Archive for the 'Crime and Punishment' Category

Drug Policies So Bad They Make Me Defend Potheads

Lord knows that the world doesn’t need any more drunks or potheads, and I support neither. But it doesn’t need a justice system that is highly incentivized to target and prosecute these folks either-that only seems to compound these woes. I have never written a letter to the editor before but I was mildly annoyed that as the legislature of my state of Maryland debates the first real proposed changes to marijuana prohibition in decades, all of the articles in my local paper were from quite respected members of local law enforcement who were highly critical of even the smallest changes/experiments. What none of those articles mentioned is how completely dependent police budgets are on the current drug-war status quo, and how this “drug dependency” (if you will) might distort the lens of their viewpoint. Anyway here is the article I angrily emailed off to the editor one morning after reading a front page of the local paper filled with such articles… 

It Is Time to Identify the Real Drug Addict

Like an addict worried where he will get his next fix or a pusher worried about losing his best customer, Maryland police organizations are absolutely apoplectic at the prospect of any real experiments with marijuana decimalization. Much like the police, I’m concerned with substance abuse and the prospect that an abuser might drive. But then again, all of the secondary concerns brought up by police, such as impaired driving and child neglect, are already crimes and will remain so even after marijuana decimalization. I am likewise concerned that youth with try any harmful substance including alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana, but it is simply being realistic to acknowledge that most will try these are some point in their youth. However, what concerns me far more are the waste, damage, and discrimination done by current prohibition policies: young lives ruined by criminal convictions, African-Americans prosecuted at much higher rates, high-level drug dealers who are further empowered and enriched, and many similar unintended yet worse consequences of the marijuana war. Much the same as we learned with Alcohol Prohibition, current marijuana laws have done little but waste police resources, hurt the potential of our youth, and benefit dealers. After 40 or more years with the current, misguided policies, common sense tells us that it is time to experiment with change.  Don’t let police continue to use our youth as easy targets and a revenue stream. Let’s break law enforcement’s addiction to marijuana convictions.

Cool Guy Greg on Taxes

Productive Citizen Cool Guy Greg on Taxes

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Over-prosecution Meets Mandatory Minimum Sentences Meets the Drug War

“Our government has seemingly forgot the age old wisdom that in war, the first casualty is always the truth.” – Richard Paey

We've almost won this drug war!

 All I can say is that lucky the Jena 6 youths did not commit a victimless drug offense. Then they would be looking at some serious hard time that not even Al Sharpton and a legion of protesters could get them out of. 

Case in point is the truly heartbreaking story of Richard Paey. After countless years of criminal prosecution and 3 years in jail (where ironically he was given far stronger doses of pain medication then he was accused of possessing), Paey was finally released from jail last week only thanks to a criminal pardon by the Florida govenor himself.

You see Paey was given a mandatory 25 year sentence and $500,000 fine for possessing 100 Percocet.  Much to his determination and credit, he refused the plea deal that would have forced him into 3 years of house arrest and 5 years of probation, but ended up being convicted by a jury anyway.  That’s when his mandatory minimum sentence was imposed.   

The Florida cases of Richard Paey and Penny Spense only highlight the ever-increasing absurdity and draconian nature of the War of Drugs.  One of the few common-sense organizations that seems to even give a damn about this issue is the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), whose website correctly points out “Two decades after the enactment of mandatory sentences, these laws have failed to deter people from using or selling drugs: drugs are cheaper, purer and more easily obtainable than ever before.”  One has to agree, for it seems that the DEA has accomplished little nor has made a single correct decision since it was established and made Elvis a honorary DEA agent.

The Richard Paey case is but one example of the absurdity and cruelty of our current drug punishment policies.  I just have to wonder what is happening to those people not fortunate enough to be showcased, as Paey was, by major media outlets such as the New York Times and 60 Minutes. 

Do these sentences come close to being justified and making sense?  Is this how we really want to treat someone who makes a mistake in life and sold drugs?  Do they truly deserve to have 25 years of their life taken away?  Before you answer, perhaps consider that one day that person may be your daughter, your friend, or other loved one.

Over-prosecution and the Jena 6 (Million)

Is Justice Color Blind?

The “Jena 6” 

Last week’s tale of the Jena 6 is a news story that went largely unnoticed (except for social-media sites like Digg) until 20, 000 people showed up in a small southern town for a protest.  But when it did finally notice and weigh in, the AP wrote a surprisingly well-balanced piece.

As the article shows, the real issues in Jena are complex and nuanced, but the questions raised by the protesters are indeed valid.  And unfortunately, they are nearly identical to the story of Shaquanda Cotton that I commented on in this post

But I will repeat them here once again for emphasis, based on the primary themes of the Jena 6 protesters:

  1. Are African Americans treated differently by the criminal justice system?
    1. Are African Americans charged with harsher crimes?
    2. Are African Americans given harsher sentences if convicted?
  2. Is there an epidemic of criminal overcharging by prosecutors that most severely affects minorities and the poor?
  3. Are local authorities (over) using the Justice System as a tool to resolve trivial matters? 

De Minimis Non Curat Praetor” – “The Law is not Interested in Trivial Things” 

Regardless of ones opinions of the racial issues in Jena, at least one issue becomes obvious: the problem of over-prosecution.

No denies that these 6 Jena youths deserve some sort of (hopefully non-judicial) punishment for their misdeeds in beating up a hapless white southerner.  But I think most rational people would see the local DA’s felony charges of “attempted murder” and “assault with a deadly weapon (a shoe in this case)” as unnecessarily excessive. 

I guess gone are the days when a local police officer might make a misguided youth write a lengthy apology letter and pay damages for such smallish offenses.  Gone too are the days where attorneys remember their law school training and the concept of “de minimis” – that there are actually things too trivial to be addressed by the legal system.

But excessive charges are really just something that is now built into the modern day justice system.  Sure, sometimes prosecution and defense meet in the middle, but sometimes they don’t.  When they don’t, the criminal convictions and punishments handed out by the Justice Systems become disproportionately harsh.  Ultimately ruining the lives of those affected.  And those affected are disproportionately male, African American, and poor.

“Ubi Injuria, Ibi Remedia” – “Where there is a Wrong, there is a Remedy.”

So how do we solve the crime itself of minority over-prosecution? 

The first step to solving most problems is measurement.  Do we even measure the race and income levels of those prosecuted?  Can we compare prosecutions and outcomes based on race?  You fill out a federal race survey form when you apply for a job, why not make investigators, DAs, and judges fill out a similar form when someone is investigated, charged, convicted, and sentenced.  Let’s start collecting some statistics, tracking these disparities and their sources, and quantify to what extent these disparities truly exist.

Then how do we solve the larger problem of over-prosecution in general?

This is a tough one.  The prosecution system derives maximum benefit from maximizing conviction rates and punishments.  So one possible solution is to have better educated and trained grand juries, justices of the peace, and local magistrates who stop petty crimes from advancing in the criminal justice system to begin with.  Right now, these preliminary checks in the system amount to little more than rubber stamps.  Raising the burden of proof that one must present these bodies could be one solution, but might be difficult in practice.  Giving local police and justices of the peace tools that allow them to exercise non-judicial punishments might be another solution.  

The real and somewhat more difficult solution is quite frankly for everyone in the justice system to exercise a bit more restraint and common sense.  Now, how do we write a law that guarantees that?

The Jena 6 Million 

There are many millions more just like the Jena 6 in our criminal justice system right now.  For relatively minor offenses (mostly drug convictions), they face excessive charges, draconian punishments, and felony convictions that change the context and potential of their lives forever. 

Now is the time to examine the epidemic of over-charging and over-prosecution.   Until we do, youths from Jena and the rest of the country will continue to enter our prisons at an ever-increasing and alarming rate. 

Evil Ex-Felons – Don’t Vote

To a fair amount of outcry (given the closely contested nature of this state in recent elections), Florida has recently made the decision to allow ex-Felons – i.e. those who have served their punishment – to regain their right to vote.

I guess I learned a lesson in civics by reading this story – I didn’t even know that-with the exception of federal firearms restrictions-ex-Felons permanently lost their citizenship (right to vote).  So I guess it is just (now) Florida and 8 other states that now allow some mechanism for re-enfranchisement of ex-Felons.

To me not allowing ex-Felons to vote seems a little counterproductive.  For this segment of the population probably knows far more – and at a much more intimate detail – about the workings and the machinery of government than any other group.  They certainly have more knowledge than your average high school civics student – well at least about the Executive and Judiciary Branches anyway.

And just maybe this is why the government is perpetually lowering the bar on what is serious enough to constitute a felony.  Shove a hall monitor (felony abuse of a public servant), neglect a pet (felony animal abuse), use an open-access wireless network (felony computer access) – and you too can be stricken from the voter roles and no longer be a “problem constituent” that can vote me out of office.

So who are these evil felons?  I’ve written about a few of late, but let me add a few others:

Nelson Mandela
Chuck Berry (multiple convictions)
Martha Steward
Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong Fame – at age 65 – ironically enough for “felony conspiring to distribute drug paraphernalia” – i.e. selling ordinary glass of the wrong shape)
Shaquada Cotton (16-year-old hall monitor shover)
Desre’e Watson (a 6-year-old kindergarten student)
…and every political revolutionary that ever existed – think George Washington

Sounds like these people should have the right to vote, have ’bout you Jeb?

Systematic Child Abuse, by Design

In what U.S. institution could a massive campaign of child rape take place and have it go unnoticed for many, many years?  The Texas Youth Commission (TYC) Juvenile Corrections System.  In fact, it probably still goes unnoticed.

Perhaps I was expecting more outrage, perhaps maybe expecting that someone would see that these truly are 2 of the most vulnerable and exploited groups, children and prisoners, and that someone would feel more of a sense of compasion and urgency.  Guess not – there is that Britney and K-Fed thing going on.

When national stories about Shaquanda Cotton first appeared last month, they did not even reveal the depths of depravity in this System – just the individual view of one participant.  Who knew that even this extreme case was actually a fairly mild example of the malevolence that this system was capable of?

But probably the most Orwellian aspect of which is this:

That even to be considered for release before their 21st birthday, these child inmates had to first admit their guilt and give up any right to appeal.  And yet noone saw this as an unreasonable and unconstitutional requirement?

Where was the independent review of these fundamental procedures that placed so much power to abuse in the hands of so few?  Certainly nowhere to be found in Texas – where the only good criminal is a dead criminal – regardless of age or innocence.

The Good and (Overwhelmingly) Bad News about Childhood Incarceration

Reading the recent news on the Indicted Texas Jailhouse Rapists/Prison Guards (dubbed “Perry’s Pedophiles” after the Texas Governor) found me checking on the status of Shaquanda Cotton to make sure she was not still in the custody of these patently corrupt thugs.

So the good news is that after years of complaints and flagrant abuse by the Texas Youth Commision (TYC), that the public was finally outraged enough to actually do something about these forgotten kids and thankfully Shaquanda is no longer under the dominion of these abusive rapists for her petty crimes.

The bad news is that more and more children at increasingly younger ages are running afoul of the law for even pettier misdeeds

And to be sure, schools are a bit tougher than when Sidney Poitier experienced his Blackboard Jungle.  Today’s schools can be tough places: difficult kids, even more difficult parents, violence, and mostly drugs and alcohol.  This blog from an ex-Paris resident examines an interesting, and more 3-dimensional perspective on the problems in Paris, TX.  It certainly served as a backdrop for the overreaction when it came time to punish Shaquanda. 

But Slate’s perspective on the story of an arrested kinder-gardener was wickedly perceptive and acid: “lets just hope this message get across to those brats in the neonatal wards.”  Which, if current trends continue, could be the next sweep conducted by the authorities looking for the next easy group of non-violent troublemakers to help fill prison space.

Be Nice to Your Hall Monitor – or Else Do 7 Years Hard Time

Your honor, in defense of my past posts on the Epidemic of Incarceration,  I would like to enter into the public record Exhibit A.

It is the Chicago Tribune story of Paris, TX resident Shaquanda Cotton (today’s #1 story on Digg).  She is a 14-year-old  who was tried and convicted of felony “assault on a public servant” for shoving a school hall monitor at her Paris High School.  For this heinous crime she was given a 7-year sentence by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville.

Jeez – time was that shoving – and/or otherwise showing your disdain for- your hall monitor was considered a prerequisite for entry into normal society.

But all kidding aside, I thought this story was a perfect illustration of many elements of the epidemic:

  1. Race – are African Americans given harsher sentences?
  2. Overcharging – should the Paris, TX DA really have even charged her with this felony offense to begin with? 
  3. Using Prison and Incarceration as a First Resort (rather than as a last resort) – could she have not been given some alternate intermediate punishment?  
  4. “Toughness on Crime” – is this sentence truly warranted?  Why was she not allowed out on bail while she filed her appeal?  What could this Judge possibly even been thinking?

This story is certainly sure to make people think a little harder about these issues.  Perhaps not entirely unlike an inprisoned Nelson Mandela made people think Apartheid wasn’t such a hot idea.  Your Honor, the defense rests.  Would you mind letting Shaquanda out of lockup now?

S. Cotton