a bird and a bottle

SCOTUS will review the crack/cocaine disparity
June 12, 2007, 8:34 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, drug war, law, news

Interesting news from ACSBlog: The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear a case challenging the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and those for powder cocaine. As I have discussedat length — the fact that crack possession is punished 100 times more harshly than cocaine possession is both nonsensical and racist (which might make it sensical to some, I guess).

Anyway, the Supreme Court will hear the case, Kimbrough v. U.S., in its next term after a nice long summer vacation. Kimbrough concerns a question of judges’ sentencing authority: does a judge have the power to sentence outside the 100-to-1 guidelines? SCOTUSBlog has a more full (and somewhat technical) explanation.

It’ll be interesting to see how this one comes out. It’s not just going to be a decision about drug war policies. Scalia has been surprisingly pro-defendant on sentencing, and Breyer supports giving judges more leeway. We could end up with a strange group in the majority and perhaps finally an end to one of the most overtly racist practices in today’s criminal justice system.


Still Not An Endoresment…

I know you’re all waiting with baited breath, but I still haven’t decided whom – if anyone – to “endorse” going into the Democratic primary. It’s still early. I might. But not yet.

That said, damn Obama’s rhetoric works for me.

Andrew Sullivan’s got the full text of Obama’s recent speech (which Sullivan somewhat derisively though perhaps somewhat accurately calls a sermon) at Hampton University. Obama used the story of the shooting of a pregnant woman (in white, natch) during which the bullet lodged in the arm of the woman’s fetus. The fetus survives but has scar as a reminder.

The story makes my skin crawl a little. But what he does with it is damn good. There’s this:

And so God is asking us today to remember that miracle of that baby. And He is asking us to take that bullet out once more.

If we have more black men in prison than are in our colleges and universities, then it’s time to take the bullet out. If we have millions of people going to the emergency room for treatable illnesses like asthma; it’s time to take the bullet out. If too many of our kids don’t have health insurance; it’s time to take the bullet out. If we keep sending our kids to dilapidated school buildings, if we keep fighting this war in Iraq, a war that never should have been authorized and waged, a war that’s costing us $275 million dollars a day and a war that is taking too many innocent lives — if we have all these challenges and nothing’s changing, then every minister in America needs to come together — form our own surgery teams — and take the bullets out.

And this:

If we want to stop the cycle of poverty, then we need to start with our families.

We need to start supporting parents with young children. There is a pioneering Nurse-Family Partnership program right now that offers home visits by trained registered nurses to low-income mothers and mothers-to-be. They learn how to care for themselves before the baby is born and what to do after. It’s common sense to reach out to a young mother. Teach her about changing the baby. Help her understand what all that crying means, and when to get vaccines and check-ups.

This program saves money. It raises healthy babies and creates better parents. It reduced childhood injuries and unintended pregnancies, increased father involvement and women’s employment, reduced use of welfare and food stamps, and increased children’s school readiness. And it produced more than $28,000 in net savings for every high-risk family enrolled in the program.

This works and I will expand the Nurse-Family Partnership to provide at-home nurse visits for up to 570,000 first-time mothers each year. We can do this. Our God is big enough for that.

So he hits my two pet issues in a single speech: first, the country’s unconscionable jailing of hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and mostly black men and women; and second, the empty rhetoric of the American “pro-life” movement and what an America that really supports families would look like. And he gets both issues right.

Sullivan calls Obama a compassionate conservative — made in the model that Bush supposedly was. I don’t buy that. It aggrandizes Bush and ties Obama to his sinking ship at the same time. It’s also patently false. Obama’s speech rings more of the Democratic Great Society era than of early 21st century compassionate conservatism.

At root, it doesn’t really matter how we label Obama’s speech. The bottom line is that he’s talking about important issues, connecting faith to progressivism, and doing what’s even more improbable — inspiring this cynical blogger.

Taking Spitzer to Task
May 30, 2007, 10:39 pm
Filed under: activism, civil rights, criminal justice, drug war, muzak, news, video

I’ve never fully understood why people get so angry when famous Hollywood stars throw their celebrity behind an important social issue. That’s probably because they’re usually championing progressive policies with which I agree (well, except for Patricia Heaton who makes my skin crawl). Why not cheer when people who are overpaid and often overhyped actually use their fame for positive ends?

Case in point: Rapper Jim Jones’s recently released single excoriating the drug war and putting pressure on NY Governor Elliot Spitzer to live up to his campaign promises and reform New York’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws. The song, “Lockdown,” which Jones wrote with the help of the Drug Policy Alliance for an upcoming documentary of the same name, highlights the racially imbalanced effects of the War on Drugs . And Jones isn’t coy. He’s released a music video:

And here’s what he has to say for Spitzer:

“This one goes out to the governor. Gov. Spitzer. Eliot Spitzer, you say you want to make change? Well, we waitin’ on it. Matter of fact, we’re dependin’ on it.”

The Rockefeller laws were first reformed in 2004 with the passage of NY’s Drug Law Reform Act, but those reforms, touted as groundbreaking, have meant little practically:

Prisoners sentenced under mandatory minimum Rockefeller drug laws now number more than 13,000, and an astonishing 91% of them are black or brown. The reforms enacted in 2004 have resulted in the release of only 300, leaving thousands of prisoners serving mid-level mandatory minimum sentences still in purgatory.

So Spitzer’s got to keep his promise and push for real change. If not, because of Jones’s song, a lot more people will be ready to take him to task.

Berkeley’s Solution to Increased Homelessness? Arrest ’em all.
May 20, 2007, 10:31 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, drug war, law, news

Sorry for the extended absence, kids. Between the beginning of work and my partner’s return from his year in Germany, it’s been a busy few days…

…but the bizarre news just keeps on comin’. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday (via TalkLeft) that Berkeley, that bastion of progressiveness, is struggling under the weight of its homeless problem. The city’s proposed solution? Ban smoking on city streets and then just arrest the homeless for smoking. Because they’re the most likely smokers, of course, and throwing them in jail will get them off the streets. The Chron has more:

As Mayor Tom Bates sees it, the alcoholics, meth addicts and the like who make up a good portion of the homeless population on Shattuck Avenue downtown and Telegraph Avenue on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus “almost always smoke.” And because smoking bans are the hot ticket these days for California cities, why not meld the two as part of a “comprehensive package” for dealing with the street problem that Bates says “has gone over the top”?

In this case, vagrants could be cited for taking a drag on the town’s main drags.

The program will be paid for by raising parking fees by fifty cents per hour around the city.

There are so many things wrong with this program that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, at least in NY, there are lots of people, homeless and homed, who smoke on city streets. Is the ordinance only going to be enforced against the homeless (which would be illegal selective prosecution)? And since when is the best way to reach out to the homeless to punish the behaviors that may have contributed to their predicament in the first place? While the mayor may be correct that many of the Berkeley homeless are meth users or are addicted to alcohol, fining or incarcerating them based on those addictions (and the addiction to nicotine) neither helps solve the level of homelessness nor addresses the cause of homelessness. If the mayor — and the progressive people of Berkeley — are really concerned about decreasing homelessness around their city, maybe they should consider providing support systems for homeless people, including drug treatment, mental health services, and — gasp! — help securing shelter. Laws like the Berkeley law make it even more difficult for the homeless to get off the streets: by ensuring criminal records and preventing access to social services, the city makes it harder for people to obtain and keep jobs.

At least there is one voice of reason in Berkeley. Kriss Worthington, a city Councilman who proposed a law in 2001 that would have prevented cops for ticketing people for sleeping on sidewalks (the law failed of course), recognized that the proposed law would accomplish little:

“My interest is in making things better for the homeless and business,” Worthington said. “And none of these things — a bunch of new laws — look like they will do.

You know what I think is bad or business? Having restaurants tell people they can’t step outside to smoke because they might be mistaken for a homeless person and arrested. Sheesh.

(also at Feministe).

The High Cost of Drug Treatment
April 17, 2007, 7:41 am
Filed under: blogsturbation, civil rights, drug war, news, NYC, politics

I was a little worried when I saw the headline in today’s NY Times article: Revolving Door for Addicts Adds to Medicaid Cost. Often when I write about my opposition to the drug war, I encourage more widespread use of state-funded treatment programs (though NY is somewhat generous, most states are not). Was this article going to make that argument even less popular than it currently is?

Well, yes and no, and for the most part, the no’s win.

The Times article details the great expense of treating the 500 people in the state who most use and abuse the revolving door of Medicaid-funded treatment in the state. According to the article, those 500 alone cost the system $50 million annually. And that’s certainly a problem, particularly when that money could be spread out to help more people receive badly needed treatment. Those 500 are a drain on resources because they use drug treatment not as a way toward actually kicking their addictions, but rather as a break — a time to lower their resistance so they can get high on a lesser amount of expensive opiates and narcotics, a getaway even. As one former user puts it to the Times:

“I would tell myself I was just a brother who needed a rest, not somebody who had a problem,” he said. “I could mimic what they said with such grace and conviction, they would swear I was cured.”

But while this attitude is part of the reason for the system’s high cost, it’s neither the most central nor the most under state control to change. The real problem, it turns out, is the lack of homeless services which could treat the many needs that drive these 500 – and thousands of others – to seek expensive, inpatient addiction treatment:

The system suits the most frequent patients — most of them homeless, mentally ill, or both — who see the programs as a source of shelter and food. And the most expensive treatment, which usually involves some sedation, can reduce the discomfort of withdrawal better than other methods. […]

But at its core, experts say, the overuse of costly inpatient programs is connected to the lack of housing for homeless people. People are less likely to admit themselves to hospitals, and more likely to adhere to treatment programs, when they are not living on the streets. For more than a decade, the city and state have invested in such housing, including some that accept residents who are not yet drug-free, but demand for housing still far exceeds supply.

Sure, the programs are expensive, but their cost can be controlled not through cutting badly needed treatment services, but through increasing funding for services that meet lower level needs, including temporary housing and food.

Another part of the problem is the structure of federal Medicaid, which in its infinite wisdom, will pay for in-hospital detox (the most expensive) but not inpatient treatment programs, which cost about the same as outpatient medically managed detox (which is explained in the article), and which are more effective long term. It’s a backwards policy that is having a disastrous impact not only on the state’s budget but also on the lives of the many people who could benefit from inpatient, community-based treatment. It seems like a common thread in American social policy, no? Plug a hole with your thumb but don’t figure out what caused the hole or how it might permanently be closed.

Also at LG&M.

Yep, that about sums it up.
April 13, 2007, 2:44 pm
Filed under: blogsturbation, civil rights, criminal justice, drug war, frivolity, politics

From Jamie Spencer, Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer:

“Judges Can’t Sentence “Drugs” to Prison. Instead, they sentence people to prison. So let’s just be honest about it, and start calling it the ‘War on Drug Users’, OK?”

How right he is. Punishing drug addiction is unconstitutional since addiction is an illness, so we punish behaviors ancillary to drug addiction. But really, the war on drugs is a war on people who use drugs.

And, because of the sentencing disparities, mostly on poor people or people of color who use drugs. But to admit that might — gasp! — garner some sympathy for users and antipathy to the government’s approach to them. And we can’t have that.

via Coleslaw; cross-posted at LG&M.

News To Me
April 13, 2007, 11:39 am
Filed under: blogsturbation, civil rights, criminal justice, drug war, news & views, wider world

Apparently, not only is our War on Drugs devastating poor neighborhoods in communities of color in the U.S., it’s also hurting the poor in South America.

According to Benjamin Dangl’s new book, excerpted on AlterNet, the War on Drugs is hitting coca farmers, who are legal and unionized in Bolivia, particularly hard.

Admittedly, I haven’t read the whole book yet, only this excerpt, but I have to say that the thesis that the drug war is having that impact surprises me. I would think that by driving up the price of cocaine in the U.S., the drug war would help those farming it in South America. But I suppose that’s naive — it’s probably putting more money in the pockets of the importers but helping keep the farmers powerless to lobby for better protection and pay.

It’s an interesting – and unexpected – effect of disastrous domestic policy, and it’s worth checking out.

Oh, and check out my most recent post at LG&M.