Law

One Small Step for Pot

Flickr/Dank Depot
Yesterday, the Department of Justice finally announced how it was going to deal with the fact that voters in Colorado and Washington passed initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and the result is surprisingly reasonable. In case you haven't been following this issue, those who'd like to see more enlightened policies on marijuana, which is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug supposedly as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, have been terribly disappointed in the Obama administration. Could this be a real meaningful change? Despite early suggestions that they wouldn't waste time and resources going after marijuana and a 2009 Justice Department memo instructing U.S. Attorneys to make it a low priority, the war on pot has continued unabated in the Obama years. As Ryan Grim and Ryan Reilly described it earlier this year, "Since the memo, the Department of Justice has cracked down hard on medical marijuana, raiding hundreds of dispensaries, while the IRS and other federal...

Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli
AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli I n the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise —or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller . Not long ago, the lack of a right-wing furor would have been unthinkable. So would Holder’s initiative; criminal-justice reform has long been politically toxic for Democrats as well as Republicans. But in 2013, even with an administration whose policy proposals almost always prompt pushback...

Ed Davis's Minority Report

AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye
AP Photo/Matt Rourke W hen two homemade bombs derailed the Boston Marathon on April 15, longtime Mayor Thomas Menino was laid up in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from his latest setback in a string of recent ailments. The mayor of two decades immediately checked out of critical care to attend police and media briefings; but in a wheelchair with his medical bracelet still snug around his wrist, Menino couldn't deliver the sort of reassuring rhetoric that Rudy Giuliani did for New Yorkers after September 11, when he stood with rage and pride atop a mountain of World Trade Center wreckage. With Hizzoner on the sidelines, Americans sought answers from a number of surrogate authority figures, none of whom calmed the public quite like Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Ed Davis. Tall and awkward but confident, with an endearing New England brogue, Davis reached through the news cameras, wrapped his meaty arms around America, and promised a swift response. In the time...

The Ex-Con Factor

AP Photo/Toby Talbot M ercedies Harris was 27 in 1990, when he was arrested for drug possession and distribution in Fairfax, Virginia. Harris had served in the Marines, but the death of his brother in 1986—killed by a hit-and-run driver—sent him down a familiar path. “I was angry and I couldn’t find the guy who did it,” Harris says. “I got into drugs to find a way to medicate myself.” Upon his release in 2003, Harris, who had earned his GED in prison, found a job and began to rebuild his life. He faced the usual practical challenges: “I couldn’t get on a lease, I had no insurance, I had no medical coverage, my driver’s license was expired.” But he found one obstacle that was especially difficult to overcome: He couldn’t vote. Virginia is one of four states—along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—that strip voting rights from felons for life. The U.S. is the world’s only democracy that permits permanent disenfranchisement. While most states have some restrictions on felons voting, it...

Get to Know Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act

AP Images/Evan Vucci
AP Images/ Evan Vucci E arlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the most potent provision of the Voting Rights Act : Section 5, which had required nine states and a number of individual counties with long histories of voter discrimination to clear any new election law changes with the feds. In the weeks since the decision, voting rights advocates have been searching for new strategies to protect voting rights. And now, in recent days, a previously ignored portion of the Voting Rights Act has become a key tool in the fight. Advocates—as well as Attorney General Eric Holder—are hoping Section 3 will prove to be a powerful tool in the face of an onslaught of voting restrictions from Republican legislatures—and can at least partially replace the much stronger voter protections the Supreme Court took away. Since that Supreme Court decision, the states that had been covered by Section 5 have run roughshod over voting rights. Texas has set about implementing a voter ID law—...

The NSA Can't Be Trusted

flickr/Sparky
flickr/Alex Ellison O n August 9, President Obama gave a news conference at which he defended his administration's record on surveillance while proposing some modest reforms. Predictably, it got mixed reviews from observers concerned about civil liberties. Less than a week later, The Washington Post published an important story about the National Security Agency (NSA) that makes it clear more reforms are necessary—and undermine Obama's defense of his record. The key finding of the story, by Scott Wilson and Zachary Goldfarb: An internal audit found 2,776 "incidents" in which NSA surveillance breached rules between April 2011 and March 2012. Even worse, the rates of illegal "incidents" have been increasing. As the Post 's Timothy Lee says , "We now know that President Obama’s assurances that the NSA wasn’t ‘actually abusing’ its surveillance programs are untrue." The only question is whether Obama deliberately misled the public, or whether he was unaware of these violations. Neither...

Six Charts that Explain Why Our Prison System Is So Insane

flickr/wwarby
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population. And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details. In 1992, there were 1.3 million inmates in America's prisons and jails; by two decades later, a million more had been added (the data in this article are taken from the Bureau of Justice...

When Everyone Wanted to Be "Tough on Crime"

The cover of Time, February 7, 1994.
*/ Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent's opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, "Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?" As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime...

Bloomberg's Stop-And-Frisk Program Is Unconstitutional

AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari
AP Photo/Seth Wenig I n a major victory for civil rights and civil liberties, a United States District Court Judge has held that the New York City Police Department's (NYPD) stop-and-frisk policies are unconstitutional. Judge Shira Scheindlin's opinion justifying the ruling is a tour de force. Carefully assessing both systematic evidence and the cases of individual litigants, Judge Scheindlin leaves no serious doubt that the NYPD's policies are inconsistent with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Under current Fourth Amendment law, not all warrantless searches of people in public violate the Constitution. In the landmark 1968 case Terry v. Ohio , Chief Justice Earl Warren affirmed that "stop-and-frisk" searches are indeed "searches" covered by the Fourth Amendment. As he noted in one passage in his ruling—part of which was used as an epigram by Judge Scheindlin—"it is simply fantastic to urge that such a procedure performed in public by a policeman while the...

Just How Bad Will the Florida Voter Purge Be?

Flickr/lakelandlocal and whiteafrican
Flickr/Erik Hersman I t’s no surprise that Florida’s decision to once again try to scrub the voter rolls of noncitizens has prompted an outcry from voting-rights advocates and local elections administrators. While no names have yet been removed, letters went out to elections supervisors last week about the new effort. Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner has begun creating a new list of suspect voters. Famous for its poorly run elections, the state is picking up where it left off last year, when Detzner announced that he had a list of more than 180,000 voters who shouldn’t have been on the rolls. The list—90 percent of whose voters were nonwhite—turned out (surprise!) to be based on faulty and outdated information. The previous push also happened fewer than 90 days before Florida’s statewide primaries, leaving little time to alert the voters whose registration was being questioned and allow them to bring documentation to show they were eligible to vote. Elections supervisors in...

Against Douthat on Abortion Restrictions, Round Two

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Ross Douthat has a thoughtful response to two critiques—one from me at the Prospect and another from Katha Pollitt at The Nation —of his recent column on European abortion policy. It would help to clarify some of the empirical issues that are central to our disagreement. I'll leave it to Pollitt to address the dispute about the content of Texas's new abortion restrictions and focus on the points Douthat claims that we didn't respond to. I'll handle them individually: This variation, in turn, gives us more data on the original question that my column asked: What happens to a modern society when abortion is restricted? And I don’t think that either Pollitt or Lemieux offered much of a rebuttal to my suggestion that Europe’s variations and their apparent consequences pose a problem for two commonplace pro-choice assumptions: That restrictions on abortion don’t actually reduce abortion rates (which appears to be true in neither the U.S. nor in Europe )... To be clear, I have never...

SCOTUS's Meaningless Death Penalty Rules

The Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of the mentally ill. So why did we kill John Errol Ferguson?

AP Images/Amber Hunt
Monday evening, the state of Florida executed John Errol Ferguson. This was not an act of injustice because Ferguson was innocent—he brutally killed eight people. It was an act of injustice because Ferguson was mentally ill. The Eighth Amendment forbids his execution. In 2008, the Supreme Court held that a person cannot be executed if he or she is insane at the time of his or her execution. To the extent that the term has meaning, it's hard to imagine that it doesn't apply to Ferguson, who experts have testified has a "genuine belief" that he is the "prince of God" and has the power to control the sun. Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones details Ferguson's history of mental illness: Ferguson's story, and long-documented record of mental illness, starts back in 1965, when records show Ferguson was suffering from hallucinations. In 1971, he was committed to a state mental hospital after being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. For the next several years, court-appointed doctors...

Sex Workers vs. Spitzer

The former "Love Guv" is back in the public eye and calling himself a feminist, but the anti-prostitution measures he signed into law make life more dangerous for women in the sex trade. 

AP Images/Seth Wenig
AP Images/Seth Wenig Y es," Eliot Spitzer told host Chris Hayes on MSNBC , he is a feminist. Hayes had just played him a clip in which Sonia Ossorio, the National Organization for Women's (NOW) New York City chapter president, denounced him for paying for sex. "Do we want an elected official," Ossorio asked, who has "participated in sustaining an industry that we all know has a long history of exploiting women and girls?" Spitzer countered that, as governor, he passed a tough anti-sex-trafficking law (never mind that he broke part of it). It was a conflict you rarely see in public: two people competing for feminist cred over sex work—Spitzer the prosecutor (and repentant customer), Ossorio the spokeswoman (that sex workers never asked for). As is often the case, their sex trade bona fides don't extend to actually having done sex work, but in using sex workers to make a political point. What they missed was that they were shouting from the same side of the stage: Both NOW's Ossorio and...

Will the Department of Justice Find Zimmerman Guilty?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
AP Photo/Alex Menendez S ince the end of the George Zimmerman trial, many of those dismayed by the not guilty verdict have pushed for the Department of Justice to press federal civil-rights charges against Trayvon Martin’s killer. Given the strong possibility that race played a role both in Zimmerman's decision to follow the unarmed teenager and in the jury’s verdict, it seems plausible that federal intervention might be warranted. Indeed, soon after the verdict was read in mid-July, Attorney General Eric Holder launched an inquiry into whether civil-rights charges should be filed against Zimmerman. But unless the investigation uncovers evidence that was not publicly available at the time of the trial, it is almost certain that the federal government will decline to prosecute Zimmerman. The first barrier to bringing civil-rights charges against Zimmerman is that he is not a state actor. Since Reconstruction, the Supreme Court has generally interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as...

Big Pharma's Private War on Drugs

Pharmacy robberies have spiked in large part thanks to illegal demand for OxyContin. A look inside the drugmaker's efforts to protect its product and the pharmacists at the front lines.

AP Images/Graeme Roy
AP Images/Graeme Roy O n a Wednesday afternoon this spring, with overcast skies and gas-slicked puddles on Utopia Parkway, some two hundred pharmacists gathered on the fourth floor of St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, for the Fifty-Fourth Annual Dr. Andrew J. Bartilucci Pharmacy Congress. The plainclothes professionals sat around tables draped with red tablecloths, sipping plastic cups of coffee and occasionally glancing at their phones. At approximately two o’clock that afternoon, John P. Gilbride, Caucasian male, five foot six, medium build, clean-shaven, wearing a dark suit and glasses, entered a rear door of the room carrying a leather satchel. He stood with his head down before walking to the lectern and opening a PowerPoint presentation. Four massive bulls-eyes were splayed out on the conference room walls. “Pharmacy robberies and burglaries are taking place across the country at an alarming rate,” he said. “Do you talk about it? Do you prepare for it? We all had fire...

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