumped eight-fold, the number of drug prisoners jumped nearly 25-fold during the same period, according to the Sentencing Project. The nearly 81,000 people currently doing federal time for drug crimes constitutes nearly half (46.2%) of all federal prisoners.

The reform bill, S. 1917, was rolled out Wednesday by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), along with cosponsors senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Roy Blunt (R-MO).

"Our justice system demands consequences for those who choose to run afoul of the law, and law enforcement works hard to keep our communities safe," said Grassley. "This bipartisan compromise ensures that these consequences fit their crimes by targeting violent and career criminals who prey on the innocent while giving nonviolent offenders with minimal criminal histories a better chance to become productive members of society. This bill strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system. It is the product of much thoughtful deliberation, and we will continue to welcome input from stakeholders as we move forward."

"This compromise represents more than five years of work on criminal justice reform," said Durbin. "The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done."

Given who is behind it and the senatorial compromise it represents, the measure actually has a chance of moving in the Republican-controlled body. Still, even if it were to pass there, sentencing reform faces murkier prospects in the House and, if the first months of the Trump administration are any indication, implacable hostility from the White House and the Justice Department.

According to a summary from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill:

  • Reduces enhanced mandatory minimums for certain non-violent drug offenders and eliminates the mandatory life provision for third strike offenders.
  • Increases judicial discretion by expanding existing the "safety valve" allowing judges to sentence beneath federal guidelines to include offenders with broader criminal histories, including people with prior felonies or violent or drug trafficking offenses if a court finds those offenses overstate a defendant's criminal history and recidivism risk. The bill also creates a second "safety valve" allowing judges to sentence some low-level drug offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum.
  • Reforms sentences for drug offenses with firearms to clarify that enhanced mandatory minimums only apply for people who have previously been convicted and served a sentence for such an offense and gives judges the discretion to order lesser sentences if the firearm wasn't brandished or discharged during the commission of a drug or violent crime. This provision would prevent abominations like the case of Weldon Angelos, the Salt Lake city music producer who got nailed for selling $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant, but ended up being sentenced to 55 years because he had a pistol in an ankle holster when he did his pot deals. (He was released last year after winning a sentence reduction.)
  • Makes the Fair Sentencing Act and certain other sentencing reforms retroactive, which would allow some nonviolent offenders current serving time to seek sentence reductions upon a judicial review.
  • Establishes programs to reduce recidivism, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Prisoners who successfully complete those programs could get to serve up to the final quarter of their sentences under home confinement or in a reentry center.
  • Limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.
  • Creates a national criminal justice commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system.
  • Creates new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and providing weapons and defense materials to prohibited countries or designated terrorist groups, and creates a five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking heroin containing fentanyl.

There's plenty in there to appeal to sentencing reformers, and some sops to conservatives, but from a drug reform and anti-prohibitionist perspective, this is just some fixes on the back end. From that vantage point, instead of haggling over how many months to shave off some poor sap's sentence, we should be questioning why he was even arrested and prosecuted in the first place.

But you have to start somewhere, and ameliorating some of the cruelest injustices of the drug war is a good place to get going.

Categories: Latest News

Amidst Controversy Over Anthem Protests, NFL Endorses Drug Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 07:14

Caught up between players who insist on exercising their right to call out racial injustice in a manner of their choice and a scapegoating president who demands the league stifle what he deems unpatriotic protest, the National Football League has reacted in a surprising and progressive way: In a Monday letter to leading senators, the NFL endorsed a federal sentencing bill aimed at reducing the number of drug offenders.

[image:1 align:left]The bill is the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917), rolled out earlier this month by such Senate heavy hitters as Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking Democratic member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), minority whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), among others.

"We are writing to offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917)," said Commissioner Roger Goodell and Seattle Seahawks owner Doug Baldwin, Jr. in the letter. "We want to add our voice to the broad and bipartisan coalition of business leaders, law enforcement officials, veterans groups, ci vii rights organizations, conservative thought leaders, and faith-based organizations that have been working for five years to enact the changes called for in this comprehensive legislation."

The subject of years of negotiation in the Senate, the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders, give judges greater discretion to sentence below federal sentencing guidelines, reform sentencing enhancements around weapons possession (to allow departures from mandatory minimums if the weapon wasn't used or brandished), make Fair Sentencing Act of 2012 reforms retroactive, and create programs to reduce recidivism.

As compromise legislation, the bill isn't all reform. It also includes provisions creating new mandatory minimum sentences -- for interstate domestic violence and providing weapons to terrorists -- and harshly punishing the sale of heroin cut with fentanyl. Still, overall, the bill would be a big step toward reducing the federal prison population overall and the federal drug prisoner population in particular.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]More than two thirds of NFL players are black. And just like the rest of us, they understand that pro football isn't the only place blacks are overrepresented: As the by now numbingly familiar refrain goes, African-Americans make up only 13% of the population and use drugs at roughly the same rate as other groups, but constitute 40% of all prisoners and a whopping 72% of federal drug prisoners.

With racial justice issues bubbling up in the NFL since then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem before a game last season to protest racial injustice in general and police killings of black men in particular, and reaching a fever pitch when President Trump used anthem protests to throw red meat to his base this season, the NFL has been desperately searching for a way to get over the anthem controversy and back to the business of pro football. Endorsing federal sentencing reform could be a way to do that, but it leaves the league trying to appease players on one hand while trying to give props to the cops on the other.

"Football and community are the twin pillars of the NFL," Goodell and Baldwin added. "Over the last two seasons, one particular issue that has come to the forefront for our players and our teams is the issue of justice for all."

For the NFL, they wrote, the challenge is "ensuring that every American has equal rights and equal protection under the law, while simultaneously ensuring that all law enforcement personnel have the proper resources, tools, and training and are treated with honor and respect."

For the team owners, however, the challenge is whether this move will quell the controversy, get the players back to concentrating on football, and get President Trump back to concentrating on anything -- anything! -- other than the NFL.

Categories: Latest News

Federal Bill Would Reverse Perverse Incentives for Mass Incarceration [FEATURE]

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 22:01

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Even as President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions descend into a law-and-order authoritarianism that views mass incarceration as a good thing, Democrats in Congress are moving to blunt such tendencies. A bill introduced last week in the House is a prime example.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Last Wednesday, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) filed the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017 (HR 3845), which would use the power of the federal purse to reduce both crime and incarceration at the same time. Under the bill, states that decreased the number of prisoners by 7% over three years without a substantial increase in crime would be eligible for grants.

The grants would come from the Justice Department and would be awarded "to implement evidence-based programs designed to reduce crime rates and incarcerations," according to the bill text.

The measure essentially reverses the 1994 crime bill, which set up Justice Department block grant programs aimed at increasing arrests and incarceration. Instead of incentivizing states to increase prison populations, the legislation would pay states to decrease them, while keeping down crime.

Under the legislation, grants would be awarded every three years. States are eligible to apply if the total number of people behind bars in the state decreased by 7 percent or more in three years, and there is no substantial increase in the overall crime rate within the state. The bill could lead to a 20 percent reduction in the national prison population over 10 years.

Although state and federal prison populations have stabilized in the past decade and we are no longer seeing the massive increases in inmate numbers that began under Reagan and continued largely on autopilot through the Clinton and Bush years, the number of people incarcerated is still unconscionably high. With more than 1.5 million people in prison in 2015, the United States remains the world leader in incarceration, in both per capita and absolute numbers.

[image:2 align:right]A healthy percentage of them are people locked up for drug offenses. The Bureau of Prisons reports that nearly half of all federal prisoners are drug offenders. Among the states, the percentage varies between about 15% and 25%; overall, about 17% of state prison inmates are drug offenders.

"The costs of our nation's epidemic of over-incarceration is not just metaphorical," said Rep. Cárdenas at a press conference rolling out the bill. "Yes, mass incarceration and mandatory minimums have taken their toll on our families and our communities, and represent one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time. At the same time, the cost to the taxpayer is real. Americans spend almost $80 billion per year on our prison system, in addition to much more significant long-term societal costs. It's time to right the wrongs of the last decades and help states have the freedom to implement programs that are more cost-effective and keep our streets and communities safer."

It's not just in the House. In June, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) filed the Senate version of the bill, SB 1458. Both Booker and Blumenthal came out for the rollout of the House version.

"In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, which created grant programs that incentivized states to incarcerate more people," said Sen. Booker. "The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act would do the opposite -- it would encourage states to reduce their prison populations and invest money in evidence-based practices proven to reduce crime and recidivism. Our bill recognizes the simple fact that locking more people up does little to make our streets safer. Instead, it costs us billions annually, tears families apart, and disproportionately drives poverty in minority communities."

"Our criminal justice system is in a state of crisis," said Sen. Blumenthal. "Under current sentencing guidelines, millions of people -- a disproportionate number of them people of color have been handed harsh prison sentences, their lives irreparably altered, and our communities are no safer for it. In fact, in many cases, these draconian sentencing policies have had the opposite of their intended effect. State sentencing policies are the major drivers of skyrocketing incarceration rates, which is why we've introduced legislation to encourage change at the state level. We need to change federal incentives so that we reward states that are addressing this crisis and improving community safety, instead of funneling more federal dollars into a broken system."

[image:3 align:left caption:true]While the bills don't have any Republican sponsors or cosponsors, they are backed by a panoply of civil rights, human rights, faith-based, and social justice organizations that are pushing hard for Congress to address mass incarceration and the class and racial disparities that underlie it.

"At a time when we have an Attorney General who seeks to continue the unwise practice of privatizing prisons and putting more and more people in them, Congress must reform our criminal justice system and do more to address mass incarceration," said Vanita Gupta, former deputy attorney general for civil rights and currently CEO of the Leadership Conference on Human Rights.

"Rep. Cárdenas, and Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal, have developed a creative policy proposal that would serve as a powerful tool to accelerate state efforts in reversing the damaging impact of mass incarceration," said Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League. "This proposal builds on smart prison-reduction policies while also reducing crime. The National Urban League applauds the lawmakers and is committed to working with them until this bill is signed into law."

That could be awhile. With Republicans in control of the Congress, the bills' prospects this session are clouded. But even among congressional Republicans, there are conservative criminal justice reformers willing to take a hard look at harsh policies of the past, and there is always the next Congress. While the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017 is unlikely to pass this year, it deserves to be fought for and is laying the groundwork for sentencing reform victories to come. Let's hope they do so soon.

Categories: Latest News