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November 3, 2014

Arguing for releasing all drug prisoners and reparations to "right the drug war’s wrongs"

Lucy Steigerwald has this provocative new Washington Post blog/commentary piece headlined "Sentencing reform and how to right the drug war’s wrongs." Here are excerpts:

On November 1, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s plan to reform sentencing for certain drug crimes went into effect. The details were hammered out back in April and July, and they could have been challenged by Congress. Thankfully, Congress declined to do so, and now the commission has a chance at helping nearly half of the 100,000 inmates in federal prison come home earlier than they otherwise would have.

For decades, the war on drugs rolled onward, leaving a pulpy mass of casualties in its wake. But since at least 2012, when Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use of marijuana, there has been some serious strides against this dangerous domestic policy. Generally, however, any progress made on drugs has been confined to changing the legality of substances....

Even the tentative, good-but-not-good-enough Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine in 2010, was initially not retroactive until the USSC voted to make it so.... The USSC is doing something more substantial still with their new guidelines, which allow for retroactive petitioning for reduced time in prison starting in November 2015. Prisoners may begin petitioning for these reductions now, however. Unfortunately, those sentences cannot fall below the mandatory minimums, which can only be changed by Congress. Ideally, the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory minimums, will be eventually signed into law, allowing for some of the damages wrought by these mandatory sentences to be mitigated.

In addition, even though the sentencing reforms help the federal prison population, we are very far from instituting anything as optimistic on a statewide level. Most of the some-400,000 state prisoners in jail on drug-related crimes are out of luck unless they get individual commuting of their sentences.

As the war on drugs loses popularity, the question of what to do about the lives ruined and interrupted is going to come up again and again. One of the more fascinating, though politically unrealistic suggestions for what to do about this mess is one offered by a Green Party candidate for governor of New York: Howie Hawkins suggests releasing all drug prisoners, and putting together a “panel on reconciliation” between them and their communities and governments. They want voting rights restored, school grants restored, help for children of the former cons, and prevention of would-be employers asking about criminal histories. They even suggest full-on reparations for “the communities affected.”

This won’t pass muster, probably not even in the most liberal states. The slow reforms being offered by the USSC, and criminal justice advocates like Sen. Paul might be all we get. But the reparations idea does present a question of what society should do after the madness of a moral panic dims, and the end result turns out to be 2.3 million people in prison or jail. Most people wouldn’t object to a payment to any of the 147 people freed from death row, especially those who turned out to be unequivocally innocent. What happens when we realize that neither possessing nor selling drugs is a real criminal act? Doesn’t that suggest that we have a lot of innocent people in prison who will need a lot of help in restarting their lives?

November 3, 2014 at 05:21 PM | Permalink


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Dont forget when the Fsa was passed they included running a drug house is a 2 level increase and basically any threat within the drug conspiracy us also a 2 level increase.
Now that is poor buisiness.

You cant make drugs without having them in the building and its subjective on the harshness of any threats. If the ausa wants to add it on, he will and it will stick.

They did drop a history point for wuthin 2 yrs or recentcy. They also need to drop if on probation. Has nothing to do with what they did, oh well.

But progress is being made, but ever so slowly. Big bucks invloved here.

Prison is a buisiness not just a place for those that need a tune up.

Posted by: 187Midwest Guy | Nov 3, 2014 7:52:28 PM

I don't think reparations -- a word that just invites controversy anyway -- is the way it works generally. For instance, did gay people get money for time in prison for consensual sex acts that now are not considered crimes? A few token moves like pardon of Alan Turing years after he died aside, nothing much was done here.

Paying those wrongly detained is not w/o controversy actually -- in more than one case, e.g., prosecutors pushed hard to keep people in prison even when there was clear evidence of innocence. But, 147 people not guilty of any crime on the books is a bit different really than the number of people who were in prison for drug crimes, especially since many of them also were guilty of other stuff.

Like the to me misguided slavery reparations idea, there is a societal responsibility here, including to help such people to restart their lives and in various cases to fight their addictions. Using the word "reparation" probably won't help, except perhaps to push the median position a bit, so treatment and other things will be seen as the moderate position.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 4, 2014 8:57:12 AM

Let's compensate vicious gang bangers? I hate to use this expression, but she must be on crack.

As I have said many times. Try to sell some dope in the territory of some of these innocents. Report the results back. Weren't these felons responsible for the surge in the murder that forced the lawyers to make Mandatory Guidelines?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 4, 2014 10:03:50 AM

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