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Is Obama Delivering On His Promise Of A ‘21st-Century’ Approach To Drugs?

fair sentencing act

President Barack Obama talks with members of Congress after signing the Fair Sentencing Act in the Oval Office, Aug. 3, 2010. Participants include, from left, Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-L), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

 

by Christie Thompson, ProPublica

When the Obama administration released its 2013 Drug Control Strategy recently, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske called it a “21st-century” approach to drug policy. “It should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue,” he said.

The latest plan builds on Obama’s initial strategy outlined in 2010. Obama said then the U.S. needed “a new direction in drug policy,” and that “a well-crafted strategy is only as successful as its implementation.” Many reform advocates were hopeful the appointment of former Seattle Police Chief Kerlikowske as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy signaled a shift in the long-lasting “war on drugs.”

But a government report released a day after the latest proposal questioned the office’s impact so far.

“As of March 2013, GAO’s analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results are available, one shows progress and four show no progress,” the report by the Government Accountability Office found. For instance, the GAO noted that there’s actually been an increase in HIV transmissions among drug users and drug-related deaths, as well as no difference in the prevalence of drug use among teens.

Many public health experts say the administration deserves credit for increasing access to drug treatment. But others say despite an increase in funding for rehab, the administration has continued to push programs and policies built to punish drug users.

As the administration lays out its latest plan on a new approach to drugs, here’s a look at what’s in it, and what they’ve done so far.

“Break the cycle of drug use, crime, delinquency and incarceration”

“While smart law enforcement efforts will always play a vital role in protecting communities from drug-related crime and violence,” the latest strategy says, “we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”

FBI records indeed show a drop in drug arrests, from 1.8 million in 2007 to 1.5 million in 2011.

But overall, the government spends roughly the same proportion of the drug policy budget on law enforcement now as was spent during Bush’s final years in office. In Obama’s 2014 budget proposal, 38 percent is allocated for domestic drug law enforcement, while another 20 percent would be spent to crack down on drugs along U.S. borders and abroad.

The Obama administration has also renewed funding for controversial programs like the Justice Assistance Grant program, formerly known as Byrne Grants, which had been cut under President Bush. The funding created local drug task forces, which critics say were quota-driven and increased corruption and misconduct. Budget-minded conservatives like the Heritage Foundation also argued the grants hadn’t led to a decrease in crime. States like California and New York have used some funding from the program for treatment instead of enforcement.

The administration has made progress when it comes to overcrowding in prisons: One Department of Justice program gives states money to support research toward policymaking that reduces recidivism. Several state legislatures have independently lessened mandatory minimums, reformed parole policies, and passed other laws aimed at cutting the high cost of incarceration.

Obama also signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which ended a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for crack possession at the federal level, and lessened the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of inmates in state prisons dropped roughly two percent from 2010 to 2011. Seventy percent of that is from a decrease in California’s prison population, after the Supreme Court upheld an order for the state to reduce overcrowding.

But as a recent Congressional Research report highlights, the number of inmates in federal prisons continues to rise, increasing over three percent from 2010 to 2011. Over half the current federal prison population is drug offenders.

“Support alternatives to incarceration”

In his latest budget, the president is requesting $85 million to go toward drug courts, which some have pushed as an alternative to criminal trials. Since 1999, the number of drug courts has grown from just under 500 to 2,734 today. Drug courts allow for nonviolent offenders to avoid being charged, or to have their convictions expunged and sentences waived after completion of a rehab program and passing regular drug tests. Proponents of the system say it allows nonviolent drug offenders to serve their time in treatment, instead of in prison.

A 2011 GAO report found statistics suggest drug courts reduce recidivism, but there’s not enough data to fully assess their effectiveness.

Some critics argue drug courts still fall short, by taking a criminal justice approach to a public health problem.

“Increase addiction treatment services”

Obama has indeed repeatedly increased funding for addiction treatment. He proposed $9 billion in his latest budget, up 18 percent from 2012.

Despite that, only 1 in 10 of the 21.6 million Americans in need of drug or alcohol addiction treatment received it in 2011. The number of people receiving treatment has stayed roughly the same since 2002.

The treatment gap should narrow as Obamacare goes into effect: Roughly five million more Americans currently facing drug addictions will soon have insurance coverage for treatment. “That’s the biggest expansion of treatment in 40 years, and maybe in the history of the U.S., ” said public health professor Keith Humphreys, who has served as a policy advisor to the ONDCP.

But a recent Associated Press analysis said current clinics will be overwhelmed by the new demand for treatment. State-level budget cuts have hit organizations hard, and treatment centers in over two-thirds of states are at or close to 100 percent capacity.

ONDCP spokesperson Rafael Lematire said the administration’s latest plan calls for an increase in the number of health care workers to treat newly insured patients.

“Review laws and regulations that impede recovery from addiction”

The latest drug strategy highlights the need to reduce “collateral consequences” (barriers to public benefits, employment and other opportunities) for those convicted of drug crimes. But Obama has little leverage on those issues, which are mostly decided on the state and local levels. For example, while HUD has encouraged public housing authorities to not disqualify former drug offenders from receiving public housing or Section 8 vouchers, it’s up to each city housing authority to determine their own rules.

“While we encourage housing authorities to give ex-offenders a second chance, the decision to admit or deny to public housing remains with the housing authorities,” said HUD spokeswoman Donna White.

Obama’s administration has not announced any plans to address the 1996 federal ban on food stamps or cash assistance for those convicted of drug felonies. Most states have opted out of or amended the law.

“Reduce drug-induced deaths”

The GAO noted that drug-induced deaths and emergency room visits increased from 2009 to 2010. Much of that is likely due to pharmaceutical abuse, which contributes to more accidental overdose deaths than illegal drugs or alcohol.

In 2011, the government released a plan to crack down on the abuse of prescription drugs. There’s little current data on overdose deaths, but recent studies have indeed noted a drop in prescription drug abuse.

Advocates have praised Obama‘s decision to endorse increasing access to emergency drug Naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses. Some lawmakers have criticized that position, saying it essentially encourages drug abuse.

In 2009, Obama also attempted to end the federal ban on funding for clean needle exchange programs, but Congress reversed the decision.

“Curtail illicit drug consumption in America”

The GAO report notes that the prevalence of drug use among teens and young adults has stayed the same since 2009. “With the exception of marijuana use, illicit drug use is trending down, specially prescription drug abuse and use of cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, and methamphetamine,” said ONDCP spokesperson Lemaitre. Research cited in the GAO report suggests the increase in marijuana use is tied to a decreased perception of risk.

The president remains staunchly opposed to legalization, but it’s unclear how hard the administration plans to come down on states loosening marijuana laws. Obama has overseen far more medical marijuana raids than under the Bush administration. For states that have legalized pot, Attorney General Eric Holder said he intends to “enforce federal law,” though Obama said he had “bigger fish to fry.” The Department of Justice said it is still reviewing the latest laws.

Billions Proposed For New Border Security: Where Would The Money Go?

by Christie Thompson, ProPublica

Federal spending on border security is at an all-time high — and it would get even higher under the Gang of Eight’s new plan. The Senate immigration proposal, released last week, would allocate $4.5 billion in the next five years to tighten control of U.S. borders.

The U.S. spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement agencies last fiscal year, more than all other law enforcement agencies combined.

Where would another $4.5 billion go? Here’s a closer look at what is being proposed, and how the government has spent (and often wasted) border money in recent years.

More border agents

The proposal calls for an additional 3,500 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. In FY 2012, the department employed 21,790 officers, up 10 percent from 2008. The bill would also add an unspecified number of border patrol agents, whose ranks have skyrocketed from just over 4,000 in 1993 to more than 21,000 today.

A 2011 investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Los Angeles Times showed how hurried hiring by the border agency affected screening standards and led to an increase in corruption. From 2006 to 2011, the number of investigations of customs employees charged with fraud more than tripled. Since 2004, 147 agency employees have been charged with or convicted of corruption-related offenses.

More drones

The bill requires buying as many “unmanned aerial systems” (also known as drones) as needed to have 24/7 surveillance of the southwest border. The U.S. has already purchased 10 border drones, which cost $18 million a iece and roughly $3,000 an hour to operate.

Many question whether the current border drones are worth the investment. According to a report from the Customs and Border Protection agency, drones led to 143 arrests and the recovery of 66,000 pounds of drugs in 2012. As news outlet Fronteras calculated, “that’s less than 3 percent of all drugs seized by border agents last year, and less than 0.04 percent of the 365,000 would-be illegal border crossers caught by agents.”

In May 2012, a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General found the U.S. didn’t have enough manpower or money to effectively operate the drones they already have. The department overshot its maintenance and operational budget by over $25 million. Drones had only flown for 30 percent of the time they were supposed to be in the air.

More fencing

Another $1.5 billion would be allocated to expand the 651 miles of fencing along the southwest border. “I think what we would do if the bill passes,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a Senate hearing, “is go back and look at the type of fencing we have and say, ‘Do we want to make it triple what it is or taller?’—or something of that sort.”

More phones and radios

Remote areas along the southwest border can have spotty cell coverage, posing a risk to border guards in an emergency. A two-year grant would provide more funding for satellite phones and radios for border staff to contact 911, local police and federal agencies.

The bill doesn’t say anything about training guards to use the new devices. In November, we reported how DHS had spent $430 million on radios that only one surveyed employee knew how to use.

More money for local cops

Some of the new DHS funds would go toward Operation Stonegarden, a $46.6 million FEMA program benefiting local law enforcement in border states. “The funds that we are getting from Stonegarden are a godsend,” a county sheriff told the Arizona Daily Star in 2009. “I think we are able to provide a lot more security, a lot more visibility.”

But critics say there’s little oversight of how the money has been spent. The Star’s review of Arizona police records showed grant money was funnelled toward expensive technology and overtime pay for cops doing unrelated tasks, like crowd control at city parades.

More accountability?

As Congress considers adding billions more to the border budget, lawmakers are left with a key question: Is it working? Some critics on the left say the added funding may be unnecessary, as studies suggest net migration from Mexico is now below zero. Many on the right say there still aren’t enough hard metrics to judge whether Homeland Security is doing a better job of keeping undocumented immigrants out.

DHS has pointed to the drop in the number of apprehensions as a sign U.S. borders are stronger now than ever before. But critics say it’s a flawed way of judging whether the billions spent on border security are worth it. That number could mean fewer undocumented immigrants are attempting to cross the border, or that fewer are being arrested. The struggling U.S. economy also plays a big role in the overall drop in unauthorized immigration.

Under the new proposal, high-risk sections of the southern border must reach a “90 percent effectiveness rate” within five years. That would be the “number of apprehensions and turnbacks” divided by “the total number of illegal entries.”

If border states don’t reach the 90 percent target, a group of border state governors (or their appointees) and federally-appointed security experts would step in to draft a new plan to boost effectiveness — on which the DHS can spend up to $2 billion more. The new bill would also create a presidentially appointed DHS Task Force to regularly review border enforcement policies.

Increased surveillance should help border agents get a better count of the total number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border, said Doris Meissner of nonpartisan think tank The Migration Policy Institute. According to Meissner, this is the first time immigration legislation has included a specific metric to gauge whether money spent on border protection is resulting in fewer unauthorized crossings.

“The overall expectation that so much money has been invested, the government has to do better in really laying out how it assesses its effectiveness,” she said.

Photo: “xomiele” via Flickr.com

Six Claims On Detainee Torture, Skewered

by Christie Thompson, ProPublica

Among the news that ended up being buried in the events of last week: A nonpartisan think tank, the Constitution Project, released a scathing, 577-page report on the U.S.’s treatment — and torture — of detainees in the aftermath of 9/11. The investigation began in 2009, after President Obama opposed creating a “truth commission.”

With a Senate investigation of detainee treatment still classified, the report from the bipartisan task force is the most comprehensive public review to date. The 11-member panel interviewed more than 100 former military officials, detainees and policymakers.

Among their findings: There is no compelling security reason to keep classified details about the CIA’s now-shuttered black prisons. The task force hopes its report will spur more government transparency on the treatment of detainees, starting with the release of the Senate investigation.

Here’s a rundown of previous claims skewered by the report:

Claim No. 1: The U.S. didn’t use torture.

“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the report concludes. The task force says that despite overwhelming evidence of torture, both government officials and many in the media have continued to present the issue as a two-sided debate.

The task force measured confirmed reports on detainee treatment against several international and domestic legal definitions of torture. The U.S.’s tactics unequivocally amount to torture, they found, under definitions the U.S. itself has used to accuse other countries of the same crime.

Former UN ambassador John Bolton rejected the task force’s findings, telling the Associated Press that the report is “completely divorced from reality.” Bolton said a team of lawyers scrutinized the policies to ensure interrogation never crossed the line.

Claim No. 2: When torture happened, it was because of a few low-level “bad apples.”

The report details how the decisions to use “enhanced interrogation” techniques were not rogue entry-level soldiers, but rather came from decisions made at the top of the administration. As a former Marine general told the task force, “Any degree of ‘flexibility’ about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone– the rare exception fast becoming the rule.”

Claim No. 3: Only three terror suspects were waterboarded by the CIA.

The task force’s findings support and elaborate on a Human Rights Watch report, which detailed how the CIA tortured at least two Libyans with water and abused several others to “win favor with el-Gaddafi’s regime,” the task force found.

The testimonies of the two Libyans undermine the Bush administration’s repeated claims that the CIA only waterboarded three people.

Claim No. 4: Torture definitely worked.

Former vice president Dick Cheney and others have claimed that abusive treatment saved “thousands of American lives.” But the report found no evidence that torture itself was actually useful. As Obama’s former National Director of Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair wrote, as quoted in the report, “There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.”

The movie Zero Dark Thirty, which gets a shoutout in the report, has fueled the debate about whether torture ultimately helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden. Officials have pointed to the tips provided by one detainee, Hassan Ghul, who was beaten and deprived of sleep while held in a secret CIA prison.

But the report is skeptical of the connection. As the report notes, Senator Dianne Feinstein and other officials said key information Ghul provided was “acquired before the CIA used their enhanced interrogation techniques against the detainee.”

Claim No. 5: A third of released Gitmo detainees have returned to terrorism.

Many lawmakers have used the supposedly high rate of detainee recidivism to justify keeping detainees at Gitmo. The government has claimed that nearly a third of released detainees returned to terrorism. But the report noted that Gitmo prisoners shouldn’t be counted as “returning to the battlefield” if they were never there in the first place. A former Guantánamo commander told the panel that up to half of detainees “were mistakes.”

Government stats also include both confirmed and suspected reports of “re-engagement.”  Nor, the report notes, does the government have “firm guidelines” on what counts as a return to terrorism.

Claim No. 6: It’s all behind us.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” Obama said in 2009. But the report details how the ongoing lack of transparency and oversight leaves the door open for abuse. The CIA’s prisons have been closed, but the report notes that the current Army Field Manual on Interrogation contains amendments made in 2006 allow for sleep deprivation, separation and stress positions to be used in interrogation.

The bipartisan task force also concluded that current treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo, such as force-feeding hunger-striking inmates and keeping them in indefinite detention, could qualify as torture under international law. The committee couldn’t come to a consensus on whether the prison at Guantánamo should be closed.

Photo: U.S. Army via Flickr.com

Obama Says We Need to Fix Voting Lines. But How?

by Christie Thompson, ProPublica.

At Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Michelle Obama was joined by 102-year-old Desiline Victor, who, like many in Florida and elsewhere, waited hours to vote on Election Day.

“By the way,” Obama said in his election speech. “We have to fix that.”

But how to fix it remains unclear.

Though new research on states’ performance in the November election reveals long lines kept thousands from voting, there’s still much we don’t know about what would best speed up the process.

Victor’s home state of Florida had the longest average wait time of any state, at 45 minutes. Victor waited for three hours. Other Floridians reported standing in line for up to seven hours.

Not every voter had Victor’s stamina: Professor Theodore Allen at Ohio State University estimated that long lines in Florida deterred at least 201,000 people, using a formula based on voter turnout data and poll closing time. The number only includes people discouraged by the wait at their specific polling site, and not those who stayed home due to “the general inconvenience of Election Day.” The real number, Allen says, is likely much higher. One study also showed that black and Hispanic voters nationwide waited longer on average than white voters.

Some legislators are already proposing changes. Last week, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner released a set of recommended election reforms that included allowing counties to expand early voting to 14 days. The proposal would reverse Governor Rick Scott’s decision to reduce early voting in the last election.

Another reason behind Florida’s long lines was the state’s incredibly long ballot, which listed the full text of 11 wordy constitutional amendments. Detzner has proposed limiting constitutional amendments to 75 words, which could also save counties money. The 2012 election in Florida’s St. Lucie County was roughly twice as expensive as 2008, a hike the county election supervisor blamed on printing, mailing and processing longer ballots.

Researchers say simply expanding voting hours and shortening ballots isn’t enough. The U.S. needs to overhaul how it decides to allocate resources on Election Day. Many counties determine how many voting machines and poll workers to have in a district based solely on the number of expected voters. Others don’t even do that, says Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

But the amount of time it can take to fill out a ballot can vary enormously by county or locale, because both ballots and machines can be different.

Yet the actual time it takes to cast a ballot is almost never considered. “How long the job takes should be taken into account when you provision the resources to do that job,” Allen says. “If you just do it on head count alone, you’re kind of being dumb.”

Allen calls that “dumb” approach “naive allocation.” According to his team’s research, counties could cut hours off of waiting time by shifting more machines to places with longer ballots. “By simply acting smarter, we could cut the waiting time to 1/4 of what it would have been,” Allen says.

Changes in voting technology can also result in voters spending more behind the curtain. After 2000’s “hanging chad” disaster, many states turned to electronic voting machines. The touchscreen machines are easier for many to use, and encourage voters to weigh in on every item up for vote. But they can also take twice as long to vote on, Allen says. And strapped city budgets are reluctant to shell out thousands of dollars per machine to make up for longer voting times.

Overall, average line waits have held fairly steady for the past 10 years, says Professor Charles Stewart III of MIT. The problem is not necessarily getting worse, but it’s not getting any better, either.

“Studies show it’s the same places that keep having the same problems,” says Norden of the Brennan Center, referencing Stewart’s findings. “We tend to forget quickly after the election the problems that we had.”

And as Norden points out, “a lot of private companies have figured these things out in other contexts. There’s a reason…McDonalds never seems to have nine-hour lines.”

The most important thing, Stewart says, is conducting more research on what keeps lines long year after year. “This is a persistent problem and it’s one that we need to address,” he says, “but it’s not one [where] there is a magic bullet.”

Photo by Vox Efx via Flickr.com