Approximately 150 people attended "The War on Drugs: Criminal Justice Perspectives," a forum sponsored by The Lindesmith Center-West on March 8. A distinguished panel moderated by Daniel Abrahamson, Director of Legal Affairs at the Lindesmith Center, offered their views on current policies and the need for a change of course.
Joseph McNamara, former police chief of San Jose and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford), began his talk saying, "I received a call today from a reporter asking for my reaction to a recent pool which found that only 6-9% of people in the Bronx trust the police. My response was, 'The War on Drugs in alive and well in New York City.' "
State and local police made 1.4 million arrests for drug possession last year, McNamara said, and very few involved search warrants. Even honest cops, he said, often feel morally justified circumventing constitutional protections and even perjuring themselves in court to get drug convictions.
Vernon Grigg, who oversees all narcotics cases at the San Francisco district attorney's office, pointed out that, under District Attorney Hallinan, his office diverts many drug offenders into treatment, school or job training, but that these programs serve only a small percentage of the 11,000 drug cases his office sees each year. At present, eighty percent of all cases in San Francisco are drug cases, he said.
Grigg noted that simple felony convictions for narcotics makes people ineligible for public assistance, student loans, drivers' licenses, and employment opportunities. They also make large segments of society, such as young black men, unable to vote, further marginalizing and disempowering them.
Vaughn Walker, a United States District judge in San Francisco, noted that despite a growing realization in this country that the drug laws are not very effective, drug arrests are up during the Clinton administration, driven by the thriving industry the War on Drugs has created.
"There is no question the drug war has a terribly corrosive effect on the administration of justice, and on people's respect for the court system and their willingness to abide by the law," Walker said. The War on Drugs, he said, creates "perverse incentives" for victims, police, and the prison guards' union.
"Drug arrests have driven much of the expansion of the criminal justice system in California in the last 20 years," said Dan Macallair, Associate Director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (San Francisco). In 1978, California housed 18,703 prisoners, 63% of them for violent crimes and 10% for drug offenses. In 1998, the prison population reached 144, 997 inmates. Only 44% committed violent crimes; 27% were serving time for drug offenses.
Macallair mentioned the "Substance Abuse Crime Prevention Act 2000," slated for the November ballot, as a chance for California to turn a corner and bring some sanity to its policies. The legislative analyst of California has determined that the measure would save $200 million yearly by imprisoning 50,000 fewer people, plus save another $500 million in prison construction, amounting to a $1 billion savings in the first five years along. (See www.drugreform.org