January 2, 2013, 3:29 pm
With the election season thankfully in our rear-view mirror, we can take stock of what the marijuana legalization initiatives (in both Washington and Colorado) mean. It should come as no surprise that college students have been rallying to end the prohibition of marijuana. I, for one, have often seen students pushing their decriminalization agenda on campus. What always struck me as I walked past these primarily white, middle-class crusaders is that marijuana is already effectively decriminalized on college campuses, as well as in suburbs and middle-class communities.
Decriminalization is a daily reality and has always been the applied law of the land in these environments. Sure, colleges and universities may claim to comply with federal drug laws, which, theoretically, should prevent the rise of Pothead U. Still, I can’t imagine the DEA swooping down anytime soon. A student conduct hearing and threat of drug education is not criminal enforcement.
Take a look at the numbers. Studies typically show that close to 50 percent of college students have used marijuana during the course of their young lives. According to a 2007 study, the number of students using marijuana daily more than doubled between 1993 and 2005. Furthermore, research has consistently shown that white students (and Latino students) use illegal drugs more frequently than African-American or Asian college students. Those trends also reflect drug-use patterns among young people not enrolled in college. It is not surprising that most of agitation for legalization of marijuana has been overwhelmingly white.
Of course, even the federal decriminalization of marijuana won’t eradicate all of the criminal misconduct among today’s college students. In recent years, drug use has also worsened with the proliferation of “performance-enhancing drugs” like Adderall. During the early part of the 21st century, sales increased by 3,100 percent; in recent surveys, anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent of students admitted to popping these “study drugs.” Despite the fact that it violates federal drug laws, students regularly secure Adderall with little fear of punishment.
There is a consistent media narrative that downplays Adderall and other prescription-drug abuse. Imagining the abuse of these drugs as “steroids for school,” the media often depicts these crimes as an acceptable strategy in the face of pressure, as a reasonable choice in certain circumstances. In doing so, the media may have effectively decriminalized these sorts of drug abuses.
Can you imagine if “stop and frisk” was the policy of campus police departments across the United States? Can you imagine how much marijuana, cocaine, and Adderall might be seized if police began to stop those who met the profile of the pot-smoking, Adderall-popping scholastic menace?
If colleges become the epicenter for the war on drugs, schools might as well institute checkpoints at each dorm door. If residents of public housing need to face 24-7 surveillance, shouldn’t college students, given rates of drunkenness, drug abuse, narcotic distribution, altercations, vandalism, and sexual violence, deserve similar scrutiny? Can you imagine the revocation of dorm residency or even expulsion for the first drug crime, for the first fight, or first violation of the law?
That a college culture based on student profiling and systematic incarceration is less likely to take hold than a return to typewriters and blackboards is telling. Even though there are five white drug users for every one black user between the ages of 18 and 25, even though drug use is rampant on college campuses, the war on drugs immunizes white America. As the war on drugs continues to target communities of color, and as police and prosecutors focus attention and resources on drug use within communities of color, particularly their poorest, the pill-popping, marijuana-smoking, and hard-narcotic-using future leaders of the United States are left to their own vices.
Whereas black and brown youth fit the profile in the war on drugs, white students—often those who are the drug users—go unprofiled, allowed to keep getting high. This is the living example of white privilege—which Jamilah Lemieux brilliantly describes as “a hell of a drug”—something which allows the abuse of drugs and the continuation of a destructive and unjust drug war.
Had the war on drugs focused on white middle-class youth, had “stop and frisk” rid university culture of drugs, the war on drugs would have been over a long time ago. Rather than fighting for decriminalization, which appears more self-serving than anything, maybe it’s time for college students to stand up against the war on drugs. Now that is change I can believe in.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.
SAN FRANCISCO — Attorney General Eric Holder ruffled some feathers with his recent promise to “vigorously enforce” marijuana prohibition in California even if the state ballot initiative seeking to legalize marijuana passes on November 2.
He might have some trouble with fair implementation: Studies show minorities are much more likely to be arrested for pot possession in California than whites, even though minorities are less likely to smoke pot.
A recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance found that from 2006 to 2008 “police in 25 of California’s major cities arrested blacks at four, five, six, seven, and even 12 times the rate of whites.” The City of Los Angeles, for instance, “arrested blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites,” even though young white people consistently report higher marijuana use than blacks or Hispanics, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
In the last 20 years, California authorities made 850,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. There’s no reason to believe the disparity in arrests is confined to the state.
On Wednesday the DPA released a second report highlighting the disparities between white and Latino arrests in the Golden state. Findings showed that from 2006 to 2008 “major cities in California arrested and prosecuted Latinos for marijuana possession at double to nearly triple the rate of whites.” In San Jose, the third largest city in the state, police arrested Latinos at more than twice the rate of whites. Glendale, California — where Latinos make up only 17 percent of the population of almost 200,000, but 30 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession — had the highest Latino arrest rate of the 33 cities surveyed.
The report’s authors cautioned that the findings should not be attributed to racist cops.
“The disparities documented in the report are the result of routine police practices, not the result of racists cops here and there,” Stephen Gutwillig, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “This is a system-wide issue.”
The report’s authors, led by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, have noted that marijuana possession arrests can have serious consequences, creating permanent “drug arrest” records that can be easily found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks.
Several weeks ago, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law, effective in January, which downgrades possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. But Gutwillig said the new legislation will not eliminate the problem.
“The recent downgrading by the governor which lowers the penalty from a misdemeanor to an infraction is absolutely a step in the right direction,” he said. “But targeting of Latinos will continue.”
A principal at an Alabama high school apologized Monday for a racially insensitive banner his students used at a football game over the weekend.
Tod Humphries, the principal at McAdory High School in McCalla, Ala., said he takes “full responsibility” for the banner which read, “Hey Indians, get ready to leave in a Trail of Tears Round 2.”
The banner was directed at rival Pinson Valley High Indians.
Humphries emphatically apologized in a statement on the school’s website and noted that Native Americans suffered “horrific atrocities” on the Trail of Tears.
“Please accept our sincere apologies to the Native American people and to anyone who was offended by the reference to an event that is a stain on our nation’s past forever,” Humphries wrote.
Humphries claimed that he did not approve of the banner before it was used at the game and said that “the person who would normally be responsible for approving such signs is out on maternity leave.”
Adrienne Keene, a Ph.D student at Harvard University and the author of Native Appropriations, a blog dedicated to combating the co-opting of Native American culture, told NBC News that she considered the banner nauseating.
“I definitely felt sick to my stomach to see something I consider such an atrocity in the past of my own family,” Keene said.
Keene is citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma whose family were systematically removed from their homelands by the U.S. government during what came to be known as the Trail of Tears between 1838 and 1839.
Thousands of Native Americans from numerous tribes died from exposure and exhaustion as they were marched for more than 230-miles after President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
The act was passed to force assimilation among Native Americans and to open up millions of acres of land to mostly white settlers.
Keene said the banner is indicative of a failing school system and of how U.S. citizens view Native Americans.
“This is representative of the miseducation in our school systems, especially with regard to Native peoples,” she said. “This points to a lot of underlying issues about how Native Americans are perceived in American society.”
Chase Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock and Oglala Lakota and co-founder of Last Real Indians, a website devoted to providing a platform for Native American writers, told NBC News that the banner prompted “expected shock” throughout Indian country.
“When institutions and sports organizations have Indians as mascots or monikers the unavoidable result is racially or socio-politically driven offensive material,” he wrote in an email.
Humphries ended his apology with a commitment to teaching his students about the Trail of Tears.
“In response to the ‘bust thru’ sign used by McAdory High School during the Round 2 State Play-Off game versus Pinson Valley High School, all social studies and history teachers will re-teach and/or review units concerning Native American displacement following the Indian Removal Act of 1830,” he wrote.
Still, Keene felt the banner was a brazen comparison and said this form of insensitivity toward Native Americans is ubiquitous in American culture.
“Comparing the loss of a football game to the loss of over 5,000 Native Americans is not something I take lightly,” she said.
We all entered the classroom with assumptions and thoughts about race in contemporary society. Write about these ideas and how they might have changed during the course of the semester. Give at least 5 examples and discuss how this information has impacted you focusing on how you think about race, racism, and inequality now
Last day to post – December 8
Using course readings, specifics, and course films, discuss the difference between a law-break and a criminal? Describe in detail, the process of being labeled as one or the other, and the consequences of these different labels
Last day December 8
This past August, the Lafayette-based IND Monthly published a story about a 54-year-old man named Bill Winters, incarcerated at a medium-security prison in Epps, Louisiana. Winters, who is black, was arrested in June 2009, after he drunkenly entered an unlocked oncologist’s office on a Sunday morning, setting off a security alarm. When police arrived, he had rummaged through a desk drawer, and was in possession of a box of Gobstoppers candy. Winters was convicted of simple burglary a week before Thanksgiving, and given a seven-year prison sentence—hardly a slap on the wrist. But a few days later, the prosecutor in his case, Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney, sought additional punishment for Winters, under the state’s habitual offender law. Based on his record of nonviolent offenses, which went back to 1991 and ranged from cocaine possession to burglary, the trial court resentenced Winters to twelve years without any chance of parole. But Haney was still not satisfied. He appealed the ruling, arguing that the court had imposed an “illegally lenient sentence” and that the rightful punishment was life without the possibility of parole.
At a subsequent hearing, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft estimated that Winters had been arrested more than twenty times, calling him a “career criminal who victimized a lot of citizens in our city.” But it seemed clear that he was more of a thorn in the side of law enforcement than a looming threat to society. His brothers, Dennis and James, testified that Winters had been homeless at the time of his offense and that he had a history of addiction; James had overcome his own drug problems and said that he would be willing to “take [Winters] in and work with him.” A former Lafayette police officer who had once worked at a correctional facility where Winters was held, said that although he did not know him well, Winters “didn’t cause problems” and had potential for rehabilitation. But this past summer, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision: “The state asserts that because of the defendant’s particular multiple offender status, the law mandates a minimum sentence of life in prison without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. We agree.”
Dennis Winters was incredulous when he heard the news about his brother. “What? This makes no sense,” he told IND Monthly. “I don’t understand what these people are trying to do. He’s not a violent person. He’s fragile. He wouldn’t hurt anybody, except maybe for himself. I just don’t get how they’re going to give him life for some Gobstopper candy.”
Today, Winters joins hundreds of Louisiana prisoners sent to die in prison after committing similarly nonviolent offenses, from drug possession to property crimes. The national numbers are tallied in a major new study released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, titled “A Living Death: Life without Parole For Nonviolent Offenses,” which documents scores of cases with echoes of Winters’s story. Across the country, defendants have been given life without parole for such crimes as having a crack pipe, “siphoning gasoline from a truck” and, inanother Louisiana case, shoplifting a $159 jacket.
Tales of outsized sentencing for minor crimes may not surprise anyone familiar with the well-documented excesses of three-strikes sentencing in California, for example. But the ACLU’s report is the first to attempt to grasp the national numbers, specifically concerning nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. The report found 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole in 2012 for nonviolent crimes, of which 79 percent were for drug crimes. This is not the complete picture—Bill Winters himself is not among the prisoners covered—and crucially, only includes formal life-without-parole cases. It does not include life sentences where parole is a possibility—if largely only in theory, given the increasing reluctance of parole boards to free prisoners. It also does not include, say, 100-year sentences, or the kinds of stacked, decades-long sentences that are, in effect, permanent life sentences. “The number of people serving death-in-prison sentences after being convicted of nonviolent crimes is not known,” the report concludes, “but it is most certainly higher than the number of prisoners serving formal life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent crimes.”
Indeed, a report released earlier this year by the Sentencing Project found that one in nine prisoners in the US are serving a life sentence and that “those with parole-eligible life sentences are increasingly less likely to be released.” Including life with parole, the report estimated that “approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.”
Determining what qualifies as “nonviolent” is similarly complicated. As the ACLU points out, “Although the term ‘violent crime’ brings to mind very serious offenses such as rape and murder, some jurisdictions define violent crime to include burglary, breaking and entering, manufacture or sale of controlled substances, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, or extortion.” In other words, the number of prisoners serving life without parole who are far from the “worst of the worst” is higher still.
* * *
Regardless of the exact numbers, and perhaps not surprisingly for the state known as theprison capital of the world, it is clear that Louisiana is home to a disproportionate number of these sentences. It also provides a dramatic illustration of the explosion of permanent life sentences over the past four decades: “In Louisiana, just 143 people were serving LWOP sentences in 1970,” the ACLU notes. “That number had increased to 4,637 by 2012.” The report found that Louisiana had the highest number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole out of all the states: 429. Florida was a distant second, with 270. (Thanks to the drug war, federal prisoners accounted for the largest share at 2,074.)
Among the Louisiana prisoners highlighted in the report are Fate Vincent Winslow, who, while homeless, “acted as a go-between in the sale of two small bags of marijuana, worth $10 in total, to an undercover police officer;” Timothy Jackson, who stole a jacket from a department store in New Orleans, Paul Carter, convicted of “possession of a trace amount of heroin residue that was so minute it could not be weighed;” and Sylvester Mead, a Shreveport man who drunkenly threatened a police officer while seated, handcuffed, in the back of a patrol car.
Mead’s case, like Winters’s, shows the way in which prosecutors’ wishes consistently trump judicial power when it comes to sentencing people for such crimes. Not only did his trial judge oppose the initial charge of public intimidation, he made it repeatedly clear he opposed sending Mead to die in prison. Mead’s verbal offense “does not warrant, under any conscionable or constitutional basis, a life sentence,” he said. But Mead’s prosecutor appealed multiple times seeking a harsher sentence because of his old convictions. After his previous sentences were vacated by a higher court multiple times, Judge Leon L. Emanuel was bound by Louisiana’s mandatory sentencing statute to hand down a sentence of life without parole. “No matter how long this Court were to deliberate about this matter, it cannot fashion a legal result to explain that the life sentence without probation or suspension of sentence is unconstitutionally excessive,” he concluded.
Such statements from judges are not unusual, it turns out. “In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision,” the ACLU found. Mandatory sentencing schemes are certainly to blame—in Louisiana, they account for almost all—97.6 percent—of the surveyed nonviolent LWOP sentences. But while mandatory sentencing ties the hands of judges, such punishments do not impose themselves. Prosecutors have the power to seek or not seek them.
* * *
Bill Winters was not the first defendant to find himself in the crosshairs of Lafayette ADA Alan Haney. Indeed, in 2007, Haney created a “career criminal program,” as described by the localDaily Advertiser, to “identify repeat offenders all over Lafayette Parish.”
“We basically had to start this whole project from scratch,” he told the City-Parish Council in September 2010, according to the Advertiser. Thus far, he boasted, some forty-nine people had been sentenced as habitual offenders with the help of the initiative.
In the fall of 2009, the same year Winters was convicted for stealing Gobstoppers, a 29-year-old black man named Travis Bourda was convicted for possessing 130 grams of marijuana “with intent to distribute.” Writing to the ACLU, Bourda insists that no drugs were actually found in his posession and that his court-appointed lawyer “filed no motions, failed to investigate,” and “made no objections at trial.” His initial sentence of eight years was increased to fourteen after Haney filed habitual offender charges based on Bourda’s previous record, which included “carnal knowledge of a juvenile” when he was 19. Responding to Haney’s attempt to seek a sentence of life without parole for Bourda, the trial judge wrote: “I believe a life sentence under the circumstances…would be an unconstitutional sentence. I believe that fourteen years is more than enough considering the underlying charge was possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and that the amount of marijuana involved was not significant.”
But in 2011 the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with Haney, vacating the fourteen-year sentence and imposing life without parole. Today, Bourda is serving his sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, famously known as Angola.
Angola prisoners were not allowed to receive visits or speak on the phone to the ACLU. But in response to the questionnaire sent out by attorney Jennifer Turner, who authored the report and corresponded with more than 600 prisoners, Bourda described himself as “the most miserable person there is.” He wrote that he was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was 13 and that he hears voices that tell him to do things. In a separate, handwritten letter, he wrote to “share my thoughts about the Habitual Offender law,” which he describes as “the most unconstitutional law there is.”
“We paid our debts to society for the past crimes we committed,” Bourda wrote.” “…There is never any forgiveness once you have a record.” In his opinion, he added, “the prosecution is abusing his discretion on a certain race of people which we know to be black individuals.”
Whether or not prosecutorial discretion is to blame, Bourda’s observation about race is certainly supported by the numbers. The ACLU report shows, and Turner wrote to me in an e-mail, that “the racial disparity in life without parole sentencing for nonviolent crimes in Louisiana is staggering.” While the state would not provide figures according to race, the ACLU calculated that black prisoners “comprise 91.4 percent of the nonviolent LWOP prison population in Louisiana,” despite the fact that “Blacks make up only about one-third of the general population in the state.” Black defendants in Louisiana “were 23 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to LWOP for a nonviolent crime.”
There are many factors that could explain this. “The racial disparity can result from disparate treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, points of arrest, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing,” Turner explains. She adds, “In Louisiana, it may also have to do with how prosecutors wield their enormous discretion in deciding whether to charge defendants as habitual offenders.”
I contacted Alan Haney’s office by phone and e-mail to discuss his Habitual Offender Division, but have not received a response. In the meantime, the ACLU report is only the most recent to cast a stark light on Louisiana’s sentencing excesses. While some recent reforms in the state have sought to mitigate some of Louisiana’s harshest sentencing statutes, they still preserve the power of the prosecutor to decide if and when to trigger mandatory sentences. In a report released by the Reason Foundation last month, which closely examines the state’s determinate sentencing laws and makes recommendations for reform, the authors found that a 2012 law signed by Governor Bobby Jindal to allow courts to waive mandatory minimums in some cases put all the power in prosecutors’ hands, giving prosecutors “much more power than they previously had.”
The ACLU also makes recommendations for reform. It calls on the states and federal government to get rid of laws that mandate or allow life without parole for nonviolent crimes, and exhorts state governors, as well as the Obama administration, to commute such disproportionate punishments. “Life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses defy common sense,” it concludes, and “are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish.”
In Bourda’s words, “I never committed a capital offense such as murder….I don’t deserve to be sentenced like a hard-core criminal.”