Thursday, August 19, 2010

How do you think the drug war will end?

When it comes to ending the drug war, what's your theory of the pace of change: fast, slow, gradual, or revolutionary?
Recent evidence from U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress suggests that the drug war is ending.

But that it's ending in a piecemeal, or gradual, fashion.

Consider the recent example of the U.S. Congress "narrowing" -- a term used by the New York Times in its article -- the disparities for crack and powder cocaine possession. Under previous sentencing guidelines from 1986 threshold levels for powder cocaine possession were one hundred times higher than for crack cocaine. The new guidelines just signed into law by President Obama elevate the thresholds for crack cocaine. At least two generations of Black men have been treated unfairly by courts and prosecutors.

The previous guidelines came from the mid-1980s and have been seen as a motor for black and Latino overincarceration.

So, that's one piece of good news.
Now here's another. This time the U.S. Supreme Court did the right thing on a criminal justice issue -- and it did so as a majority!

The Court ruled as a majority in favor of petitioner José Angel Carachuri-Rosendo, a lawful permanent resident and a Mexican national. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sought to deport Carachuri-Rosendo, even though he had spent most of his life since the age of five in the United States. A U.S. immigration court confirmed his deportation because of two state misdemeanor drug offenses in Texas. The first was a twenty-day sentence for possession of a joint of marijuana; a year later, the second was a ten day sentence for possession of one tablet of Xanax without prescription. At the time of his deportation, Carachuri-Rosendo petitioned ICE for cancellation of removal based upon the elevation of his second sentence to a felony, and not on the first marijuana conviction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a notoriously reactionary court, sided with the Immigration Court. The Supreme Court eventually decided to hear his case in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder.

The Supreme Court found in his favor, meaning that only actual felonies, not elevated misdemeanors, can qualify for a reason for deporation.

You may think that Carachuri-Rosendo's case is unique. It's not. Time and time and time again, lawful permanent residents, people who may be one step from citizenship, have fallen foul of a simple drug possession being seen as a a felony in the immigration process, often making them automatically liable for deportation. According to a University of California study reported by Immigration, Law, and Policy Blog, 87,884 lawful permanent residents were deported in a ten year period from 1997 to 2007. Of this number, 68 per cent were deported of non-violent crimes. That's a whole lot of disruption to a family's life for one Xanax.

In both these scenarios -- sentencing disparities reformed in Congress or the Supreme Court ending the elevating of non-violent offenses into felonies under immigration law -- drug reformers can say that the winds of change are blowing in a favorable direction.

Gradually, it seems, though, no?
And, maybe we need to go a little faster? As these cases show we can't keep people in prison forever and we can't deport them on flimsy legal fictions. To end the abuses to fairness and justice that stem from prohibition, why not Just Say Now?

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