Prison and Criminal Justice

No More Exclusion Zones (sound of applause)

Mayor Potter did the right thing when he let Portland’s exclusion zones lapse on September 30. I didn’t blog about it right then, but I did jet off a quick letter to the editor that got printed (I just got the Google alert). Since the Oregonian archive will soon conceal my letter from view (unless you access the Oregonian archive using Multnomah County’s online access), here is what I said:

I applaud Mayor Tom Potter’s decision to end the drug-free “exclusion zones” that have been targeting black people based on race (Sept. 27, Sept. 29 articles).

I have lived in the Boise neighborhood since 1992, before it was an exclusion zone. My neighborhood association had many concerns about the exclusion zones when they were renewed last year.

Among our concerns were that the laws would be applied unevenly based on race (now undeniable), that the practice merely pushes people addicted to drugs around the neighborhood (clear to anyone who lives here), and concerns that arresting people is the least effective (and most expensive) way to deal with drug addiction.

My neighborhood will continue to have to live with the problems of drug addiction until we have more resources to support treatment and recovery from addiction right here where it’s needed.

I hope that the city decides to fund recovery outreach and addiction treatment aggressively, in neighborhoods that need it, such as Boise.

KATHLEEN PEQUENO Northeast Portland

One thing I left out of my letter: I find that the Oregonian coverage has often glossed over the opposition to the “drug-free” exclusion zones that has come from neighborhoods. They generally cite “civil rights advocates” as the ones concerned about civil rights, when plenty of us who live in the zones have concerns about a law that lets the cops stop you and ticket you in a process in which you are “guilty until proven innocent.” The Boise neighborhood sent a thorough letter to the city council explaining our concerns about the “drug-free” exclusion zones back in late 2005/early 2006 when we had a series of meetings about the renewal.

But even without getting into the patent unfairness of the exclusion zones, here’s the bottom line: if people are causing problems because they’re addicted to drugs, we can either treat the problem they have, or we can shove them around from place to place, spin them through the jail’s revolving door, and see if then they get all better. Which one is more likely to work? Which one are you willing to spend money on?

News Prison and Criminal Justice

Another wasteful war: the War on Drugs

FAMM has sent some encouraging news recently: that the Senate will be holding a hearing on crack cocaine sentencing issues later this month, and that there are several bills that could possibly address our wasteful policy of locking people up for being addicted to drugs (well, certain drugs). FAMM’s latest newsletter included a story of a FAMM member who died this August after 13 years in federal prison — Alma Mae Groves was 72 when she was arrested for drug possession and being part of a “drug conspiracy” in her rural North Carolina community. She spent the rest of her life in the criminal justice system.
One really has to wonder what’s the usefulness of sentencing a 72-year-old woman to prison for the rest of her life for a nonviolent crime. It reminds me of my interview with Barry Holman for Justice Matters in 2005, where he talked about the folly of locking people up in what he called “nursing homes behind razor wire.” It’s heinous to lock up elders for nonviolent crimes, and especially cruel when it’s for nonviolent crimes related to poverty. Barry specifically talked about how when he looked at the federal prison population more closely:

The survey that we did at NCIA (National Center on Institutions and Alternatives) in 1997 showed that there had been a tremendous increase in the number of older prisoners – a seven-fold increase over the course of a generation. And a majority of all these prisoners over 55 – just over half– were in for non-violent convictions. In the Federal system, though, 97% of prisoners over 55 were serving time for non-violent convictions.

Which, yes, means in many cases crimes related to drugs. Thanks to the war on drugs, we’re spending money locking up people of all ages that we would never spend to support them and their families. It’s yet another war that costs way too much and can never be won.