Archive for the ‘Drug Reform’ Category

After his truck was stolen by law enforcement, this cop is working to reform civil asset forfeiture

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Originally published at Rare

Stephen Mills is a 24-year army veteran turned Apache, Oklahoma, Chief of Police. He also owns a ranch in nearby Grady County, where he employed a worker who was arrested for stealing oil field equipment while driving one of Mills’ work trucks. This happened in 2010, before Mills became an officer in the area.

As Mills explained in a video produced by The Heritage Foundation’s The Daily Signal, “I assumed [the police] were seizing [the truck] as evidence of the crime. I called them to ask when they were going to be done with it, and I could get my truck back. And what I was told was it wasn’t being taken as evidence. They were seizing it under civil asset forfeiture, because it was used in a crime.”

The Daily Signal’s Melissa Quinn summarized the problem well:

“Civil forfeiture is a tool that gives law enforcement the power to take people’s cash, cars, and property if they suspect it’s connected to criminal activity. The procedure was expanded in the 1980s and hailed as a tool law enforcement needed to fight the war on drugs.”

While the War on Drugs excuse is a standard explanation used by law enforcement to justify the practice of deeming property, not just people, as culpable in a crime, it’s clear the practice is abused far beyond that scope.

The ranch hand who was arrested in Mills’ vehicle wasn’t charged with drug trafficking. He was caught stealing property from an oil field – in a truck that didn’t belong to him! Yet the vehicle was seized, no questions asked. In many cases, property is stolen by cops under this standard, even when no crimes were committed by the owners.

State Senator Kyle Loveless, an Oklahoma Republican who introduced a bill to reform this practice, explained to The Daily Signal that, “Every way across the board in different agencies, city, county, statewide agencies, the system is fraught with abuse.”

Added Loveless, “Innocent people’s stuff is being taken. The system is so perverted that it is like climbing Mount Everest to get your stuff back.” As Loveless concluded, “[I]t comes back to should the government be able to take someone’s stuff and keep it without charging them or proving it, and I say no.”

While civil asset forfeiture remains a major issue, there’s more bipartisan awareness about its problematic nature now than ever before. State legislatures across the country are working to tamp down on this practice.

Unfortunately, many police unions and prosecutors continue to support civil asset forfeiture, largely because, as State Senator Loveless explained, they use the property seized to make up for budget shortfalls. But reform is possible if there’s enough public outcry about this unconstitutional practice.

Ultimately, Mills is right when he says, “The Constitution protects our personal property. When the government uses civil asset forfeiture laws to go in and deprive a person of their property, whether they’re taking it from drugs or not, they’re circumventing the due process that is written into our Constitution.”

Democratic candidates are following Republicans’ lead on criminal justice reform

Monday, January 18th, 2016

Originally published at Rare

Before Sunday’s Democratic debate, Gary Fields pondered at the Wall Street Journal whether the candidates would address criminal justice reform.

Fields noted that it’s been ten months since a bipartisan summit on justice reform was held in Washington, and that the issue received little attention in the president’s State of the Union address and Thursday’s Republican debate.

But during Sunday’s NBC/YouTube Democratic debate, hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley all addressed the need for reform. Clinton mentioned systemic racism. Sanders related Clinton’s point to high black unemployment.

High profile Democrats being vocal on this issue is a fairly recent development. In fact, Clinton is relatively new to the topic, making her first major speech about criminal justice reform less than a year ago.

Its great Democratic presidential candidates are talking about reforming our broken justice system. After all, 1.5 million Americans incarcerated, half of them for non-violent crimes.

But these Democrats appear to be following a path that has been forged in large part by conservatives in recent years.

In 2013, David Freelander noted at the Daily Beast that Paul has been heroic on criminal justice issues, far more so than even, you guessed it, liberal stalwart Bernie Sanders.

Since then, Paul has led on this front, meeting with former Attorney General Eric Holder to encourage action on issues like restoring voting rights to ex-felons and ending prison overcrowding. He has offered up several pieces of legislation that address these and other issues, which have garnered bipartisan support and praise.

Of Hillary’s relatively recent interest in criminal justice reform, Paul Tweeted Sunday night:

As Grover Norquist, President of Americans For Tax Reform, recently wrote at the Washington Times:

The driving force behind our successes have been conservative victories in reforming the justice system in red states with Republican governors and legislatures. This is, after all, a movement that began in Texas. And its successes in both reducing crime and saving tax dollars in Texas brought the issue to other red states like Georgia, Utah, and Louisiana, and now to the gates of Washington. Liberals are following along but they did not forge this path.

Norquist’s reference to Texas’ reforms is rooted in a free market think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and its Right on Crime initiative. As the project’s statement of principles explains:

Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety.”

A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders—making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.

Of course, not all Republicans have embraced reform, exhibiting throwback rightwing “lock ‘em up” mentalities. Gov. Chris Christie recently accused the president of endorsing a state’s right to legalize marijuana because he “got high when he was a kid.” (No word from Christie on the fact that a majority of his fellow Republican presidential candidates support the same measure.)

Mirroring Christie, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently told the New York Times that she is far less supportive of criminal justice reform than most of her colleagues, as her primary concern is “safety.” (It seems she apparently believes the potentially life-ruining complications that come with imprisonment are, in her view, “safer” than smoking marijuana.)

Hopefully our next president, Republican or Democrat, will be both supportive and serious about criminal justice reform. A number of conservative states whose free market, rehabilitative-focused reforms have produced incredible results. Rand Paul’s five reform bills have bipartisan support.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders should be commended for following conservatives’ lead on this issue. Hopefully that trend continues, even after the election.

A twenty-three-year-old drug charge is preventing this man from serving on his city council

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Originally published at Rare

McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a small city outside of Pittsburgh, held a routine municipal election last November. Corey Sanders, a husband, father of four, small business owner, and deacon at a local church, was elected to the suburb’s city council.

Voters were aware that Sanders, now forty-five, made some poor decisions in his youth, but also saw him as an upstanding member of the community who had turned his life around.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune, in his early twenties, Sanders pleaded no contest to felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. He served a four-year term in prison, during which he honed his skills as a barber.

This led to Sanders opening a barbershop in downtown McKeesport, accompanied by a focus on mentoring young men with backgrounds similar to his own on how to stay out of the trouble that plagued his youth.

Looking at Sanders, voters saw a story of redemption and an example of how a man can turn his life around and contribute to his community. This week however, when it was time for the new McKeesport city councilmembers to be sworn in, Sanders hit a roadblock. It was one he had anticipated, but hoped to avoid.

In September, Sanders became aware of the fact that an anonymous complaint had put him on the Allegheny District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s radar. A letter addressed to Sanders from Zappala read, “Although I personally believe that the electorate should decide who they want to represent them, I regret that your record precludes you from seeking and/or holding public office.”

The warning from Zappala’s office was prompted by the fact that according to Pennsylvania’s constitution, a convicted felon may not represent citizens even if they duly elect him or her.

While the Allegheny District Attorney’s office stands on valid legal footing in this case and many of their representatives have expressed personal disagreement with the constitutional provision, critics believe the law is being applied unevenly.

Fawn Walker-Montgomery, a McKeesport city councilwoman who has expressed support for Sanders said on Monday during a meeting where new city council members were sworn in, “There’s like five elected officials that law could have been used for, but you use it for Mr. Sanders, something that’s more than 20 years old?”

Walker-Montgomery was referencing at least two of her colleagues with that statement: Solicitor Jason Elash who was convicted of a DUI, and Dan Carr who has been brought up on gambling charges. It is not clear whether either of these charges were felonies, however.

Sanders, knowing he wouldn’t be sworn in at Monday’s meeting, had gone to a judge in Pittsburgh to be sworn in independently, and sat with the council after they went through the process. That’s when the arguments started.

Hopefully, Pennsylvania’s constitution can be amended to allow felons who have turned their lives around a second chance and an opportunity to represent their neighbors. The same goes for other states that bar former felons from fully re-entering society once they’ve paid their debts.

As enthusiasm for criminal justice reform continues to rise nationally, many states are focusing on how to make sure felons don’t reoffend and are able to improve their lives. Sanders’ example is a positive one, and one of many that speaks to why these efforts are important.

Meanwhile, Sanders is seeking a pardon from Pennsylvania’s governor, which would allow him to serve the citizens of McKeesport that elected him.

This conservative state is making major strides on criminal justice reform

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

Originally published at Rare

For decades, conservatives have talked about being “tough on crime.” On its face, this makes sense. An orderly and peaceful society requires strong law enforcement.

But what conservatives and liberals alike have found in recent years is that some of our laws just don’t make sense, particularly around the war on drugs.

Some of the most conservative state lawmakers are now looking at how to make offender’s reentry into society easier, considering rehabilitative approaches to non-violent drug crimes rather than incarceration, and contemplating reducing overburdensome state-level mandatory minimum sentencing.

Georgia, where both the legislature and governorship are controlled by Republicans, is one of several conservative states now leading the way on these types of reforms.

As the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Bill Rankin reported last month, “At a recent meeting of (Governor Nathan) Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, co-chair Thomas Worthy noted Georgia’s prison population has been steadily declining over the past three years. And the percentage of violent offenders held in custody is rising.” Worthy added, “We are not claiming premature success or victory, but the trends are going in the right direction. That’s what we need to see moving forward.”

How did Georgia achieve this reduction? It started with reforms implemented five years ago. In early 2012, a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform was convened to address Georgia’s spiraling prison population and to consider emulating reforms other southern states with historically “tough on crime” laws, like Texasand South Carolina.

As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported at the time, this council explained that, “Georgia’s prison population will increase by 8 percent to almost 60,000 inmates by 2016 if current policies remain in place. That jump will require taxpayers to spend an additional $264 million for more prison beds over the next five years.”

At the time, Georgia had the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation, spending $1 billion per year to achieve it.

This realization, coupled with the fact that incarceration hasn’t reduced drug use, sparked a confluence between fiscal conservatism and realist thinking that has led to major changes in Georgia and other similarly heeled conservative states. As Georgia’s Chief Justice Carol Hunstein said in January of 2012 as she implored lawmakers to support the criminal justice reforms before them, “We now know that being tough on crime is not enough.”

This has led to reform-minded “smart on crime” thinking that is turning Georgia around and readying it, along with many other southern states, for a 21st century approach to criminal justice. The biggest changes for the state have resulted from its focus on addressing the underlying causes of non-violent offenses rather than sending non-violent drug users to prison and in turn, bringing them back into society as hardened criminals likely to offend again.

Gov. Nathan Deal, a former prosecutor, is optimistic but says there’s much more to be done. Discussing impending reforms that will make it easier for offenders to reenter society as productive members, Deal said, “If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life.”

Deal’s statement is common sense that unfortunately has taken many politicians too long to embrace. The good news is that there appears to be a growing bipartisan consensus that we simply cannot afford the behemoth criminal justice system that arose in the late 20th century, on either a financial or moral level.

President Obama follows the Koch brothers’ lead on criminal justice reform

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Originally published at Rare

In liberal circles, the libertarian Koch Brothers are often demonized as capitalist boogeymen out to increase their profit margin at the expense of the poor. Their defenders respond that free markets do more to alleviate aggregate poverty than redistributionary government schemes. This economic disagreement is likely to continue indefinitely, but there’s a strong area of common ground between liberals and libertarians on one key issue: criminal justice reform.

In fact, Charles and David Koch have been major players in promoting reforms to our penal system, not just by pushing for policy changes legislatively, but by living their values through Koch Industries. In April of this year, Koch Industries decided to “ban the box,” which means they got rid of the checkbox on job applications that force prospective employees to disclose their criminal records. This practice has made it extremely difficult for individuals who are no longer incarcerated to find work—particularly if they happen to be a person of color.

Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, explained that, “As a large United States-based manufacturing company that employs 60,000 American workers we shouldn’t be rejecting people at the very start of the hiring process who may otherwise be capable and qualified, and want an opportunity to work hard.” As data from the Department of Criminal Justice shows, up to 75 percent of inmates have difficulty finding work during their first year of reentry into society.

When a company chooses to “ban the box,” as Koch has done, the employer won’t know about a prospective hire’s criminal record by simply looking at their application. If a manager expresses interest in a résumé and interviewing begins, they’ll find out about the felony record as the process goes on. The key difference is that the interviewee has already gotten his foot in the door, and the employer is more likely to give him a chance.

This week, President Obama decided to follow suit, announcing on Monday that he signed an executive order that begins eliminating bias against those with criminal records in the federal hiring process. This comes in the wake of Obama’s recent focus on criminal justice reform, which included a summer visit with inmates at a federal prison, something no other president has done before. As Ari Melber of MSNBC reported of his decision this week:

Obama unveiled the plan on a visit to a treatment center in New Jersey, a state where Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a ban the box bill into law last year. Hillary Clinton endorsed ban the box last week, while Republican Sen. Rand Paul also introduced similar federal legislation, with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, to seal criminal records for non-violent offenders.

This speaks to the increasingly bipartisan nature of criminal justice reform, which is a surprising but good sign in a government divided by a fractious Republican Congress and Democratic executive branch. People from all walks of life are beginning to recognize that preventing individuals from effectively re-entering society after serving time in prison further inflames the cycle of poverty that in many cases drove criminals to use or sell drugs in the first place. And “ban the box” is just one of the many changes on the table. Focusing on treatment rather than incarceration has also gained steam, and reforms to largely arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences have gotten major hearings in Congress.

As President Obama said this week:

A lot of time, that record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society — even if you’ve already paid your debt to society. It means millions of Americans have difficulty even getting their foot in the door to try to get a job much less actually hang on to that job. That’s bad for not only those individuals, it’s bad for our economy.

This echoes what Charles Koch wrote about overcriminalization earlier this year:

After a sentence is served, we should restore all rights to youthful and non-violent offenders, such as those involved in personal drug use violations. If ex-offenders can’t get a job, education or housing, how can we possibly expect them to have a productive life? And why should we be surprised when more than half of the people released from prison are again incarcerated within three years of their release?

With agreement like this between two warring camps, there’s hope for more meaningful and desperately needed criminal justice reforms in the near future.