oD Drug Policy Forum: Front Line Report - Week of July 12, 2010

A weekly summary of what's going on in drug policy and criminal justice reform in the US & UK.
Charles Shaw
12 July 2010

We begin this week's round-up with devastating news from Oakland, CA. On Thursday, July 9th, the Bay Area erupted when Johannes Mehserle, a former BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer, was essentially acquitted of murder in the January 1st, 2009 shooting of 22-year old Oscar Grant.  Grant was one of five African-American men who were detained by police on a train platform for allegedly fighting on a BART train while on their way home from New Year's Eve festivities. The case made national headlines when the shooting was captured on multiple cameras, clearly showing that Grant was lying prone with his hands either cuffed or restrained behind his back, and the officer, Mehserle, shot him without cause or provocation.

Mehserle  was convicted of involuntary manslaughter — his crime, according to the jury, was "negligence in not knowing the difference between his heavy black gun and his light yellow tazer," writes Adam Serwer of the American Prospect.  Involuntary manslaughter was the best Mehserle could have hoped for short of acquittal. He faces a maximum sentence of four years for the original crime, possibly more for the use of a firearm. The outrage caused by this ridiculous verdict essentially forced an unenthusiastic US Attorney's Office to announce that it  and the FBI will review the BART shooting to see if it warrants federal prosecution. 

In a public letter, Mehserle says he is sorry for the shooting that took Oscar Grant’s life, wishes he could speak to Grant’s family members, and describes the moments after the shooting on a station platform on Jan.1, 2009, reports the Contra Costa Times. Mehserle says that Grant “should not have been shot.”

The Oakland Tribune reports that the jury also concluded that the 28-year-old Mehserle is guilty of a "gun enhancement," raising questions among legal scholars about whether that enhancement contradicted the jury’s primary verdict. How Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry chooses to answer those questions when he sentences Mehserle this summer will determine if Mehserle receives a lenient punishment of felony probation, a serious sentence of 14 years in state prison or something in between.

Adam Serwer continues:

I want to focus for a moment on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. To convict on the higher charge of voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution would have had to prove that Mehserle’s fear of Grant and his friends was “unreasonable.” It decided the crime was involuntary. In other words, Mehserle’s fear? That was reasonable.

Fear is at the core of questions of justice involving the deaths of black people at the hands of the authorities in the United States of America, dating back to whenToussaint L’Overture put the fear of God in slaveowners by revealing that their “property” might someday rise up against them. L’Overture still has that effect on some people. Following emancipation we were the days when “justice” was meted out in the South by terrorists posing as vigilantes. Even then, when such atrocities were an accepted part of black life, people inside and outside the South found ways to sympathize with the anger and fear white Southerners felt towards their black neighbors–The New York Times editorialized in the 1890s that no “reputable or respectable negro” had ever been lynched.

Even decades after the Civil Rights era, a cop shooting an unarmed black man is barely a crime — a 2007 ColorLines investigation of police shootings in New York City found that in 12 instances when the victim was unarmed, only one officer was found criminally liable. There hasn’t been a murder conviction on a police shooting in Oakland since 1983.  As Kai Wright wrote in the aftermath of the Sean Bell verdict, “American law has been sanctioning the killing of black people to mollify white fear for centuries…We scare the shit out of America. And that fear excuses just about any reaction it spawns.” Mehserle is profoundly unlucky to be punished at all.

(Sources: Prison Movement Blog, Inside Bay Area)


  • EU Must Fix Flawed Criminal Justice Systems

A new study by the Open Society Institute claims that  many people suspected or accused of crimes across Europe are unaware of their rights and routinely prevented from mounting an effective defense. Last week’s adoption of an EU directive to provide translation and interpretation to all suspects is a positive step. The European Union should continue to move forward with criminal justice reforms as envisioned by the Stockholm Programme.  

The report provides detailed suggestions for setting overall EU standards as well as specific recommendations concerning policy in nine focus countries. According to the study, problems frequently arise when the European Convention on Human Rights has set general standards but there are no clear guidelines for implementation. Many systems leave detainees without protection early in the process, when they are most vulnerable to pressure and intimidation by police.

“We see flawed trials, excessive pretrial detention, and needless human suffering in a number of European countries,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “Criminal defense policies with clear standards and monitoring should be put in place across the EU to ensure that everyone has a fair trial and access to counsel from the moment of arrest.”

The study was conducted jointly by Maastricht University, JUSTICE, the University of the West of England, and the Open Society Justice Initiative. It focuses on Belgium, England and Wales, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Turkey. The book Effective Criminal Defence in Europe (Intersentia, 2010) provides a full account of the project’s findings, and an executive summary is also available for download.

(Source: Open Society Justice Initiative)


  • Newsweek boldly makes "The Case For Treating Drug Addicts in Prison" 
  • Of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., more than half have a history of substance abuse and addiction. Not all those inmates are imprisoned on drug-related charges (although drug arrests have been rising steadily since the early 1990s; there were 195,700 arrests in 2007). But in many cases, their crimes, such as burglary, have been committed in the service of feeding their addictions. Rich, a professor of medicine and community health at Brown University, is worried that, by refusing or neglecting to provide treatment to these addicts, many U.S. prisons are missing the best chance to cure them—and in the process to cut down on future crime. Treatment can reduce recidivism rates from 50 percent to something more like 20 percent, according to the DEA. Yet it is not widely provided. “Our system has taken the highest-risk and most ill people and put them in a place where they have constitutionally mandated health care,“ Rich says. “What a great opportunity to make a difference. Are we just trying to punish people? Or are we trying to rehabilitate people? What do we want out of this?”

    Looking at the way prisons currently deal with drug addiction, the answer to Rich’s question is unclear. Over the last few years, some in the justice system have warmed to the idea of treating drug addicts in addition to (or instead of) incarcerating them. In some states, most notably Ohio, almost all first-time drug offenders and many second-timers are offered treatment. That is by no means the case nationally. According to a report released last year by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, just one fifth of inmates get some form of treatment. That number may be lower in the near future: tight budgets are forcing many states to cut back or close down their existing treatment programs. Kansas and Pennsylvania have already done so;California and Texas may follow suit in the next few months.>

    The irony here is that by lowering recidivism, the programs themselves save money in the long run. The NIDA report released last year cited a remarkable statistic: heroin addicts who received no treatment in jail were seven times as likely as treated inmates to become re-addicted, and three times as likely to end up in prison again. For every dollar spent, the programs save $2 to $6 by reducing the costs of re-incarceration, according to Human Rights Watch. Looked at another way, the programs can save the justice system about $47,000 per inmate


    • Al-Jazeera special report: "Fault Lines - Mental Illness in America's Prisons" 


    The following is a letter written by  Michael Cabral, a former teenage inmate, to another young man about to begin a juvenile sentence. The letter was originally published by The Beat Within, a juvenile justice system writing workshop.

    My name is Michael Cabral. I have been incarcerated for nearly seven years now for a crime I committed when I was 17 years old. The first ten months of my incarceration was spent there in juvenile hall, which was the scariest, most stressful, most uncertain time in my entire life, as I’m sure it is for you. I remember that time as one long journey through the expansive and very cruel worlds of “What if…” and “Why me?” Many times I even drove myself to tears stressing out about how terrible I knew prison was going to be, and how terrible my life in general was going to be. I thought about all my people in the calles who needed me, who depended on me, and I convinced myself that I’d failed them, that they wouldn’t make it out there without me. I filled myself nearly to the point of exploding with anxiety and depression.

    (Source: The Crime Report)


    • Inside Illinois' Sheridan Correctional Center (and how the story even got written)

    Pantagraph reporter Edith Brady-Lunny was a 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Fellow. Below she explains her techniques of reporting the story on The Crime Report.

    Like most states, Illinois struggles to cover the $1.2 billion cost of its over two dozen adult and juvenile prison facilities, which house 45,000 inmates. The prison I wrote about,Sheridan Correctional Center, is dedicated to offenders with drug problems and reflects an effort by the state to address substance abuse addiction – the root cause of many inmates landing in prison.

    It wasn’t an easy story to report. It took several calls to people at various levels of the Department of Corrections to even gain permission to visit Sheridan. (The relationship between the media and IDOC is strained these days because of negative news coverage last year of a controversial early release program.)

    Read the full Pantagraph story.


    • Inmate Sneaks Camera Inside Prison, Films For 6 Months. HBO To Air Footage As Documentary

    People always want to see the "realness" and coming soon on HBO it's about to get realer than ever imagined.Inmate, Omar Broadway somehow snuck a camera into Northern State Prison in Newark, New Jersey and filmed for six months.The documentary depicts abuse from guards, gang activity and raw violence.This is the first movie ever filmed behind bars by an actual prisoner.

    (Source: ThisIs50.com. View trailer here.)


    • UNODC: The Russians Are Coming

    Current head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Antonio Maria Costa is set to end his 10-year term at the end of this month, and according to at least one published report, a Russian diplomat has emerged as the frontrunner in the race to replace him. That is causing shivers in some sectors of the drug reform community because the Russians are viewed as quite retrograde in their drug policy positions.

    The report names Russia's current ambassador to the United Kingdom, Yuri Fedotov, as the top candidate to oversee UNODC and its $250 million annual budget. Other short-listed candidates include Spanish lawyer Carlos Castresana, who headed a UN anti-crime commission in Guatemala, Colombian Ambassador to the European Union Carlos Holmes Trujillo, and Brazilian attorney Pedro Abramovay. The final decision is up to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

    If Fedotov wins the position, Russia would be in a far more influential position to influence international drug policy, and that is raising concerns because of Russia's increasingly shrill demands that the US and NATO return to opium eradication in Afghanistan, its refusal to allow methadone maintenance and its refusal to fund needle exchange programs even as it confronts fast-growing heroin addiction and HIV infection rates.

    The concerns have crystallized in a campaign to block his appointment, including a Facebook group called We Don't Want A Russian UN Drug Czar!, which is urging people to send an email message to that effect to Secretary General Ki-moon. Group organizers the Hungarian Civil Liberties Unionhave also produced a video on the subject:

    (Source: Drug War Chronicle)


    • Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

    Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed an estimated 23,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 5,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Click here to read this week's developments in Mexico's drug war: Total Body Count Since Last Update: 520. Total Body Count for the Year: 5,971.

    (Source: Drug War Chronicle)


    • Medical Marijuana: ACLU Sues Wal-Mart for Firing Patient

    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against retail giant Wal-Mart for firing an employee who used medical marijuana. The lawsuit argues that firing an employee for lawfully using medical marijuana violates the provisions of the 2009 Michigan Medical Marijuana Act.

    Joseph Casias, 30, is a cancer patient who began using medical marijuana on his oncologist's recommendation. Although he had been named Associate of the Year at the Battle Creek Wal-Mart in 2008 and had an exemplary employment record with the store, Casias was fired after taking a company-required drug test when he injured his knee at work.

    "Wal-Mart made him pay a stiff and unfair price for his medicine," said Scott Michelman, staff attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. It isn't fair that any "patient should have to choose between adequate pain relief and gainful employment," he said. "And no employer should be allowed to intrude upon private medical choices made by employees in consultation with their doctors."

    Wal-Mart officials said it defers to federal standards in cases where the law is unclear. Michigan is an at-will employment state, meaning employers can fire an employee for any reason except those barred by federal law, such as discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. The ACLU will argue that Casias' firing amounts to medical discrimination.

    More than 20,000 Michigan residents are registered medical marijuana patients. The case could have broad implications, not only in Michigan, but in other medical marijuana states that are grappling with the issue.

    (Source: Drug War Chronicle)



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