Archive for the ‘Drug Policy Reform’ Category:
By Debbie Russell
Editor’s Note: The Harris County hearing was reset for three weeks from today. State District Judge Joan Campbell told the prosecutors she was “floored” that the role of an Austin
police detective has not been disclosed.
Our friends at the ACLU-MA have already provided the linear version of events here. A more detailed account by Jordan Smith of The Austin Chronicle is here. First to break the news was an active Occupy Austin participant, Kit O’Connell, blogging here at FiredogLake.com, which includes the most relevant portions of the transcript of the hearing in Houston last week that brought to light these activities.
On Wednesday, September 5, in a Harris County court, a judge will rule to proceed forward or move to dismiss, essentially by suppressing much of the prosecution’s evidence against the Occupiers.
Background: Across the United States, urban police departments prioritize the drug war and the so-called “war on terror” over simply rooting out violent criminals. The war on drugs targets non-violent, low-level users for the most part, in an effort to log higher arrest numbers such that it appears they are doing their job. The war on terror, formerly the purview of federal entities, and now being done in conjunction with them, takes many forms including: data-mining; spying on people without prior cause; infiltration of activist groups (many times acting as provocateurs); and the use of military tactics to chill free speech.
Case in point: Evidence is mounting that an undercover Austin Police detective induced members of Occupy Austin to commit felony obstruction of a roadway during a demonstration in Houston in December 2011. Or, did he – and two colleagues – intervene in protester plans in order to keep them, and police and firefighters responding to the Houston protest, safe?
The big question is did Austin Police Chief Acevedo order or approve the operation? There’s no doubt that it happened…one of the undercovers proudly admitted it in a court hearing last week. He said he pushed for activists to “step it up” and suggested building lock boxes – a riskier action than simply linking arms to block a roadway. The problem is, participants didn’t know it was “felony” risky! Never before had this action brought more than a misdemeanor charge, but an assistant district attorney in Harris County found a way to bump it up by claiming the lock boxes could have been hiding explosives (a sad irony since the real activists are committed to non-violence).The main risk with lockboxes is that they can be harmful to the users depending on how public safety officials choose to remove them.
Bottom line: Those in charge of our public safety not only lied about who they were and encouraged riskier actions than were being initially planned, but they bought the materials, assembled them and delivered the “criminal instruments” to the activists, putting them at risk of injury and unintended commission of a felony. In no way did this activity by APD protect anyone from harm. In fact, it created it.
Debbie Russell is an Austin-based activist and ACLU of Texas volunteer.
By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist
When Pat Robertson comes out in favor of legalizing marijuana, the world listens! The evangelical leader believes that people should not be sent to jail for marijuana possession, and cites the billions of dollars it currently costs taxpayers as one of his reasons for favoring legalization.
Robertson recognizes that the war on drugs has been an expensive failure. His answer: Treat marijuana just like alcohol. Robertson thinks the nation has gone overboard on the concept of being tough on crime, and says it makes no sense to send somebody to jail for possession of a joint.
The self-declared hero of the hippie culture made headlines in 2010 when he publically supported ending mandatory prison sentences for marijuana possession, arguing that putting young people in jail hurt their futures.
Groups across the US in favor of legalizing marijuana are hoping that Robertson’s voice on this issue will sway his followers and others to recognize the financial and societal benefits of legalization.
At the ACLU of Texas, we work on many ways to decrease over-incarceration; reforming drug laws to keep drug offenders out of jail and putting them into more effective and less expensive treatment programs is one of them.
Robertson believes on this one, he’s on the right side. We couldn’t agree more.
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By Terri Burke
According to the Houston Chronicle, Houston police miss the good ole days when they could slap a felony charge and lock people away for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine. The vice president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization actually advocates throwing drug users behind bars for trace possession because “they” are the type of individuals who commit burglary and robbery. I didn’t realize Minority Report was about Houston. I must have missed the part of the Constitution that permits police to arrest and jail individuals for crimes they have not yet committed.
HPD’s ire centers around a decision made by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos in January, 2010 when she decided the county would stop prosecuting trace drug crimes as felonies. The ACLU of Texas applauds her smart-on-crime decision, and hopes she sticks to her principles.
Why is this issue so important to Texas?
- Cost: The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council estimates that since this policy has been implemented, there have been 400 fewer inmates in jail on any given day. At a cost of between $45 and $65 per prisoner per day, this policy saves taxpayers between $6.5 and $9.4 million on an annual basis. These resources would be better spent on efforts to decrease the occurrences of dangerous crimes that pose a threat to Texas, or to create more drug treatment centers that would help people get back on the right track.
- Public health: To effectively end drug abuse, drug addiction should be treated as a public health issue instead of as a criminal issue. This is a simple fact. Treatment – not incarceration – lowers drug use. In fact, states with higher rates of drug incarceration actually have higher rates of drug use. Without effective treatment, drug addicts, once released from jail, will likely end up back behind bars.
- Institutional racism: On a national level, African Americans comprise 13 percent of the US population and 14 percent of drug users. Yet, they make up 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes. In Texas, 8 out of 9 regional narcotic task forces search African Americans for drugs more often than they search whites –no wonder this racial discrepancy exists.
- Community: Most drug users and addicts are non-violent offenders. And they are real people, with real families and real jobs. Sending a non-violent parent with a drug problem to jail instead of treatment is detrimental to the family and the community. More than half the people in Texas prisons are parents and sending first-time and non-violent offenders to jail instead of treatment further harms their children. Children who have a parent in prison are five times more likely to commit crimes themselves. Some of these children also end up in the foster care system – at an additional expense to the taxpayer. In addition, people with felony convictions have a much harder time finding work after they have done their jail time, which leads to struggling families and economically depressed communities. It is better for society as a whole to treat first time and non-violent offenders than to incarcerate them.
We couldn’t agree more with State District Judge Michael McSpadden, who advocates for more drug treatment options and giving drug addicts a second chance. The war on drugs has been an expensive failure and it is past time to change gears.
Terri Burke is the executive director of the ACLU of Texas, headquartered in Houston.
By: Frank Knaack
Policy and Advocacy Strategist
June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs” — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world’s largest incarcerator. Throughout the month, check back daily for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.
The federal government’s failed “war on drugs” has had a devastating impact on Texas. From the now infamous Tulia and Hearne drug arrest scandals, to the millions of dollars wasted through anti-drug trafficking programs, Texas’ drug policies have eroded our liberties and squandered our tax dollars.
But hope is not lost in Texas. While it’s true that the state’s close proximity to the horrific “war on drugs”-related violence in Mexico has fueled the adoption of some “we must surrender our liberty to ensure our security”-type legislation, there have been some positive changes as well. The cost of the “war on drugs” has forced our legislators to look at alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, and racial profiling scandals have forced needed changes in state laws governing criminal trials. While we cannot count on a smart drug policy in Texas anytime soon, a glimmer of hope is finally on the horizon.
For starters, the need to rationally address Texas’ massive corrections budget, in part fueled by the large number of inmates sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses, has led to a number of positive changes. The call for alternatives to incarceration, in Texas and across the country, has also benefited from “a growing belief among state lawmakers that prosecuting drug offenders aggressively often fails to treat their underlying addiction problems and can result in offenders cycling in and out of prisons for years.”
Since 2003, the Texas Legislature has passed a number of bills aimed at reducing the number of individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses. Instead of building new and costly prisons, the legislature has increased the use of probation and provided increased funding for nonviolent offenders to attend residential and nonresidential treatment programs. And, as the numbers show, concerns about any coinciding decrease in public safety are unfounded: as Right on Crime pointed out, “serious property, violent, and sex crimes per 100,000 Texas residents have declined 12.8 percent since 2003.”
And there’s more good news! In response to drug task force scandals in Tulia, Hearne, and elsewhere involving the falsifying of government records, witness tampering, fabricating evidence, stealing drugs from evidence lockers, selling drugs to children, and large-scale racial profiling, the Texas Legislature passed legislation that prohibits the conviction of people for drug offenses based solely on the word of an undercover informant. Many of the innocent individuals (mostly African-American men) in those cases were convicted based on testimony by sworn officers and informants with checkered pasts (to put it nicely).
So, while we still face the old and discredited zero-sum security/liberty rhetoric, real progress has been made in Texas to reduce the negative impact of the 40 year-old “war on drugs” for all Texans. Thus, hope is not lost!