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To Offset Disaster Relief, Curb the Drug War (VIDEO)

3:06 pm in Uncategorized by Jesse Lava

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) says federal aid to his home state after the tornado should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. We’ll see how well the ideological integrity holds up if offsets aren’t quickly found, but nevertheless, the question of how to fund disaster relief is increasingly urgent. It arose late last year when Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. And though we cannot know whether man-made climate change was specifically responsible for either of those acts of nature, we do know federal spending to cope with extreme weather events has been rising. Indeed, from 2011 to 2013, the federal government has spent $136 billion on disaster relief.

One area of spending that Americans from Left to Right are willing to cut is incarceration and the War on Drugs. According to a 2012 poll, 82% of Americans believe the country is losing the drug war, and a plurality say we should be spending less money on it. In another survey, voters overwhelmingly contend we should save money by shifting nonviolent offenders from prison to cheaper alternatives involving rehabilitation. Groups such as Right on Crime and Justice Fellowship demonstrate that many conservatives are now rethinking criminal justice policy. And of course, progressive organizations have long been beating that drum.

There is plenty of federal money to be saved. To start, President Obama’s latest budget contains $8.5 billion for prisons and detention. With about half of all federal inmates locked up explicitly for drug offenses (never mind for the collateral consequences of prohibition, including black market violence), that’s a hefty chunk of change being spent by the federal government on drug-related incarceration. Obama’s proposed budget also allocates $25.6 billion to fighting the drug war through law enforcement, interdiction, international operations, and other means. These are substantial federal investments in an approach to criminal justice that most Americans no longer believe in.

Counting state and local appropriations paints an even bleaker picture of our spending priorities. As of 2007 — the last year for which data is available — the United States spends a massive $228 billion annually on cops, courts, and corrections. Much of that money goes toward arresting, prosecuting, and locking up nonviolent offenders. As a result, our country has become the incarceration capital of the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, we have nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. That gives us the highest rate of incarceration and the highest number of prisoners — besting Russia, China, and all the rest.

Money aside, there is something fundamentally unfair about how our criminal laws are applied. Given that this year is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we would do well to reflect on the vast racial inequalities that have only gotten worse when it comes to the justice system. Consider that blacks, whites, and Latinos use and sell drugs at about the same rate. Yet people of color are far more likely to be arrested for drugs; once arrested, they’re more likely to be prosecuted; and once prosecuted, they get longer sentences. In all, two thirds of the people incarcerated for a drug offense are black or Latino even though those two groups make up less than a third of the U.S. population.

This trend of mass incarceration has had sweeping consequences. Millions of formerly incarcerated people have vastly diminished economic prospects. Millions of children have a parent behind bars. And people of color have borne the brunt of the unequal application of our nation’s criminal laws.

So as we figure out where to come up with more money for disaster relief, here’s one question we face: Would we rather spend billions on rebuilding lives and communities destroyed by natural disasters, or billions on a criminal justice system that is itself destroying lives and communities?

It’s not like taking money out of the justice system would be inherently bad for public safety. There are numerous cost-effective alternatives to mass incarceration that would free up money for things like disaster relief. Beyond Bars‘ new video, produced in partnership with the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, explores those options:

Policymakers hoping to find meaningful offsets to fund disaster aid or any other initiative will have look at three things: 1) Where there’s a lot of money, 2) where the spending is unjustifiable, and 3) where the politics and public opinion are conducive to allowing cuts, since there are very few areas in which that’s true. Mass incarceration and the drug war meet all three criteria. They just might be the only areas of spending that do.

Sen. Coburn and other politicians who insist on offsets for increases in spending should look anew at America’s approach to criminal justice. It’s perhaps our best option for making such cuts a reality.

Would a White Girl Be Prosecuted for a Botched Science Experiment?

11:42 am in Uncategorized by Jesse Lava

By now you’ve probably heard about Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old Florida girl who botched a science experiment with a plastic bottle and toilet cleaner. The bottle ended up exploding, and though no one was hurt and no property damaged, Kiera was expelled from high school and is now being prosecuted as an adult for discharging a weapon on school grounds. She had an exemplary behavioral record up until that point.

Kiera is, as one might expect, black. The notion of a white girl getting hauled off to jail for a harmless expression of intellectual curiosity is dubious, to say the least. And though the rise of “zero tolerance” policies in American schools should theoretically be race-neutral, that’s not the reality. According to the Dignity in Schools campaign, “students of color… are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their peers for the same behavior” and “African American students [are] 3.5 times as likely to be expelled” as whites. What happened to Kiera Wilmot is part of a broader story about racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

Yet we don’t have to go macro to get the whiff of racial bias in this case. The prosecutor who decided to throw the book at Kiera is one Tammy Glotfelty, an assistant state attorney in Florida. The officer who arrested Kiera named Glotfelty in his police report:


Sounds absurdly harsh, right? And there has been no reversal of this decision since then. But Glotfelty isn’t always so heartless. Just last week, she decided not to prosecute a teenager named Taylor Richardson who accidentally shot and killed his younger brother with a BB gun. Glotfelty declared the case “a tragic accident.” I don’t doubt that it was. The Richardson kid will probably have nightmares about this incident for the rest of his life. But I do wonder how to make sense of a prosecutor who one week shows understandable compassion for a kid who made a terrible mistake and the next week insists on giving a teenager the harshest possible sanction for something that didn’t harm anyone.

The first Tammy Glotfelty has a normal-sized heart in her chest. The second one has a hole there.

There is one fact, however, that may help us figure out the discrepancy between Glotfelty #1 and Glotfelty #2: The Richardson family is white.

Am I accusing Glotfelty of conscious racial bias? Nope. Self-awareness isn’t the issue here. And maybe she has good reasons for treating these two cases differently. Hey, Taylor was 13 instead of 16; perhaps that makes all the difference in her eyes. But I can’t shake the feeling that these two stories would have unfolded quite differently if the races of the children had been reversed. Somehow the white Kiera Wilmot would have had her story end with an adult touching her shoulder saying “I’m just glad you’re alright.” And the black Taylor Richardson would have heard platitudes about “taking responsibility” while being led away in handcuffs.

The school-to-prison pipeline has become a very real phenomenon in this country, at least in communities of color. Suspending and expelling students for minor misbehavior has become routine despite there being no evidence that these steps improve school safety and strong evidence that they are linked to increased odds of behavior problems later. Moreover, prosecuting children as adults can destroy their chances of becoming productive members of society later in life. If prosecutors like Tammy Glotfelty really want to get serious about public safety, they’ll work to transform our racially disparate justice system and refuse to put harmless black students behind bars.