Thursday, June 06, 2013

How Republicans Use Pot Law Enforcement To Disenfranchise African-Americans


Edith Jones, a controversial Reagan appointee and a notorious corporate whore, is no longer the Chief Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit but she still sits on that court. Hopefully that will change now that she's exposed herself as a demented and deranged racist. She gave a speech for the proto-fascist Federalist Society at the University of Pennsylvania Law School a few months ago asserting that blacks and Hispanics were more prone than others to commit violent crimes and that a death sentence was a service to defendants because it allowed them to make peace with God. The League of United Latin American Citizens, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program and other civil rights organizations and legal ethicists filed a misconduct complaint against her Tuesday.

It's because of judges like Jones that I don't support the implementation of the death penalty. In theory I completely support the death penalty... but not with judges like her-- and there are hundreds of them-- sitting on the bench handing out sentences based on their own hate-filled bigotry.

I used to be a big pothead. It's when I was in college and I smoked from the moment I woke up 'til I went to sleep. On December 1, 1969 I had an out-of-body experience sitting in my van at the India-Pakistan border and gave up drugs on the spot. I never used them again. When I think back to my drug period, the memories are overwhelmingly positive-- although I wish I had been more moderate in my use of other substances besides the pot. Today I feel marijuana should be legal, although I couldn't call it a defining political issue for me. In fact, I'm more concerned about how the prohibition laws are applied than I am about any other aspect of marijuana legalization. There are plenty of judges like Edith Jones that makes pot prohibition untenable in a civilized society.

Most Republicans outside the South won't admit it publicly but in places like Texas, they have no such qualms:
At a Dallas event featuring Steve Munisteri, the Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, Ken Emanuelson, a leader in the Tea Party, said: "I'm going to be real honest with you-- the Republican Party doesn't want black people to vote..." 
There are many tactics in the ever-evolving Republican Party arsenal for keeping African-Americans and other minorities from voting in a post Jim Crow era. One of the least understood and most effective way of taking blacks off the voting rolls, especially in the South, has been to prevent felons from voting and then arresting every black man in site on marijuana charges. Although whites and blacks use pot at the same rates, one Alabama County where blacks make up 12% of the population, reports that every marijuana arrest-- 100%-- was of a black man... not one white person. The ACLU report Tuesday was an astounding account of systemic judicial racism.
The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. What’s more, it is carried out with staggering racial bias. Despite being a priority for police departments nationwide, the War on Marijuana has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our communities.

...According to the ACLU’s original analysis, marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.
Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority couldn't agree more with the ACLU report and points out that blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession no matter where or no matter if the counties examined are urban, suburban or rural.
And, while criminal justice observers have long known that drug arrests are conducted on a racially disproportionate basis, the report finds that the disparity has widened even further over the past decade. ACLU's analysis reveals that while annual marijuana arrests have risen over 10 years, the arrest rate for whites remained constant, meaning that the overall national increase in arrests is largely attributable to a whole lot more black people getting busted.
Bill Berkowitz did an interesting report a few weeks ago about how felon disenfranchisement is the new Jim Crow.
[R]ecently we have heard a great deal about new legislative efforts in a number of states to suppress the vote, including, making it harder to register, cutting down on the period for early voting, implementing photo ID laws, and ending Election Day simultaneous registration and voting.

However, when we think of voter suppression, we don't often think about felon disenfranchisement. According to a 2010 report by The Sentencing Project titled Expanding The Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform 1997-2010, while things have been slowly changing for the better in a number of states, "more than 5 million citizens ... [were] ineligible to vote in the midterm elections in November [2010], including nearly 4 million who reside in the 35 states that still prohibit some combination of persons on probation, parole, and/or people who have completed their sentence from voting."

In addition, "Racial disparities in the criminal justice system also translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement in communities of color, resulting in one of every eight adult black males being ineligible to vote."

Florida is one of the states with an extraordinarily egregious record regarding felon disenfranchisement. A mid-April report by the South Florida Times' Bill Kaczon pointed out that Florida Governor Rick Scott has "made it more difficult for Floridians with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored-a situation critics say has suppressed the minority vote and hurt Democratic candidates."

According to Kaczor, "As one of his first actions after taking office in 2011, Scott, as chairman of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, undid automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders that previous Gov. Charlie Crist helped adopt in 2007. Since then, the number of former felons who have had their voting rights restored has slowed to a trickle, even compared with the year before Crist and the clemency board helped make the process easier."

Susan Greenbaum, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at The University of South Florida, recently prepared a briefing paper for Florida Rep. Dan Raulerson (R) on felon disenfranchisement in the state. The paper, titled "Permanent felon disenfranchisement in Florida," appeared in the April 2013 issue of the "LWV (League of Women Voters) Voter."

Greenbaum pointed out that "A bad law that originated for the wrong reasons, not only has negative effects on ex-felons, but their families, communities, and the state budget" also suffers.

Greenbaum wrote:

In a democratic society, "Measures that reduce the size of the electorate are regressive ... and an inability to vote renders ex-felons into what has been called 'civil death.' This outcast status has been described as an 'invisible punishment' that offers no obvious deterrent example, but hinders the capacity of released inmates to achieve successful re-entry [into society]. There is no evidence of harm to elections if ex-felons are permitted to vote, and [there is] considerable evidence ... that this ban increases reoffending, rather than discouraging it."

Further, "There is consensus that these laws (which are unusual internationally) are an historical artifact of Jim Crow restrictions and reflect persistently large racial disparities in arrest and sentencing. Florida, which imprisons a very disproportionate number of African Americans (and Latinos), shares this history, [and] is distinctively harsh with regard to felon voters.

Greenbaum found:

"Florida is one of only four states that permanently disenfranchise individuals who have been convicted of felonies. (Most states permit immediate or eventual re-enfranchisement.) As incarceration rates have soared, both in Florida and elsewhere, the number of people affected by this restriction has grown very large (about 6 million in the U.S.). Florida accounts for 1.5 million, 1.3 million of whom have completed their sentences (NAACP 2012). Although Florida comprises only 6% of the U.S. population, 25% of disenfranchised felons and ex-felons reside in the state."

"Criminologists have compiled ample evidence that voting bans do nothing to deter future criminals and promotes recidivism. A recent study by the Florida Parole Commission of ex-felons restored since 2007 found rates of re-offending that are 50% lower than other released convicts."

"Felon disenfranchisement has direct links to post Civil War 'Black Codes' in Florida and many other Southern states as laws were enacted to prevent African Americans from voting. Other measures followed; poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, etc. The Voting Rights Act outlawed most of these practices, but voting restrictions for felons have survived numerous court challenges. Felon disenfranchisement currently affects nearly one quarter of Florida's black voting age population-- the highest rate in the nation."

"The scope of crimes falling under the definition of 'felony' is extremely broad, including many non-violent offenses. Minor drug possession accounts for a very large share. The expanding use of plea agreements that avoid long sentences in exchange for shorter ones has been shown too often to convict the innocent. Low-income defendants who may be innocent but have no effective legal assistance are convinced to plead to lesser degree offenses rather than risk almost certain conviction on more serious charges. This practice helps ease court dockets and reduce the costs of jury trials, but is ballooning the prison population and bringing increased numbers of low income minority citizens unjustly into felon status; essentially 'second-class citizenship.' Among the other life-long costs of this awful dilemma is having to forgo the right to vote."

"The right to vote can be restored only by individual considerations of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, an excruciatingly slow and unpredictable process. In early 2007, then Gov. Charlie Crist, eased rules to provide automatic restoration for lesser felonies, with review for more serious cases. Although still a very small fraction, in three years more than 150,000 ex-felons had their rights restored. Almost immediately upon entering office, Gov. Rick Scott repealed Crist's changes and added new restrictions, resulting in fewer than 300 individuals' rights restored during his tenure. Applicants must wait at least 5 years before commencing a process that, if successful, will take another 7 years or longer. In effect, they currently have no path to restoration."

Although several states have initiated legislation that would ease requirements allowing released felons the franchise. "No such legislation has been filed in Florida," the South Florida Times' Bill Kaczon reported. "House Democratic Leader Perry Thurman of Plantation said that nothing short of electing a new governor will change Florida's policy unless [Gov.] Scott has a `'change of heart.'"
The right-wing Heritage Foundation, a wing of the Republican Party, pushes this policy relentlessly and over 5 million people across the country have lost their voting rights for it-- though non are Wall Street banksters who tanked the economy. Other states, primarily under control of reactionary Republicans, like North Carolina, are eager to emulate Florida's success in keeping African-Americans from voting. Right now the states that are most egregiously using systematical felon-disenfranchisement to keep blacks from voting, besides Florida, are Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia (which is trying to abolish the practice) and Wyoming.

One of the Blue America congressional candidates, Pennsylvania state Senator Daylin Leach, has been the leader against marijuana prohibition in his state and will be a leader against unfair pot laws in Congress (You can help him get there here.) This morning he told me that "the targeting of the black community for disproportionate enforcement of marijuana prohibition is yet another tactic in the right-wing's war on minority voting. An arrest often leads to incarceration, which sucks one into the vortex of crime, the prison-industrial complex and the loss of the franchise. What's one life destroyed if it means one fewer Democratic-leaning voter?"

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