Pubdate: Sun, 10 May 2015
Source: Age, The (Australia)
Copyright: 2015 The Age Company Ltd
Author: Nick O'Malley


In a Rare Moment of Detente, Democrats and Republicans Have Both 
Admitted That America's War on Drugs and the Subsequent 
Tough-On-Crime Policies Have Failed.

How Did We Get Here?

Politicians from across the divided political spectrum now agree 
tough policies on drugs and mass incarceration have failed, blighting 
inner-city communities.

On the last Tuesday of April they buried Freddie Gray in a white 
coffin with gold trim at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Baltimore. Gray was 
25 when he died, his neck broken and his voice box crushed, in police 
custody after he had been arrested for making eye contact with a 
police officer.

Within hours a state of emergency would be in place across the city 
and ranks of police and soldiers would be confronting both protesters 
and rioters, as they had in recent months in cities across the United States.

That same day in New York an extraordinary book of essays was 
launched, proving, finally, that the tough-on-crime consensus that 
helped crowd America's prisons and blight its inner-city 
neighbourhoods  and spurred the street battles waged in Baltimore in 
the past few weeks  has unravelled.

The end of an era of mass incarceration in the US is in sight, and 
the ramifications of this change are already being felt not only 
across America but around the world.

The book, Solutions: America's Leaders Speak out on Criminal Justice, 
was launched at the Brennan Centre for Justice at the prestigious New 
York University's law school.

Its foreword is written by former president Bill Clinton and it 
contains essays by Hillary Clinton, other leading Democrats such as 
Vice President Joe Biden and Cory Booker, an African-American senator 
from New Jersey who is considered a future leader. But it also 
included many of the leading Republican presidential contenders such 
as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee. Even 
firebrands Ted Cruz and Rick Perry contributed.

Though he did not contribute, Republican presidential candidate, Jeb 
Bush, has also dramatically softened the zero-tolerance stance of his 
years as governor of Florida.

One of the book's co-editors, Nicole Fortier, said she was surprised 
at the reception she was given when she contacted these candidates 
and asked for a contribution.

Rather than hesitating, the various leaders jumped at the chance to 
contribute. Their offices wanted feedback and advice. Some asked if 
they could have more length.

But it was the content of the submissions that stunned her when they 
began arriving. Each politician from across the viciously divided 
American political spectrum agreed that mass incarceration must end.

This turnaround in political will is extraordinary. The war on drugs 
began under President Richard Nixon, but it was Bill Clinton who 
opened a new front in 1994 after another surge in crime statistics 
across America.

That year he introduced an omnibus crime bill that expanded the death 
penalty and encouraged states to lengthen prison terms and adopt 
mandatory sentences. It scrapped funding for inmate education.

As a result of these laws, and other tough measures adopted by 
federal and state governments, America now has the biggest-per-capita 
prison population in the world. The figures are dizzying. It locks up 
one in 100 American adults and has 25 per cent of the world's prison 
population with just 5 per cent of the world's population. One in 28 
children have a parent in prison. Considered together, America's 
prison population would be the size of its 37th largest state. Half 
of all offenders are in prison for nonviolent offences. The Clinton 
crime bill was, the Atlantic magazine recently noted, backed by every 
Congressional Democrat but one.

In the new book Clinton concedes, "plainly, our nation has too many 
people in prison and for too long - we have overshot the mark".

It is the growing consensus that, by incarcerating vast swaths of the 
urban poor, America has broken families, shattered whole communities, 
increasing the chances of further incarceration.

In inner cities where crime is highest and police are most needed, 
police are seen as occupying forces rather than civil servants. They 
are feared and loathed by the populations that need them most.

While America's unemployment rate is rapidly falling, its long-term 
unemployment remains stubbornly high, in part because employers are 
reluctant to hire ex-cons. This, in turn, promotes recidivism.

A new campaign to reverse that perverse result has been launched. 
Called ban the box it calls on employers to pledge not to ask 
applicants to tick a box if they have a record. Instead, it asks them 
to ask the question in an interview when the applicant might have a 
chance to explain their situation.

What has driven this remarkable change in political will is 
debatable. The protests on streets in many American cities, now 
commonly referred to by activists as "uprisings" might have 
contributed to the urgency of the movement.

It is also clear that, during the long recession, states could no 
longer afford to keep locking people up, especially when a single 
inmate cost them as much as a police officer or teacher might each year.

Social scientists are now identifying so-called "million-dollar 
blocks" - those in poor neighbourhoods with collapsing infrastructure 
where the government is spending $US1 million ($1.3 million) each 
year locking up residents of single blocks.

A Columbia University lab identified many such blocks and found when 
inmates returned home they could expect to last an average of three 
years before being jailed again.

But the overwhelming factor - the factor that makes this an issue 
that politicians are willing to address -is that there has been an 
unprecedented collapse in the crime rate.

Since the era when Clinton went tough on crime and New York City 
adopted its infamous "broken windows" zero-tolerance policy, American 
crime rates have fallen by half.

One of the more interesting observers of crime and punishment  and 
policing in particular  in America is Radley Balko, who noted in a 
Washington Post column that people vote on criminal justice issues 
only when they are in fear and Americans no longer fear crime as they once did.

"While most people continue to erroneously tell pollsters that crime 
is getting worse nationwide, on the more pertinent question - whether 
Americans fear walking alone in their neighbourhood  the percentage 
answering yes hasn't been above 40 per cent since the early 1990s."

This is because, Balko argues, "in 2013, there were nearly 9000 fewer 
homicides, about 27,000 fewer rapes, and about 368,000 fewer 
aggravated assaults than there were in 1991, even though the 
country's population increased by 64 million people."

Asked if a de-escalation in the war on drugs might see crime levels 
rise, the Brennan Centre's Nicole Fortier says no. In the book What 
Caused the Crime Decline? the Brennan Centre found incarceration had 
a limited and diminishing impact on crime levels, one that had almost 
become irrelevant by 2000, accounting for just 1 per cent of the decrease.

The true cause is layered and complicated, the book argues, and 
includes increasing incomes and consumer confidence, decreased 
alcohol consumption, and the better targeting of police resources 
through the use of statistical analysis of crime patterns.

Another study by the National Academies' National Research Council 
found that "the growth in incarceration rates reduced crime, but the 
magnitude of the crime reduction remains highly uncertain and the 
evidence suggests it was unlikely to have been large".

With the panic over crime receding, some states have already begun 
ending the drug war, the crucial contributor to mass incarceration. 
Many states have decriminalised possession of small amounts of 
marijuana, while two  Colorado and Washington, as well as the city of 
Washington, DC - have taken the extraordinary step of legalising the 
drug for recreational use.

President Barack Obama, who has made criminal justice reform central 
to his final years in office, has ordered his Justice Department not 
to intervene by enforcing federal drug laws.

This turnaround in America's war on drugs is already having an impact 
on law and order around the world.

Prohibition enforced by strict criminal sanctions was largely an 
American invention imposed around the world through treaties and 
diplomatic pressure.

On Thursday the United Nations held a debate at its New York 
headquarters on the issue at the request of Uruguay, Mexico and 
Colombia, which argued that, as some American states no longer 
criminalises all drug possession, they should no longer be compelled 
to wage the American drug war. They want the treaties rewritten. The 
meeting was greeted by a letter from a group of 100 drug policy and 
human rights organisations, including the American Civil Liberties 
Union and Human Rights Watch, calling on the UNto reform the way it 
treats drugs and for member countries to respect those governments 
that have or will legalise or decriminalise narcotics.

"Existing US and global drug control policies that heavily emphasise 
criminalisation of drug use, possession, production and distribution 
are inconsistent with international human rights standards and have 
contributed to serious human rights violations," they write.

"Criminalisation of the drug trade has dramatically enhanced the 
profitability of illicit drug markets, fuelling the operations of 
groups that commit abuses, corrupt authorities, and undermine 
democracy and the rule of law in many parts of the world."

The groups believe "human rights principles, which lie at the core of 
the United Nations charter, should take priority over provisions of 
the drug conventions".

Some at the UN already acknowledge the problem. In 2012 the Office of 
the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report finding that 
"excessively punitive approaches to drug control have resulted in 
countless human rights violations, including the right to health".

The discussions in New York on Thursday were in preparation for the 
UNGeneral Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016. The 
special session was originally scheduled for 2019 but was brought 
forward due to pressure from Latin American countries, where 
governments have become increasingly concerned about how the war on 
drugs has affected crime and development in the region.

They believe, as many American policymakers now do, that imprisonment 
is far more harmful to drug users  and to their communities  than the 
drugs they are being imprisoned for using.

Whatever happens in the UN next year, it now seems certain that 
whoever wins the 2016 presidential election will continue with 
efforts to reduce America's prison population, rein back 
zero-tolerance policies and de-escalate the war on drugs.

Though the political leaders who contributed to the Brennan Centre 
book do not have a common approach on how to achieve this, there are 
areas of broad agreement, Fortier says.

Most agree on the need to steer the mentally ill and non-violent 
offenders away from prison and that mandatory minimum sentences are 
destructive and need to be repealed.

Whatever the outcome it will take years to unpick the diabolical 
confusion of law and regulation that can still force American judges 
to steal lifetimes from the pettiest offenders.

Back in Baltimore on Thursday the Baltimore Sun told the story of 
Ronald Hammond, who appeared in a local courtroom in 2011 on a charge 
of possessing 5.9 grams of marijuana. The district court judge 
thought the case was preposterous.

"5.9 grams won't roll you a decent joint," Judge Askew Gatewood said.

"Why would I want to spend taxpayer's money putting his little 
raggedy butt in jail  feeding him, clothing him, cable TV, internet, 
prayer, medical expense, clothing  on $5 worth of weed?"

The judge urged Hammond to plead guilty so he could free him on parole.

But then it turned out that Hammond was already on parole for selling 
$40 worth of crack to an undercover officer.

With a parole infraction Hammond copped a mandatory minimum sentence 
of 20 years. He is due for release in 2028, though the current 
maximum penalty for possession of 10 grams or less is a $100 fine.

He told the Sun that when he heard the sentence, "A chill went from 
the top of my head to the bottom of my toes."
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