Tag: drug war

The Supreme Court and the California Prison System

This morning the Supreme Court issued a remarkable ruling [pdf] concerning California’s prison system.   Because of years of pervasive overcrowding, there have been systemic violations of the Constitution’s ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishments.  To remedy those violations, the Court affirmed a lower court order to reduce the prison population.  I was not surprised to learn that Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the majority opinion in this case, Brown v. Plata. In a 2003 speech to the American Bar Association (reprinted in my book In the Name of Justice), Kennedy tried to raise more awareness about America’s prison system.  He made the point that every citizen ought to take an interest in the prison system–it is not just the realm of correctional personnel.  Here’s an excerpt from Kennedy’s speech:

The subject [of prisons] is the concern and responsibility of every member of [the legal] profession and of every citizen.  This is your justice system; these are your prisons. … [W]e should know what happens after the prisoner is taken away.  To be sure, the prisoner has violated the social contract; to be sure he must be punished to vindicate the law, to acknowledge the suffering of the victim, and to deter future crimes.  Still, the prisoner is a person; still, he or she is part of the family of humankind.

Were we to enter the hidden world of punishment, we should be startled by what we see. Consider its remarkable scale.  The nationwide inmate population today is about 2.1 million people.  In California … this state alone keeps over 160,000 persons behind bars.  In countries such as England, Italy, France, and Germany, the incarceration rate is about 1 in 1,000 persons.  In the United States it is about 1 in 143.

The numbers are only the beginning of the story.  Do not assume that the government has the facilities to house the prisoners that are sentenced.  California is housing far beyond the design capacity of its prisons–double. That is, it has designed a system for 80,000 but has stuffed 160,000 into the buildings.  The sheer number of inmates has overwhelmed the facilities and staff. Kennedy’s opinion details the abysmal conditions, but I will mention a few:

  • In one prison, 54 men share one toilet
  • medical staff sometimes use closets and storage rooms for ill patients-rooms without adequate ventalition.
  • exam tables are not disinfected after use by prisoners with communicable diseases
  • men held for hours and hours in telephone booth sized cages with no toilet
  • California’s prison system averages one suicide a week (80% higher than the national average)
  • Men with medical problems go untreated and die.  These are not cancer patients.  These are preventable deaths.  For example, a man with stomach pain goes five weeks without medical treatment and dies.

A corrections official from Texas toured California’s facilities and he testified that he has been in the field 35 years and was just appalled.  He’d “seen nothing like it.”

Four conservative justices–Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito–dissented from the ruling.  Scalia said the outcome was “absurd” – “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history.”  Justice Alito said the Constitution “imposes an important–but limited–restraint on state authority in [the prison] field.  The Eighth Amendment prohibits prison officials from depriving inmates of ‘the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.’”  The conservatives concede, as they must, that the California prison system is really bad, but they argue that it is not yet so awful so as to warrant judicial intervention and a population reduction order.  Kennedy and the liberals in the majority (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) make a persuasive case that California’s elected officials have had ample opportunity to address the systemic problems, but have let them fester year after year.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

Gerson Gets It Wrong Again

Michael Gerson’s predictable, reflexive attack on Rep. Ron Paul in his May 10 op-ed in the WaPo for Paul’s sensible stand in favor of ending the futile crusade called the War on Drugs, makes a curious argument.  He asserts that there is a “de facto decriminalization of drugs” in Washington, D.C.  Curious, because there are few places in the nation where the drug war is waged more vigorously.  Doesn’t seem to be working, does it?

Yet Gerson would expand the effort.  Never mind that the social pathologies in the District for which Gerson’s compassionate conservative heart bleeds are mainly a result of making drugs illegal:  Turf wars with innocents caught in the crossfire; children quitting school to sell drugs because of the artificially high prices prohibition creates; disrespect for the law due to a massive criminal subculture.

Gerson, one of the chief architects of the disastrous Bush II administration, should step away from his obsessive disdain for libertarianism and consider the nationwide decriminalization of drugs undertaken in Portugal in 2001.  Drugs use is down, particularly among young people, and drug-related crimes have dropped precipitously.  There is a reason hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to call for the end to the war on drugs there that is tearing apart the fabric of Mexican society.  On top of the social aspects of the drug war dystopia, Cato senior fellow and Harvard economist Jeffery Miron estimates that ending the drug war in the U.S. would save $41.3 billion annually.  As usual, Ron Paul has it right.

Obama’s Trip to Latin America

As Ted Carpenter notes below, President Obama is departing on an important trip to Latin America. The countries that he will visit exemplify the macroeconomic stability and advancement of democratic institutions now found in much of the region.

Brazil, by far the largest Latin American economy, has enjoyed almost a decade of sound growth and poverty reduction. Chile is the most developed country in the region thanks to decades of economic liberalization, a process that has also made it Latin America’s most mature democracy. And El Salvador is undergoing a delicate period in its transition to becoming a full-fledged democracy with its first left-of-center president since the end of the civil war in 1992.

In an era when most Latin American nations are moving in the right direction—albeit at different speeds, with some setbacks, and with notable exceptions—the United States can serve as a catalyst of change by contributing to more economic integration and the consolidation of the rule of law in the region.

Unfortunately, despite President Obama’s assurances that he’s interested in strengthening economic ties with Latin America, his administration is still delaying the ratification of two important free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. President Obama also continues to support a failed war on drugs that significantly exacerbates violence and institutional frailty in the region, particularly in Mexico and Central America.

It’s good that President Obama’s trip will highlight significant progress in Latin America, but his administration’s policy actions still don’t match the U.S. goals of encouraging economic growth and sound institutional development in the region.

Obama’s Latin America Trip

President Obama’s trip to Latin America is likely to focus on economic topics, but two security issues deserve scrutiny during his stops in Brazil and El Salvador. 

Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Brazil has become somewhat frosty, especially over the past year.  U.S. leaders did not appreciate Brazil’s joint effort with Turkey to craft a compromise policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.  The Obama administration regarded that diplomatic initiative as unhelpful freelancing.  And when Brazil joined Turkey in voting against a UN Security Council resolution imposing stronger sanctions on Tehran, the administration’s resentment deepened.  Obama should not only try to soothe tensions, he should shift Washington’s policy, express appreciation for Brazil’s innovative efforts to end the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue, and consider whether the milder approach that the Turkish and Brazilian governments advocate has merit.

In El Salvador, worries about Mexico’s spreading drug-related violence into Central America are likely to come up.  El Salvador and other Central American countries are seeking a bigger slice of Washington’s anti-drug aid in the multi-billion-dollar, multiyear Merida Initiative.  President Obama should not only resist such blandishments, he should use the visit to announce a policy shift away from a strict prohibitionist strategy that has filled the coffers of the Mexican drug cartels and sowed so much violence in Mexico, and now increasingly in Central America as well.  Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol and it’s not working any better with currently illegal drugs.

The Drug War and Black America

Here is a new publication from Cato, “How the War on Drugs Is Destroying Black America,”  (pdf) by John McWhorter, who is a lecturer in linguistics and American Studies at Columbia University and a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and The New Republic.  Here is his conclusion:

If we truly want to get past race in this country, we must be aware that it will never happen until the futile War on Drugs so familiar to us now is a memory. … The time to end the War on Drugs, therefore, is yesterday.

Read the whole thing.  You can also listen to McWhorter’s speech by clicking here.

For additional Cato work related to drug policy, go here.

Patriotism, Dedication, and Esprit de Corps

From a press release by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition:

[A] U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent… was fired for saying in a casual conversation that legalizing and regulating drugs would help stop cartel violence along the southern border with Mexico. After sharing his views with a colleague, the fired agent, Bryan Gonzalez, received a letter of termination stating that his comments are “contrary to the core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication, and espirit [sic] de corps.” Last week, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Gonzalez filed a lawsuit seeking damages.

I know very little about employment law and have no idea whether the agent has a case. But just consider that even some Border Patrol agents are questioning the War on Drugs – and even when it can cost them their jobs.

If it costs you less to speak out, then please, consider doing so. American patriotism is about speaking one’s mind. Dedication to a failed policy isn’t a virtue. And will the firings continue until the esprit de corps improves?

Obamacare and the Drug War

I wrote an op-ed for National Review (Online) last week showing how conservative exploitation of the Supreme Court’s broad misreading of the Commerce Clause to reach intrastate medical marijuana facilitated liberal exploitation of the same to create the individual mandate in Obamacare.

A principled stand on the limits of federal power does not begin and end with health care. The Commerce Clause is a double-edged sword: Conservatives cannot wield it in the drug war without making it a useful tool for advancing progressive visions of federal power.

I’m happy to see Barton Hinkle, winner of the 2008 Bastiat Prize for Journalism, pick up on my writing and drive the point home in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch:

So far, many conservatives outraged over Obamacare do not seem to have reconsidered their enthusiasm for national drug prohibition. Whether they do so could provide a good indication as to whether they’re standing up for a principle — or merely against the president.

Hinkle points to a recent Heritage Foundation paper opposing Prop. 19, California’s referendum on marijuana legalization. The Commerce Clause makes a prominent appearance:

In 2006, the Supreme Court held in Gonzales vs. Raich that the Commerce Clause confers on Congress the authority to ban the use of marijuana, even when a state approves it for “medical purposes” and it is produced in small quantities for personal consumption. Many legal scholars criticize the Court’s extremely broad reading of the Commerce Clause as inconsistent with its original meaning, but the Court’s decision nonetheless stands.

Yes, the decision “nonetheless stands.” That doesn’t make it right. Several prominent conservative drug warriors signed on to an amicus brief in Raich endorsing an expansive use of the Commerce Clause. Copy, paste, and replace the word “marijuana” with “health insurance,” and you just wrote a Department of Justice brief for any of the suits defending Obamacare across the nation.

Or, for a good laugh, go read former Oklahoma congressman Ernest Istook, now working for Heritage, who frames the health care debate as “Obamacare vs. Limited Government.” As he puts it: “Straining to find a constitutional basis for mandating that everyone must buy health insurance, Obama’s lawyers resorted to the all-purpose Interstate Commerce Clause.” Istook signed on to the drug warrior brief in Raich.

There’s no good reason for this inconsistency. State attorneys general from both sides of the aisle opposed the federal intrusion in Raich. Deep red Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana touted their drug warrior prowess but argued against an overly broad Commerce Clause reading on federalism grounds. True blue California, Maryland, and Washington argued that the Controlled Substances Act did not bar states from regulating intrastate markets.

I make many of these points in a Cato Podcast, Conservatives, Obamacare, and the Commerce Clause. For some more Cato work on the drug war, check out how Portugal decriminalized drugs without the social ills that conservatives forecast, and how ending the war on drugs would save billions annually.