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REDEEM Act Aims to Fix Criminal Justice System [FEATURE]

A pair of US senators from opposite sides of the political spectrum have teamed up in a bid to fix "the nation's broken criminal justice system." Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) earlier this summer introduced the Record Expungement to Designed to Enhance Employment Act, generally referred to as the REDEEM Act.

The REDEEM Act aims to help young offenders break the cycle of criminal justice system involvement. (samhsa.gov)
While observers say the bill is unlikely to pass this year, its introduction lays the groundwork for moving forward on it in the next Congress.

The act, Senate Bill 2567, its sponsors say, is designed to give people convicted of nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses, a second chance at succeeding. It also aims to divert many teenagers out of the adult criminal justice system.

Booker, a black northeastern liberal, and Paul, a libertarian-leaning southern conservative, may appear to be strange bedfellows, but both said fixing the criminal justice system was more important than partisan rivalries in statements made when the bill was introduced.

"I will work with anyone, from any party, to make a difference for the people of New Jersey, and this bipartisan legislation does just that," Sen. Booker said. "The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders re-offend."

"The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record," said Sen. Paul. "Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed, if records were expunged after time served, and if nonviolent crimes did not become a permanent blot preventing employment."

Even though the United States contains only 5% of the world's population, it contains 25% of the world's prisoners. US prison populations have more than tripled since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, largely under the impetus of the war on drugs. American taxpayers have seen their bill for mass incarceration rise from $77 each per year in when Reagan took office in 1980 to more than $260 each per year in 2010.

The REDEEM Act would seek to reduce those costs by reforms that would divert juvenile offenders from adult courts, improve the conditions for juvenile offenders, allow some adult offenders a means to expunge their records, and allow adult drug offenders who have done their time to be eligible for benefits they are now barred from obtaining.

The act would:

  • Incentivize states to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old: Currently 10 states have set the original jurisdiction of adult criminal courts below 18 years old. The REDEEM Act incentivizes states to change that by offering preference to Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant applications for those that have set 18 or older as the age of original jurisdiction for adult criminal courts.
  • Allow for sealing and expungement of juvenile records: Provides for automatic expungement of records for kids who commit nonviolent crimes before they turn 15 and automatic sealing of records for those who commit non-violent crimes after they turn 15 years old.
  • Restrict use of juvenile solitary confinement: Ends the practice of solitary confinement except in the most extreme circumstances in which it is necessary to protect a juvenile detainee or those around them.
  • Offer adults a way to seal non-violent criminal records: Presents the first broad-based federal path to the sealing of criminal records for adults. Non-violent offenders will be able to petition a court and make their case. Furthermore, employers requesting FBI background checks will get only relevant and accurate information -- thereby protecting job applicants -- because of provisions to improve the background check system.
  • Lift the ban on SNAP and TANF benefits for low-level drug offenders: The REDEEM Act restores access to benefits for those who have served their time for use and possession crimes, and for those who have paid their dues for distribution crimes provided their offense was rationally related to a substance abuse disorder and they have enrolled in a treatment program.

Cory Booker
While the bill was filed last month, it remains a work in progress. A number of advocacy groups, including the Sentencing Project, the Open Society Foundations, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition have been meeting with Booker and Paul staffers in an effort to make it even better. That work continues.

"A lot of the criminal justice and civil rights and faith groups and the Legal Action Center have been involved in trying to develop legislation like this and are supportive of at least parts of the REDEEM ACT," said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project. "Both senators have said they are willing and want to hear from advocates about how to make the bill better. We've been doing that," he noted.

"We'd like to see it strengthened in some areas in terms of the repeals of bans for people with felonies getting federal benefits, as well as Pell grants and housing benefits. We'd like to see the bill expanded to take away those bans on services as well because they are all counterproductive for a safer reentry when people are released from prison," Haile continued.

While the bill has been described as a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill, Haile said, it really addresses a few distinct areas around the repeal of bans on benefits, as well as the juvenile justice measures.

Rand Paul
"Repealing the SNAP and TANF bans for people with drug offenses is something we're really interested in," he said. "As it is, the bill will be especially beneficial for people with drug possession and use offenses. People with drug distribution offenses will have to show they have taken advantage of drug treatment and other things."

There is still time to make the bill stronger, Haile said, especially given partisan gridlock and upcoming midterm elections.

"Given that it's an election year and the lack of progress in Congress on just about everything, it's probably not going to pass before the election," he predicted. "But the bill sponsors are very committed to trying to advance it, if not during this session or during the lame duck, then they will reintroduce it next year."

In the meantime, the country and the economy will continue to suffer the effects of over-criminalization and over-incarceration, Booker said.

"Our country's misguided criminal justice policies have placed an economic drag on communities in both of our states, and on our nation's global competitiveness -- all while making us less, not more, safe," he proclaimed.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: Oregon Marijuana Legalization Endorsement, PA Mandatory Minimums, Heroin Maintenance, More (8/25/14)

The Oregonian says legalize it, so do Vermont GOP gubernatorial candidates, LEAP founder says legalize heroin, a Pennsylvania court throws out mandatory minimums, Vancouver's SALOME participants will get their heroin, and more. Let's get to it:

Diacetylmorphine (pharmaceutical heroin) will soon be on its way to Vancouver. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon's Largest Newspaper Endorses Measure 91. In a Sunday editorial, the Oregonian has endorsed marijuana legalization in general and New Approach Oregon's initiative, Measure 91, in particular. Click on the title link to read the newspaper's reasoning.

Vermont GOP Governor Candidates Agree Marijuana Should Be Legal. In interviews with Vermont Public Radio, all three Republican gubernatorial candidates said they agreed that marijuana should be legalized. Steve Berry of Wolcott, Scott Milne of Pomfret and Emily Peyton of Putney are competing in tomorrow's primary. Peyton and Berry came out strongly for legalization, while Milne said he would sign a bill if it got to his desk. Milne is the leading contender.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Eviction of Public Housing Tenant for Marijuana Criminal Activity. With marijuana decriminalized in the state, can a public housing tenant still be evicted for possession of less than an ounce? That question remains undecided after the state's high court sidestepped it in Figgs v. Boston Housing Authority. A lower court had held that the tenant could not be evicted for simple possession, but the high court reversed, saying the facts in the case showed not just possession, but also that the tenant's roommate sold marijuana and possessed a weapon. Figgs is going to have to find a new place to live now.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Advocates File Lawsuit over PTSD Treatment Restrictions. The Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association filed a lawsuit last Friday challenging limits imposed on patients with PTSD who seek to use medical marijuana. Health Director Will Humble has ruled that PTSD patients can only use medical marijuana if they are already getting some other form of treatment for PTSD. The lawsuit is in Maricopa County District Court.

Kansas Democratic Party Endorses Medical Marijuana. Kansas Democrats now formally support medical marijuana, they announced during their statewide Demofest convention Saturday night. "Kansas Democrats support the availability of marijuana for medical use and protection of patients from criminal arrest and prosecution." the plank says. The platform link wasn't working as of Tuesday night, but you can try it here.

Sentencing

Pennsylvania Superior Court Rules Mandatory Minimums Unconstitutional. In a decision last week, the court has thrown out the use of mandatory minimum sentences as violating the constitution. The ruling came in Pennsylvania v. Newman, where James Newman had received a mandatory minimum 5-year sentence for possession of drugs and a gun. Relying on a line of federal court decisions beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Superior Court held that, in sentences based on the elements of the crime, jurors -- not judges -- must find that those elements existed.

California Fair Sentencing Act Heads for Governor's Desk. After a final Senate concurrence vote last Thursday, the Fair Sentencing Act is now headed for the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D). The act, Senate Bill 1010, would eliminate the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses by reducing the penalty for crack offenses.

Heroin

Boston Globe Op-Ed Calls for End to Heroin Prohibition. A Sunday op-ed in the Globe published by former New Jersey narcotics officer and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition founder Jack Cole forthrightly calls for ending heroin prohibition. Police efforts to repress heroin "did more harm than good, and the harder my colleagues and I tried, the more damage we did," he writes. "As a police officer, I understand the instinct to mete out punishment, send a message, put somebody away for abusing drugs. Nonetheless, my experience has shown me that it is futile, counterproductive, and dangerous to try to arrest our way out of this very real problem." There's much more; click on the title link to read the whole thing.

International

Number of Disappeared in Mexico Keeps Rising. The number of people who have vanished since former President Felipe Calderon initiated his drug war in 2006 has increased to some 23,000, according to the Interior Ministry. More than 12,000 disappeared during the Calderon sexenio, and nearly 10,000 more have vanished during the first two years of the Enrique Pena Nieto presidency. Human rights groups say these official numbers are low.

Two-Thirds of Canadians Support Marijuana Law Reform. A new Forum Research poll finds that 66% of Canadians favor either legalizing and taxing marijuana or taking pot possession out of the criminal code (decriminalizing it). Some 35% said legalize it, while another 31% said decriminalize it. Only 16% said they were happy with the marijuana law status quo.

Canada's SALOME Study Will Get Prescription Heroin By Christmas. Vancouver heroin addicts participating in the Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication Effectiveness (SALOME) will have legally prescribed heroin by Christmas, their attorney said last week. They won the right to use heroin as a maintenance drug after the BC Supreme Court in May granted them an injunction exempting them from a federal government ban on such uses. The pharmaceutical grade heroin is coming from a European manufacturer.

Australian National Council on Drugs Softens on Medical Marijuana. The Australian National Council on Drugs today released Medicinal Use of Cannabis: Background and Information Paper, which concedes that pharmaceutical marijuana products are effective for treating some forms of pain, reducing nausea, and helping people with wasting syndrome. The backgrounder comes as clamor grows, especially in Victoria, for legalizing medical marijuana.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Medical Marijuana Update

With a stroke of the governor's pen, Maryland becomes the 21st medical marijuana state. Meanwhile, those CBD medical marijuana bills continue to move. And more. Let's get to it:

Alabama

Last week, Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed into law a limited CBD medical marijuana bill. Known as Carly's Law, Senate Bill 174 creates an affirmative defense for patients suffering from debilitating epileptic conditions -- or their caregivers -- for the possession and use of marijuana extracts that are high in CBD (a component of marijuana). It is a strong endorsement by Alabama lawmakers of the medical benefits of marijuana. Unfortunately, the law suffers from several fatal flaws that render it ineffective.

Arkansas

On Monday, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel rejected a medical marijuana initiative again. He rejected the popular name and ballot title for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act. These are the same folks that put the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act on the ballot in 2012, but this year, another group, Arkansans for Responsible Medicine has claimed that initiative title. The 2014 Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act is now in the signature-gathering phase.

California

On Tuesday, the Vallejo city council agreed to extend a ban on taxing dispensaries. City officials sought the one-year extension to allow more time to draft regulations for the location and operation of dispensaries, now unregulated and outside city zoning laws. The city has wrestled with the issue since 2011, when voters overwhelmingly approved taxing dispensaries even though the city doesn't recognize them as legitimate businesses. Meanwhile, the police department has conducted raids on several dispensaries, but the cases fell apart in the courts after defense lawyers argued the collectives were following state laws. City officials estimated there are as many as two dozen dispensaries operating in Vallejo without city permission.

Colorado

On Monday, a bill to add PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions was introduced. Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), who's been actively involved in marijuana issues, introduced HB 1364, which would add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the list of medical conditions that qualify patients for access to medical marijuana.

Kentucky

Last Thursday, Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed into law a a limited CBD medical marijuana bill. The measure, Senate Bill 124, which allows the hospitals at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville to provide oil derived from marijuana and hemp to children who suffer from certain severe seizures. The benefits also could apply to adults.

Maryland

On Monday, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed into law a full-fledged medical marijuana bill, making Maryland the 21st medical marijuana state. The measure is House Bill 881.

Minnesota

Last Thursday, a Senate panel heard, but then tabled, a medical marijuana bill. The Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Housing held a hearing on a bill that would allow qualified patients to possess up to 2 ½ ounces of marijuana and buy it from a dispensary. But the committee took no action on Senate File 1641, tabling it until legislators return from the Easter/Passover break.

On Monday, a new poll had support for medical marijuana in the state at 68%. The latest KSTP-TV/SurveyUSA poll asked, "Do you think Marijuana should or should not? be legal ... when used for medical purposes?"

Oregon

As of Monday, at least 71 Oregon cities have moratoriums on medical marijuana dispensaries, and more than 40 others are considering bans, according to the League of Oregon Cities and the Association of Oregon Counties. The legislature allowed local governments to impose a one-year ban, if enacted by May 1. The law also gives local governments the ability to regulate when and where pot shops may operate. The state has 242 incorporated cities and 36 counties.

Tennessee

Last Wednesday, the state Senate approved a CBD medical marijuana study bill. The measure, which was added as an amendment to House Bill 2461, would authorize a limited, four-year study of the effectiveness of cannabis oil on certain types of intractable seizures.

Last Thursday, the House approved the bill. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam (R).

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

ACLU-Illinois Sues Chicago Over Public Housing Drug Tests

The ACLU of Illinois Thursday filed a class-action lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) over its policy requiring drug testing of residents in mixed-income developments. The ACLU charges in US District Court that the CHA's policy of suspicionless drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment's proscription on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Lawsuit plaintiff Robert Peery (aclu-il.org)
A positive drug test would lead to the eviction of the resident.

The CHA instituted the mixed-income residence drug testing program as part of its "Plan for Transformation," which tore down many of the city's crime-ridden high-rise housing developments and replaced them with mixed-income developments. Residents of the demolished low-income housing developments were given the option of moving into the new properties, but were required to take an initial drug test and be tested again every time the lease was renewed.

"Through the CHA's mixed-income program, public housing families reside in housing that is new, privately-owned and privately operated, alongside market-rate and affordable renters. One of the requirements of renters is that they follow property rules," CHA spokeswoman Wendy Parks said in a statement Wednesday. "And if those rules happen to include drug testing, then public housing families -- like their market-rate and affordable renter neighbors -- must adhere to those rules."

The suit, filed on behalf of lead plaintiff Joseph Peery, is seeking a temporary injunction to block drug testing and a permanent ban on the practice. It also asks that the CHA be ordered to pay plaintiffs' legal fees.

"Mr. Peery repeatedly has taken and passed a suspicionless drug test," the lawsuit says. "Mr. Peery is a law-abiding person, and does not use illegal drugs. He strongly objects to the CHA's suspicionless drug testing. He finds it humiliating and invasive, and it makes him feel stigmatized as a presumptive criminal and drug user."

"I'm required to go into the business office, urinate in a jar, then hand it to an office staffer. Anyone working in or visiting the office can watch the process," Peery said at a Wednesday press conference. "It's embarrassing. You can only imagine how the grandmothers in the developments feel. We're being singled out in public housing. It's not fair."

"This misguided policy unfairly stigmatizes Mr. Peery and CHA residents like him," said Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel at the ACLU of Illinois. "It presumes he is guilty of illegal drug use, solely because he is a public housing resident, until he proves otherwise with a drug test."

"No one should have to suffer an invasion of their privacy -- like forced urinalysis -- in order to live in their own home," added ACLU staff attorney Karen Sheley.

Chicago, IL
United States

Fight Is On to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor in California [FEATURE]

At the end of February, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill that would make drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor in California. If the bill passes, California would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia that have taken the cost-saving and rehabilitation-aiding step of not making felons out of mere drug users.

California needs to reduce prison and jail overcrowding (US Supreme Court)
The measure, Senate Bill 1506, would make the possession of any controlled substance -- except up to an ounce of marijuana, which is already decriminalized -- a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail. Under current law, possession of controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine, is a felony punishable by either up to 16 months in county jail or two to three years in state prison.

A felony conviction doesn't just mean jail or prison time. It becomes a permanent barrier to reentry into society, making access to education, employment, and housing more difficult, as well as barring people with such convictions from obtaining professional licenses and subjecting them to various other obstacles.

The bill is backed by an array of drug policy, civil liberties, and human rights groups, including early supporters the American Civil Liberties Union, the California State NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Budget-conscious California voters have shown an interest in drug sentencing reform in the past. In 2000, they passed Proposition 36 to divert drug offenders from prison to treatment by a margin of 61%. Since then, the state's economic situation has only gotten worse, and pressure to do something about its gargantuan $9.3 billion corrections budget is on the rise.

A Lake Research Partners poll released last April found that 72% of respondents favored changing drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, with 40% saying small-time drug possession for person use should be considered an infraction, with no jail time. Strong support for such a reform cuts across party lines, with support among Democrats at 79%, among independents at 72%, and among Republicans at 66%.

"Over the years we have learned that long prison sentences do little to deter or limit personal drug use," said Sen. Leno. "In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders," he said.

"This bill merely revises the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor," Leno told the Chronicle Tuesday. "It will save the counties about $160 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, and the state another $65 million. Thirteen states have already done this, and they have higher rates of treatment and lower rates of drug use and property and violent crime."

"The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure we can no longer afford," said Allen Hopper, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of California. "California voters agree the punishment should fit the crime, and a felony for simple possession is ridiculous. Those who are addicted to drugs need treatment, not a jail cell and a felony conviction with severe and life-long consequences, like reduced access to job opportunities, student loans, and small business loans."

Drug possession would be a misdemeanor in California rather than a felony if SB 1506 passes (wikimedia.org)
"The goal is to make the penalty closer to what people think it should be," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy analyst for criminal justice and drug policy at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "People think a felony charge is too harsh, and there is pretty universal support for treating drug use more as a health issue and prioritizing law enforcement resources for people convicted of serious offenses," she told the Chronicle.

The push for the bill is picking up steam, Dooley-Sammuli said.

"We have quite a broad coalition, and the list of groups coming out in support is long and getting longer by the day," she said. "We have faith, treatment, and housing groups; we have job placement organizations; we have family members and other folks who realize the this penalty is just too harsh. We've just added two more: California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense attorneys' group, and the William Velasquez Institute, a group that will bring Latino communities into the process of helping to shape policies that impact them."

While an impressive coalition is budding to support the bill, and while polls suggest strong public support for such a measure, not everybody is on board, particularly law enforcement. 

"We're opposed to this bill for a variety of reasons," said John Lovell, a Sacramento attorney who is a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association. "We don't think it's appropriate to reduce these offenses to misdemeanors because of severe unintended consequences. No one in California is being incarcerated for a first or second drug possession offense; instead, they are sent to a Proposition 36 drug treatment program," Lovell told the Chronicle.

"We believe this will create a disincentive for people to participate in a Prop 36 treatment program, and that is not a good thing," the lobbyist continued. "To the extent we can have a successful treatment result, that is one less person in a cycle of drug addiction."

"Oh, please!" exclaimed Dooley-Sammuli. "Lovell said the same kinds of things when Prop 36 passed. They were saying the sky would fall, that nobody would be in treatment and there would be crime in the streets, but the crime rate continues to go down."

Given the current fiscal constraints on the state criminal justice system, the "real world" result of downgrading drug possession to a misdemeanor would be that drug offenders essentially walk free, Lovell said.

"Say a person is convicted of meth possession," he said. "He is told he has a choice of Prop 36 treatment or going to the county jail, but the jails are all filled to capacity, and nobody does any time for a misdemeanor offense. An attorney representing such as person is ethically bound to say 'If you refuse treatment, there is no real sanction at all,'" Lovell maintained. "These will be misdemeanants, not felons, not under supervision and not breaking the cycle of addiction, which means the crimes they commit to purchase their dope will continue," he said. "It's not like you get a scholarship to pay for the cost of your meth."

But the bill provides for up to three years probation -- five years in some cases -- and would allow judges to order drug treatment as a condition for probation.

Saying that the state will benefit from saving money on not prosecuting drug users as felons is "a hackneyed argument," Lovell said. "If you say it will save money because these people aren't being supervised, yes, it will save that money, but if they're not being supervised they're more likely to go out and commit the economic crimes addicts commit. It's not so much a savings as a cost shift," he argued.

"We do not see this bill as yielding any positive public policy results," Lovell summed up.

"None of California's existing programs to make treatment available will be affected by this," countered Dooley-Sammuli, "and counties will have the freedom to use these dollars more wisely to make treatment more available. Compared to five years ago, treatment dollars have absolutely been gutted, and we're really working to identify ways to preserve funding so we can protect treatment. It's really disingenuous for our opponents to talk about this getting in the way of access to treatment. If Jerry Lovell is worried about access to treatment, we call on him to support this bill."

Leno responded more tersely to Lovell's arguments. "He's a dogmatic extremist. If you think drug use is a bad thing, the states that have actually lowered drug use are not felony states," the San Francisco Democrat said. "By making these offenses misdemeanors, we can remove barriers to housing, education, and employment -- the very things a felony conviction makes it more difficult to obtain, those unintended consequences of a felony conviction."

Now, it's up to the measure's supporters to get it moving. The bill will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee next month. For it to pass this year, it has to get out of committee, win approval in the Senate, and then go through the same process in the Assembly. And it has to happen by August, when the session ends.

"It's a very tight time-frame," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We're still educating people about this bill, but this is a serious effort, and we believe we can get that support with the right coalition partners and more education. Sen. Leno doesn't introduce bills just to make a statement, but because he thinks they have a political chance."

"We're looking for support anywhere and everywhere," Leno said. "We are talking to law enforcement agencies to educate them that there is no data showing that felony convictions reduce drug use."

There's clearly some work to be done on that score. But more important is getting actual legislators to vote for the bill.

"I believe there will be significant, and hopefully sufficient, Democratic support for the bill," said Leno, "and I'm also hoping Republican colleagues will see we can't waste the money and must invest in evidence-based programming."

California has the chance to pass a smart, cost-effective, and humane drug sentencing reform bill, but the clock is ticking.

The other states that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor are Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Gingrich Would Execute Mexico Drug Cartel Leaders

Republican presidential nominee contender Newt Gingrich said Saturday he would favor the use of the death penalty against Mexican drug trafficking organization leaders. The comments came in an interview with Yahoo News in which the former Georgia congressman and Speaker of the House also called medical marijuana in California "a joke" and suggested he would try to make life miserable for US drug users as a means of driving down drug use rates.

GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich (wikimedia.org)
Gingrich is now a leading contender for the Republican nomination. According to Real Clear Politics, which averages all polls, Gingrich is in first place nationally with 23.8%, ahead of his closest contender, Mitt Romney, who has 21.3%.

"My general belief is that we ought to be much more aggressive about drug policy, and that we should recognize that the Mexican cartels are funded by Americans," Gingrich said.

When asked if he stood by his 1996 legislation that would have given the death penalty to drug smugglers, he replied in the affirmative.

"I think if you are, for example, the leader of a cartel, sure," he said. "Look at the level of violence they've done to society. You can either be in the Ron Paul tradition and say there's nothing wrong with heroin and cocaine or you can be in the tradition that says, 'These kind of addictive drugs are terrible, they deprive you of full citizenship and they lead you to a dependency which is antithetical to being an American.' If you're serious about the latter view, then we need to think through a strategy that makes it radically less likely that we're going to have drugs in this country."

Gingrich suggested that Singapore, which imposes corporal punishment for minor offenses and the death penalty for drug offenses, was a role model. "Places like Singapore have been the most successful at doing that," Gingrich said. "They've been very draconian. And they have communicated with great intention that they intend to stop drugs from coming into their country."

For Gingrich, being aggressive on drug policy also "means having steeper economic penalties and it means a willingness to do more drug testing."

He elaborated on what he had in mind in response to another question: "I think that we need to consider taking more explicit steps to make it expensive to be a drug user," he said. "It could be through testing before you get any kind of federal aid. Unemployment compensation, food stamps, you name it."

Gingrich said that he wasn't a fan of imprisoning drug users and instead suggested that they be subjected to forced drug treatment. "I think finding ways to sanction them and to give them medical help and to get them to detox is a more logical long-term policy," he said.

Regarding medical marijuana, Gingrich, said he would continue current federal policy "largely because of the confusing signal that steps towards legalization sends to harder drugs [sic]." He also rejected letting states set their own policies "because I think you guarantee that people will cross state lines if it becomes a state-by-state exemption."

He also threw in a gratuitous jab at California's medical marijuana law. "I think the California experience is that medical marijuana becomes a joke," he said. "It becomes marijuana for any use. You find local doctors who will prescribe it for anybody that walks in."

GOP contenders Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson have taken firm anti-prohibitionist stands on drug policy, but they are finding little support among voters for a party that claims to be for limited government and states' rights. Newt Gingrich's comments on drug policy are only the latest indication that for most Republicans, continuing to fight the war on drugs trumps other party principles.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Seattle Pilot Program Offers Treatment Not Arrest [FEATURE]

The Belltown neighborhood near downtown Seattle is a charming, vibrant urban locale, located just south of the city's landmark Space Needle. Filled with bars and cafes and desirable condos, it is a nighttime hot spot, but it is also a neighborhood where a relatively small number of problematic drug users have reduced the quality of life for residents and businesses alike. According to a recent study by the Seattle Police Department, some 50 people in Belltown were responsible for a whopping 2700 arrests.

4th Ave. & Wall St., Belltown neighborhood (Chas Redmond via wikimedia.org)
Now, instead of cycling those people through more endless -- and expensive -- rounds of arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and supervision, local officials and the Seattle Defender Association have embarked on an innovative pilot program in which beat officers will offer to take low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to drug treatment instead of arresting them, booking them into jail, and prosecuting them.

The pioneering program will allow officers the discretion to offer treatment to people charged with crimes such as public intoxication or drug possession, but not people with records of violence or those accused of dealing drugs. Offenders can decline the offer of treatment and instead be arrested and go through the criminal justice system.

Known as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), the pilot program is designed to improve public safety and order and reduce the criminal behavior of program participants. It is based on successful "arrest referral" programs that have been operating in the United Kingdom for the past several years. The program has strong support from local elected and law enforcement officials.

"We are looking for effective public safety solutions,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. "If drug dealing and crime could be solved by arrests alone, we would have solved this problem a couple thousand arrests ago. LEAD offers a promising alternative to traditional responses to street-level drug dealing, and we look forward to tracking its results in Belltown."

"We know that the issue of chemical dependency in our society cannot be solved by law enforcement alone. It is a complex social problem that requires a comprehensive social solution,” said Seattle Chief of Police John Diaz. "LEAD provides our front line police officers with the discretion necessary to ensure that treatment diversion is utilized as a viable alternative to incarceration."

"Sheriff Sue Rahr and her staff support the concepts that act as the basis for the LEAD program, and we look forward to our participation," said King County Sheriff Major James Graddon. "Respect, open communication and common goals among some historically adversarial groups have created a positive environment to move this program forward. Using the formal criminal justice system for all offenses is costly and has proven to not necessarily be the most effective way to impact future offender behavior."

Graddon was referring to strained relations dating back to the last decade between the Seattle Police and the Defender Association, a nonprofit agency that provides legal representation to indigent defendants. In a bid to reduce tensions and work together on the common goal of reducing the number of repeat offenders cycling through the system, the Defender Association and law enforcement began discussing possible responses to the continuing problem of drug-user generated low-level crime with back in 2008. The LEAD program, which rolled out in Belltown a month ago now and which will also be tried in the Skyway neighborhood of unincorporated King County, is the fruit of those discussions.

Mayor McGinn at LEAD program press conference (mayormcginn.seattle.gov)
Defender Association Deputy Director Lisa Daugaard has been a prime mover in getting the program going. Given that the state of Washington faces a $2 billion budget deficit and looming social service cuts, Daugaard managed to obtain $4 million in grants from private foundations, including the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation, to pay for four years worth of LEAD services, including not only drug treatment, but also job training, housing assistance, and educational opportunities.

"Now, because of the dismantling of the social safety net, these LEAD resources may be the only way that some people will be able to get treatment, housing, and other services," said Daugaard.

LEAD supporters hope that the by the end of the four-year pilot period, the program will be able to demonstrate that it can generate cost savings worthy of being picked up by state and local government. They aren't the only ones watching with interest. Stateline, a media outlet covering state government issues across the land, reported last week that Baltimore, New Orleans, Oakland, and the state of New Mexico have already expressed interest in the program.

As a pilot program, LEAD will undergo a rigorous evaluation to determine whether it has been a success. It that proves to be the case, it could be expanded in other Seattle and King County locales, officials said.

"The LEAD pilot has the potential to help people struggling with addiction and save public dollars at the same time," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. "We can work in partnership to replace a downward spiral toward jail with support and resources. Our families and neighborhoods are better off when those headed for the criminal justice system are instead given the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and productive life."

It won't take four years to see what kind of impact LEAD has on Belltown and Skyway. Within a matter of weeks or months, we should be able to see whether this experiment in smart policing is working and produces a model that can be adopted elsewhere.

Seattle, WA
United States

CHA Drops Plan to Drug Test Public Housing Residents

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has dropped its proposal to require all adults living in its properties to undergo random drug tests. Tenants who tested positive under the plan would have been evicted.

There will be no drug testing of residents at Lake Parc Place or any other CHA properties. (Image courtesy CHA)
The CHA also said Tuesday it would keep the "innocent tenant defense" that the proposal had also targeted. That allows tenants who face eviction because a household member or relative committed a drug offense or other crime to appeal against eviction on the grounds they were not aware of the offense.

The reversal comes after weeks of criticism from residents, activists, and the ACLU of Illinois. The man who sought to implement the proposal, CHA CEO Lewis Jordan, has resigned as well.

"The CHA received a tremendous amount of feedback during the public comment period, and simply, the result of that is that CHA will not move forward," CHA spokeswoman Kellie O'Connell-Miller told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The decision was "welcome news," said ACLU of Illinois senior staff counsel Adam Schwartz. "There is no evidence that individuals who rent CHA apartments are more likely to use drugs than residents in other rental properties throughout the City of Chicago. Singling out these individuals simply is unnecessary and a diversion of precious resources," Schwartz said. "We applaud the Board for listening to the voices of the residents and dropping this harmful proposal."

The CHA Central Advisory Council, consisting of CHA tenant leaders, also applauded the agency's change of course. "CHA made a wise decision. There were just too many issues associated with drug testing," said Robert Whitfield, Central Advisory Council attorney.

Chicago, IL
United States

CHA Gets Angry Earful Over Drug Testing Proposal

As we reported last week, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has proposed requiring all adults living in public housing -- including senior citizens -- to take a drug test. If the person failed the drug test, he or she would be evicted. It also proposed evicting any resident whose family members gets arrested on drug charges.

Lake Parc Place residents let CHA CEO Lewis Jordan know what they thought of his bright idea. (Image courtesy CHA)
The CHA held a public hearing Thursday night, and if the response was an indication, that trial balloon is going over like a lead balloon. While one speaker supported the plan, the rest lashed out at the CHA and its new CEO, Lewis Jordan, the man who crafted the proposal.

"We all want a safe, healthy and drug-free environment, but the reality is we don't live in a drug-free world, a drug-free Chicago, a drug-free Illinois," said Darlene Hale, a CHA resident, in remarks reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. "How in the world can you demand that poor people be subjected to rules and regulations that is going to put them on the street and create more homeless people?" she asked.

Renaud Tatum, an 11-year resident at Lake Parc Place, said he was "highly offended" when he read about drug testing aimed at the poor. "I challenge Mr. Jordan to hire a third-party consulting firm to do scientific research to substantiate a correlation between low-income people having a higher use of drugs then people with higher incomes," he said.

Audrey Motes, a Lake Parc Place resident, told CHA officials she faces eviction because her adult son, who doesn't live with her, was arrested on a drug offense. She pleaded with Jordan to be able to stay.

"I'm not the one who did anything wrong," she said. "He is a 28-year-old man, and I raised him to do better. "I was at work just like I am now and he was out here getting into trouble. Why should that affect me? I don't feel that is right."

But Jordan wants to remove language that says the "resident may raise a defense that the resident did not know, nor should have known, of said criminal activity."

"Removing the innocent tenant defense from the lease agreement will, in my opinion, do nothing to reduce crime at public housing developments," said Lawrence Wood, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation for Metropolitan Chicago. "All it will do is ensure that innocent people are evicted for crimes that they did not foresee and that they could do nothing to prevent."

Under the current language, Motes can stay -- if she bars her son from coming to see her.

"If I agree to be on probation for six months and bar him from visiting the building, then I can keep my apartment," she said. "But I am going to fight it to the end. They are destroying these people's families. You've got to put your child out and bar them from the building. They are breaking up people's families. It's just ridiculous."

"These policies are wrong and should not be applied to our people." Alderman Pat Dowell told Jordan.

As the public hearing ended, Jordan tried to be conciliatory. He had broached the ideas after hearing from frightened residents, he said.

"Because of the drug environment, sometimes they feel very unsafe," Jordan said. "We're just trying to find a balance and again I just want to stress the fact that we're here to listen and a final decision hasn't been made."

We will shortly find out whether Jordan actually did listen to CHA residents. If he did, he will drop the proposals in short order.

Chicago, IL
United States

Chicago Housing Authority Wants to Drug Test Residents

The Chicago Housing Authority wants to require all current and future adult residents -- including senior citizens -- to pass a drug test. A positive drug test would result in an eviction notice for the resident.

The CHA wants you to pass a drug test if you live in the Kenmore or any other CHA properties. (Image courtesy CHA)
The proposal is one of several changes to the CHA's Admission and Continued Occupancy Policy submitted by CEO Lewis Jordan. Jordan and other agency officials argue they need more tools to fight crime and drugs in the housing projects.

The American Civil Liberties Union accused the CHA of subjecting the poor to a double standard, while resident leaders said the proposal was humiliating.

"The ACLU opposes drug testing in the absence of suspicion as a condition of residency in public housing," senior lawyer Adam Schwartz told the Chicago Sun-Times. "From our perspective, drug testing without suspicion is humiliating. It's stigmatizing. There's a double standard here," he said. "All across our city and our country, when most of us who are in whatever income bracket rent housing, we don't have to take a drug test. This is an emerging one standard for poor people and another standard for everyone else."

"Singling us out for this type of humiliation is a slap in the face of what this whole 'Plan for Transformation' supposedly is about," Myra King, chair of the central advisory council of tenant leaders for all CHA housing in the city, told the Sun-Times. "CHA says they're doing this plan to make us privy to the same standards as any other citizen in any other community. If that's true, why are we the only citizens to be drug tested?"

Lewis's "Plan for Transformation" also includes eliminating the "innocent tenant defense," which allows residents whose relatives or guests committed a drug offense or crime of violence to avoid eviction if they can show they were unaware of the activity. In a 2002 case, the US Supreme Court ruled that housing authorities could evict innocent tenants, but they are not required to. Former CHA head Terry Peterson had reached an agreement with tenants that allowed the continued use of the defense if it could be proved in court.

Spokeswoman Kellie O'Connell-Miller defended the proposals, pointing out that several CHA mixed-income properties currently require drug testing. "These are policies to help strengthen and improve the safety of our public housing communities," O'Connell-Miller said. "We're constantly hearing from law-abiding residents that they want us to hold the non-law abiding residents more accountable. We're trying to tighten up our lease with some of these issues. Drug dealers won't come where there are no buyers. If you remove the folks who are interested in drugs, hopefully it will remove some of the problems," she said.

Making the policy system wide would apply it to some 16,000 families living in family and senior public housing. The CHA has not estimated the cost of the proposal, O'Connell-Miller said.

The proposals are open to public comment through June 16, with a public hearing set for Thursday. If the proposal is adopted, it must then be approved by the CHA Board and then the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And then the CHA can spend good money fighting (and most likely losing), the inevitable legal challenges. The precedent here is the state of Michigan's 1990s law mandating the suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. It was rejected by the federal courts in 2003 for violating Fourth Amendment proscriptions against unreasonable search and seizure.

Chicago, IL
United States

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