Thursday, June 04, 2020

Police Violence and Accountability: The Role of Drug Policy and a Vision of Reform

 People around the world reacted with horror, again, at the murder, again, of an unarmed person by police in the United States. On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis, MN, USA, police officer steadily knelt on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, slowly crushing the life out of Mr. Floyd with an incomprehensible cold-blooded nonchalance. Mr. Floyd was a 46-year old Black man, unarmed, not resisting, and suspected of an offense involving $20. Only days earlier, a video was leaked of the February 23, 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year old Black man, by law enforcement vigilantes in Glynn County, GA, USA. On March 13, 2020, at about 1 a.m., Breonna Taylor, a sleeping, unarmed 26-year old Black woman, was shot eight times and killed by police who forced their way into her apartment in Louisville, KY, USA, on a "no-knock" warrant issued, looking for a drug suspect who lived 10 miles away.

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators and thousands of organizations have been declaring their solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and all who protest these murders and the unceasing abuse of power by police and security forces around the world. In the U.S., about 1000 persons are killed by the police annually (1004 in 2019; 991 in 2018, Washington Post). U.S. cultural dominance has the effect of highlighting these deaths, yet officially over 5000 persons have been killed (or as many as 12,000 according to human rights groups) in the Philippines by police and security forces since June 2016, to cite a representative instance of a global pandemic of unlawful police violence and misconduct.

These murders are only the most dramatic culmination of wholesale police misconduct. People around the world are sick and tired of being routinely harassed by law enforcement officers and security forces, very frequently under the pretext of suspicion of possession or distribution of drugs. Countless times, every day in every nation, without any lawful justification, people are stopped, questioned, and frequently assaulted as they are searched for contraband or weapons. These stops are always accompanied by the threat of violence, explicit or implicit! In many places, these threats are part of a systematic extortion racket by the police and security forces -- the consequence of failing to pay a demanded bribe is violence or arrest. 

Large populations -- people of color in the United States, and religious and racial minorities and residents of poor neighborhoods in almost every nation – are fully aware of the culture of impunity surrounding police and security forces and live in dread that any police stop can result in incarceration, severe physical injury or death.  This culture of violence is global. From the favelas of Brasil to the islands of the Philippines, from the People’s Republic of China to the Russian Republic, from the United States of America to the Republic of South Africa, from Nigeria to El Salvador, from Syria to Jamaica -- the world’s police are generally not accountable to the communities they purport to serve. Whether the police are following the orders of autocrats like President Duterte in the Philippines or are indifferent to or in defiance of the civilian authorities in many American cities, there is a global crisis of police violence and unaccountability. In all these instances, this unlawful violence is part of a wholesale violation of human rights and due process rights -- including rights of freedom of association, expression, free exercise of religion and privacy -- that is justified and financed by the “war on drugs” and supported by the colonialist ideology of prohibition.

Drug prohibition exemplifies the fundamentally flawed psychology of “justice” systems that harsh punishment -- imposed or threatened – is the foundation of good behavior and the just retribution for misconduct. The flaw is that harsh punishment does not work.

While some lethal police violence grows out directly out of individual racism, one thread of institutional or organizational toleration for police violence grows out of a rationalization that “street justice” is necessary and deserved to compensate for the inefficiencies of prosecutors and courts that fail to punish. The toleration of extra-judicial violence builds a culture of impunity.

People who use drugs are prime targets for “street justice” and police violence. Due to the illegality of drug use, people who use drugs do so privately to avoid attracting attention. Yet, in many parts of the world, drug use is widespread and normative behavior, and justice system bureaucracies are unable to impose legal punishments on most drug users. Police, as the primary warriors in the “drug war” and able to impose the punishment on the spot, often feel justified using “street justice” -- intimidation, violence and confiscation of property in illegal stops -- in order to carry out the “war on drugs” and advancing its century-old goal of punishing drug users.

The specific legal and political character of the problem of police violence varies. In some nations the violence of the police follows the policies of the rulers -- elected or not, civilian or not.  In other nations, police violence is simply tolerated as one of the perquisites of the office, and the price endured of having police provide some measure of state sanctioned social control. And in other nations, such as the United States, the police violence is formally unauthorized but institutionally protected by Jim Crow-style legal doctrines of “qualified immunity” and collective bargaining agreements ratified by city, county and state governments.

Police misconduct seems to be intrinsic to most legal systems. Worldwide, the criminal justice bureaucracies are organized primarily to impose punishment, and operationally are largely indifferent to injustice. Police perjury, if not engaged in by every police officer, is so widespread that only the most egregious instances of police falsehoods are commented upon by court personnel or acted upon. Prosecutors in most nations routinely accept the cases brought by police and proffer the testimony of police witnesses. Judicial officers throughout the world generally favor police testimony and the representations of prosecutors. Concepts of due process set forth in Constitutions, national charters, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are widely disregarded around the world.

People of color in the United States, people who use drugs, and disadvantaged people everywhere know an encounter with a police officer is an extraordinarily risky situation that has the potential to become a life-changing catastrophe. In most white-dominated societies, the police are particularly uncontrolled in their behavior toward racial minorities. In some parts of the United States, the contemporary state and municipal police forces arose from the slave patrols created to prevent enslaved persons from running away or rebelling. The authority to catch escaped enslaved persons and “deliver [them] up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due,” is today still part of the text of the U.S. Constitution (Art. IV, sec. 2, cl. 3). In other parts of the United States, the early functions of the police were to protect property-owning elites from immigrants, the indigenous and internal migrants. Supposed “crimes” such as vagrancy or loitering have for generations been used to control people of color, the poor, the young, and those with disabilities, emotional distress, mental illness or the disease of addiction. Legal reforms of the abuse of those outmoded laws have been circumvented in much of the United States by the use of the drug laws.

Of course, we oppose violence, theft, violation of human rights and exploitation. However, drug prohibition empowers criminals and criminal organizations to exploit the peasants and farmers who cultivate poppy, coca, and cannabis. The inevitable disagreements of commerce, when they arise in the illegal drug trade, can only be resolved through violence because the nonviolent dispute resolution mechanisms of legal commerce are unavailable. The trade in highly valuable illegal drugs, carried on outside the legitimate channels of commerce, can only be protected by illegal armed groups, and their exchange for cash is perpetually at risk of armed robbery. This is a greater problem, of course, in the consumer countries. Sadly, throughout the world, police agencies are corrupted by the illegal drug trade. One must consider how extensively the resistance of the police everywhere to oversight, regulation and accountability by management and civil society is due to dependence of police officers on income from the illegal drug trade and bribery.

Thus, not only is the war on drugs the pretext for the initiation of police-civilian contact for the purpose of extortion, surveillance, social control and invidious racial subjugation, but the war on drugs is a driver of police resistance to accountability.

It should go without saying that there is a legitimate role for proper policing, but policing as it has been practiced demands wholesale reform of police and domestic security agencies worldwide. It must be acknowledged that policing as currently organized is dangerous, but police behavior and misconduct have fueled enormous resentment and inflamed passions for revenge. Enforcing unpopular laws in a high-handed manner increases the risk of violent resistance to police officers.

But many police agencies are so tainted by a culture of impunity and grievance that they must be reconstituted from the ground up.  Entirely new management needs to be hired, empowered to vet potential recruits. The functions of the police services need to be wholly reorganized. Police in the community have the responsibility to bring services to individuals and families that are troubled. Whenever there is a response to a call for service, a key question a police officer should ask is, “Are everyone’s needs in this household being met?” The primary role of the police should be crime prevention. The investigation of crime is a specialized function of the police, not its primary function. The primary goal of the police agencies should be maximizing health and safety, not “law enforcement.” The police should be as vigilant about pollution, chemical spills, adulterated food, labor exploitation because of the many victims who are powerless, as they are about their more traditional defense of property and certain classes of “violence.”

Police should not be trained to self-identify as “crime fighters.” Recruits need to be carefully screened, and properly trained to create a culture of service to the communities in which they operate and to be scrupulous honesty. Police training regarding encounters with the public must be completely reconceptualized to conflict de-escalation and to deprioritize the use of force. Police officers must be paid an appropriate professional salary. Internal systems of management, control and discipline must be vibrant and transparent.

Now is the time to stand with #BlackLivesMatter and those who are demanding not only accountability by the police for their acts of misconduct, but wholesale, structural reconstruction of the criminal justice system and the role of the police within it.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

True and False about Legalizing Marijuana

From the Big Ten by Jeff D'Alessio, Editor of the Champaign, IL News-Gazette, about legalizing marijuana.
Eric E. Sterling
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D- South Bend, IN)
IL State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago)
Emily Dufton
Ed Rosenthal
Debby Goldsberry
John Walters
Kevin Sabet
Hope Wiseman
Eli McVey

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

"Addiction Nation" author Timothy McMahan King interviewed by Rev. Alexander Sharp

This short interview on the website of Clergy for a New Drug Policy addresses key issues in addiction and public policy. Al Sharp asked excellent questions.

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Friday, August 02, 2019

Pell Grants for Prisoners? @JoeBiden, this is a good idea

From transcript of Second Democratic Debate, night 2.

TAPPER: Welcome back to the CNN Democratic presidential debate. We are live from Detroit.
I want to turn now to criminal justice. Mr. Vice President, Senator Booker called your new criminal justice reform plan, quote, "an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country," unquote. Why is Senator Booker wrong?
BIDEN: Well, I don't -- I think he is wrong. I think we should work together. He has a similar plan. I think that we should change the way we look at prisons.
Right now, we're in a situation where, when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail and to prison. They should be going to rehabilitation. They shouldn't be going to prison. When in prison, they should be learning to read and write and not just sit in there and learn how to be better criminals.
And when they get out of prison, they should be in a situation where they have access to everything they would have had before, including Pell grants for education, including making sure that they're able to have housing, public housing, including they have all the opportunities that were available to them because we want them to become better citizens.

Vice President Biden seems to be mixed up on the details. According to a U.S. Department of Education Feb. 2019 fact sheet, once you "get out of prison" a person with a conviction generally is eligible for Pell grants and other assistance. (Exceptions: (1) Your adult conviction was for possessing or selling drugs when you were receiving federal financial aid.  You can become eligible --  pass two unannounced drug tests from a drug rehabilitation program or complete an approved drug program. (2) Your conviction was for a "sexual offense" and you were subject to involuntary civil commitment post conviction.) Not surprisingly, the Vice President's "Criminal Justice" plan claims it would enable "formerly incarcerated persons" to become eligible for Pell grants -- but that is the current law.

"In fact," as Vice President Biden likes to say, one of the infamous provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill said people currently in state or federal prison are not eligible for Pell grants (Section 20411. Awards of Pell Grants to Prisoners Prohibited. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Public Law 103-322, Sept. 13, 1994 (20 U.S.C. 1070a(b)(6))).  

However, an Obama Administration reform created a "Second Chance Pell" experimental program for persons in prison. According to a Department of Education FAQ on Second Chance Pell in April 2019, "so far this award year (July 1, 2018- June 30, 2019) there are currently 10,048 students receiving Federal Pell Grant funds from 64 institutions." That does not seem to be an impressively large number of prisoners studying at the college level out of an state and federal prison population of 1.5 million (2016).

This program was based on a 2013 RAND Corporation study, funded by the Justice Department:

Key Findings: Correctional Education Improves Inmates' Outcomes after Release

  • Correctional education improves inmates' chances of not returning to prison.
  • Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points.
  • It may improve their chances of obtaining employment after release. The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not participate in correctional education.
  • Inmates exposed to computer-assisted instruction learned slightly more in reading and substantially more in math in the same amount of instructional time.
  • Providing correctional education can be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism

A program with such benefits should be expanded. It would be great if Vice President Biden's Pell Grant reforms zeroed in on what actually needed to be fixed!

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Candidate Joe Biden on Criminal Justice -- An incomplete strategy

               In advance of the next debate round of Democratic candidates for President, former Vice President Joseph Biden unveiled his criminal justice plan. As a “criminal justice plan” for the U.S. government, in many respects, it is quite shockingly inadequate. Generally, the analyses I’ve seen of his plan frames it as a mea culpa for his years of leading crack down policy-making, and naturally, and as a riposte in his battle against other candidates for president. German Lopez at Vox explains its virtues well, noting these highlights:.

The plan includes many ambitious goals: decriminalize marijuana, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, end the death penalty, abolish private prisons, get rid of cash bail, and discourage the incarceration of children. All of it is aimed at reducing incarceration and fixing “the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system,” according to Biden’s campaign.
Certainly it is commendable as a crime prevention strategy and as a justice reform strategy.  Those are good ideas, but as a comprehensive criminal justice strategy for the U.S. Department of Justice and federal investigative agencies it is utterly incomplete.

             What is most striking to me, and I think is most important, is that there is no agenda for how to properly use the U.S. Justice Department to fight crime. There appears to be nothing that should be a priority assignment for the thousands of federal prosecutors around the country, or the tens of thousands of federal investigators.

            * There is no strategy or agenda for mass shootings or gun violence. He promises to issue something, “in the months ahead.” Developing a meaningful response to mass shootings is actually quite challenging, but surely the man who had been the leader of Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee for 20 years can put something on the table regarding background checks, interstate trafficking in firearms, or fencing stolen firearms.

            * There is nothing about antitrust violations, banking or securities regulatory violations and fraud, tax fraud and evasion, credit card fraud, consumer protection, telemarketing fraud, identity fraud, or fraud in general.

              *  There is nothing about addressing cyber attacks, terrorism, organized crime or illegal pollution and environmental crimes. (Biden says “he’ll require states to fix environmental health problems in prisons, such as a lack of clean water and clean air.”) 

              *  There is nothing about the role of the Department of Justice in investigating public corruption. 

                All of these are extremely important criminal justice responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Justice. It takes criminal referrals from the regulatory agencies -- these need to be encouraged. The nation cannot rely on state enforcement agencies for this work.

            Sadly these serious and uniquely federal crimes have frequently been downplayed by the U.S. Department of Justice that for decades has wrongly favored drug enforcement, and crimes that could be prosecuted by state authorities. Biden’s plan, so far, maintains a status quo that ignores “crime in the suites.”

            Americans are being attacked by fraud hourly. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2017, 1.1 million Americans reported that they were targeted by a fraudulent scheme, and suffered losses of over $905 million. If you are like me, multiple times a day our telephones ring with a crook trying to get us to give them our credit card numbers. They pretend to be calling from Microsoft to “fix your broken computer,” from IRS or the Justice Department warning that we are about to be arrested, our cousin or dear friend lost a wallet and desperately need money or is jailed and needs bail money, or some other scam. We are being inundated with attempts to defraud us if we have a fax number, an email address or a telephone. The 1.1 million is surely is an undercount as that is only the number of those who reported these attempts to the FTC. Fighting this climate of fraud is something an honest President of the United State should direct the Department of Justice to work on. Why, even the banks estimate they lost $2.2 billion in fraud in 2016.

            * There is nothing about prosecution of criminal violations of civil rights. Prosecution of actual instances of police misconduct – such as the killing of Eric Garner – the kinds of prosecution that happened in Los Angeles after the beating of Rodney King, are not part of this Biden criminal justice agenda

            Biden promises investigations of systemic patterns of police misconduct in order to obtain consent decrees to reorganize the management of police departments. That is a good thing, but there were 992 persons fatally shot by the police in 2018, according to The Washington Post. Investigating those shootings (and the countless incidents that are not fatal shootings) is the kind of job the U.S. Department of Justice has the resources and independence to carry out.

            Again, the agenda is a very wise statement of what to do about preventing crime, and how prisoners should be properly treated while in custody. The philosophy is the right philosophy. But as a plan for managing and governing the criminal justice establishment, it’s an incomplete.

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