Private prisons have become a 50 Billion dollar industry and growing. The "War on Drugs" has fueled this growth in part, and many individuals are benefitting from this campaign that costs the taxpayers more money. El Defenzor recently interviewed federal trial attorney Joe Flores and did some research into many of the facts regarding incarceration in America.
Surprisingly the Attorney General admits that we are imprisoning our citizens for far too long, particularly when it involves drug offenses. Drug offenders that are nonviolent are doing longer sentences in many instances than rapists, murderers, child molesters and thieves. Violent offenders often are released much earlier than first time drug offenders because of the so-called "mandatory minimums" that mandate that judges give certain sentences for drug offenses up to natural life. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech April 5, 2013 delivered at the 15th Annual National Action Network Convention stated as follows; “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason. It is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system. Statutes passed by legislatures that mandate sentences, irrespective of the unique facts of an individual case, too often bear no relation to the conduct at issue, breed disrespect for the system, and are ultimately counterproductive. It is time to examine our systems and determine what truly works. We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter — and not simply to warehouse and forget.” found at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2013/ag-speech-130404.html
Many believe that the "War on Drugs" is simply a way for politicians to get elected, has not decreased American's desire for drugs, and with half of the 300 million people in this country presently on drugs or that have tried drugs that are legal or illegal it is unlikely that people will "just say no". Moreover, even if not using cocaine or marijuana or other illicit substances people are still abusing tobacco, alcohol and prescription medication at a significant rate. The pharmaceutical industry pushes "legal drugs" every night on our television for every ailment- yet possessors of marijuana are doing hard time. The rate of incarceration has accelerated exponentially since President Nixon began the War on Drugs 40 years ago. America has 5% of the world's population yet houses 25% of the world's prisoners. America gives sentences that are twice as long as England, three times as long as Canada and five times as long as France for the same offense.
MORE CRIMINALS IN AMERICA?
Are there more criminals in America? "Hardly", says federal attorney Joe Flores. "The War on Drugs in America and the privatization of prisons has created a system that warehouses more people than ever before. 1 in 100 of our citizens is facing charges or imprisoned. From firearms charges, for the purchase of some banned weapon(s) that a person unwittingly bought at a gun show, to living in a home where someone possessed methamphetamine, to being "snitched" on by an informant who may identify the wrong person, there are injustices happening every day, and very long sentences are awaiting many. I have seen more and more federal gun charges against "good law-abiding country boys" right here in South Texas looking at 5 years for having a pre-ban gun even if they didn't know they could purchase it. Even if you are first-time offender, non-violent, and have zero criminal history, mandatory minimum sentencing can tie the judge's hands unless the defendant can give the prosecutor information worthy of leading to other arrests or provide other benefit to the government on drug offenses, no matter if there was no violence committed. The collateral effects of legislators passing these laws equals to the destruction of childrens' lives, wrecking families, and hurting the taxpayer and all for the sake of putting a way a non-violent felon for 10 years or more at cost of over $250,000. When some child's mom or dad goes to prison for a first offense for years this has a devastating and multi-general traumatic effect on the whole family and the risk of that child going to prison rises exponentially."
THE WAR ON DRUGS: IS BIG BROTHER WATCHING YOU? COULD YOU BE IN A LINEUP AND NOT KNOW IT?
To El Defenzor's shock, as a matter of public record, it is standard operating procedure for DEA agents and Homeland security to create computerized lineups through the use of pictures of law-abiding citizens without their knowledge through the use of their driver’s license. Your picture could be in a lineup and you would not even know it. This is done often simply because of a similarity in appearance to someone else in a lineup who is a suspected criminal.
Face recognition software and multiple cameras and recording of license plates are also used at checkpoints. "We have put billions into the War on Drugs while only the very poor or the very rich can afford drug treatment because the funding just isn't there. If we used a campaign similar to our attack on big tobacco we would have much better results. We have seen a way to combat drugs in decriminalizing possession, decreased sentences, and focusing on treatment as an alternative that works in Portugal- where rates of drug abuse have dropped significantly. Former DEA and other law enforcement officials in organizations like LEAP have also indicated that the War on Drugs as we are combating it is unwinnable" stated Flores.
BUILDING MORE WALLS AROUND THE BORDER IS NOT HELPING THE DRUG PROBLEM
In Mexico, there have been over 50,000 deaths due to the drug wars. We do not recognize the Mexican problem as a civil war, which it is to some extent, because we would then have to give amnesty to those living in fear and seeking asylum. Who's fault is the drug war? Their is equal blame to pass around: The United States comprises 40% of the world's demand for cocaine even though we are only 5% of the world's population. We also have more prisoners in our cells than both China and Russia. There are no easy solutions but funding more arrests in order for state law enforcement to get money is not the remedy. States do not get the amount of funding for arrests on rape, murder and assault as they do for drug arrests. In fact, law enforcement is encouraged in the system to make more arrests on drugs so that those statistics justify more War on Drug money. Politicians then get generous campaign contributions for having a "Tough on Crime" and "War on Drugs"s stance from proponents of prisons and other special interest groups. Seizing properties has helped local law enforcement budgets but at the sacrifice of focusing in on statistics of drug busts so that the federal government can give even more money to state and local law enforcement agencies. It is the proverbial carrot and stick: A vicious cycle begins when the ratcheting up of federal and state sentences for drug offenses escalates due to politicians running on tough on crime platforms to get elected. Law enforcement agencies naturally don't object because they are receiving desperately needed funding. Private prisons are fast approaching and rivaling state prisons in warehousing prisoners. Recently, one corporate chain of private prisons wrote the governor of all 50 states inviting them to consider allowing them to run all the prisons in America. What would happen to the incentive for early discharge of non-violent offenders if there was a corporate incentive to house as many people as long as you can? It is already happening in many places in America. Small towns across America have a Wal-Mart and a prison for work. Private prisons create incentives to provide jail time: We have seen one at least one instant of this : A judge in Pennsylvania incarcerated children for school infractions and small amounts of marijuana, fighting, or talking back at school. He then received bribes from the private prison for sentencing these children. It is a disgusting and shameful practice in a country that claims to be the land of the free and we lead the world with the most citizenry in prison.
"Corporations are now controlling many prisons" says Attorney Joe Flores, "the parties who benefit are the enforcement agencies, private prisons, and corporations. Who foots the bill and loses? The taxpayer. We declared war on drugs and many special interest groups simply don't want it to end. Even though you can't win this unconventional war against your own families and children and communities, special interests and politicians are fighting it anyway with your taxpayer money and housing more prisoners than ever. Non-violent drug offenders are predominately minorities and the young that are going to jail. It is a major problem. Until minorities speak up against this problem that disparately impacts them we will have a huge multi-generational problem."
Flores indicated that at the present calculation it takes 28,000 U.S. dollars PER YEAR to house, feed and provide basic medical care for a drug offender or a nonviolent felony offender in federal prison- not to mention those prisoners that are elderly or infirm which cost exponentially more for the Bureau of Prisons to treat.
COOPERATE OR FACE A MANDATORY SENTENCE? Often those arrested at the bottom of the "food-chain" or "drug-chain" as it were, have very little detailed information to give, which frustrates DEA and other agencies. When the defendant does not have enough information he then is not eligible for any time off the harsh and long sentence he faces. Even if he cooperates, if it is deemed he is not telling the whole truth or he did not cooperate enough, the prosecution may not recommend time off the mandatory sentence or the judge can deny the time off the sentence at any time.
HARSH REALITIES OF THE FEDERAL SYSTEM:
When asked about the opportunity of leniency on sentencing for non-violent, first-time offenders caught with significant amounts of drugs; attorney Joe Flores informed El Defenzor, "The discretion of whether the accused is telling the truth can be very subjective and the U.S. Attorneys who prosecute the offenders hold all the cards. Federal prosecutors in particular will make sure they have a strong case before they proceed to trial and have many cooperating witnesses prepared to testify. Cooperators get better deals and time off their sentence above and beyond any other departures from the mandatory sentence they are facing. The system also has a high conviction rate because of what is termed as conspiracy, where two or more people agree to do an illegal activity. The suspects don't even have to be in the same city or same state to do this. Conspiracy can be you living in the same house, having conversed with people coming to buy drugs, that perhaps a family member or boyfriend was selling, and anything more than just a person's mere presence can get that person convicted alongside his housemate. Often women and children bear witness to 'no knock warrants' that lead to arrest. Suspects are threatened that their family member will be jailed even though they had nothing to do with it accept reside in the same home. One client I remember vividly was allegedly threatened by agents by having his mother thrown to the floor at gunpoint and one agent looking over his shoulder at the suspect's bedridden grandmother and then the agent told the suspect that the agent would arrest both the mother and grandmother as well if the suspect did not confess. Whatever happened to justice and mercy in America? Tough laws, coupled with very competent, smart and tough prosecutors, law enforcement and judges, make it very hard for someone to be successful at trial. Still there are some occasional acquittals, but very few. If more funding was put in place for drug treatment instead of raiding predominately black and Latino homes the rates of drug abuse could drop sharply as they did in Portugal. We waste more taxpayer money on a trial of a non-violent suspect professing his innocence, that cost tens of thousands of dollars. We would be better off getting that drug offender treatment or providing that truck driver caught with a load of marijuana lured by a one time mistake and easy cash to probation instead of 10 year sentences or more. No longer can we as a society say ‘good’ when we hear of being tough on non-violent drug crimes and concentrate all money on jails and merciless sentences instead of treatment".
DISPARITY BASED ON BEING BLACK OR BROWN?
For a convicted felon in the state or federal system it has also become a vicious cycle. Over 90 percent of drug convictions are of Blacks and Latinos even though rates of selling drugs and possessing drugs by whites is the same. More Blacks and Latinos are convicted and serve longer sentences than their white counterparts according to the latest statistics. A person is four times more likely to be caught, convicted and sentenced if he is Black or Latino for the same offense as a white defendant.
WHAT DOES A LONG SENTENCE AND PERMANENT FELONY RECORD MEAN:
Attorney Flores told El Defenzor, "The federal system does not have the parole system set up like in the state system and there is no diversion programs to avoid final felony conviction in the vast majority of cases short of dismissal of the case. Therefore, for most, federal prison awaits them. What does a young man or woman learn in prison? They learn that being tough, and demonstrating you are willing to commit acts of violence is commended. It is a jungle in prisons where the strong survive and out of that jungle you learn that you must get along and that often means joining a gang. You get out and replicate that behavior in many cases and enter the same environment. When you get out after years, you have very little job prospects, budget cuts lead to no support, and even if you want to straighten up, the only way to survive is often get into the same "game" you were in before: dealing drugs. You can't even live with your own family who are often in public housing because the laws forbid it if caught and the family will also will be thrown out. If you are convicted of drug possession you invariably can't get a student loan even if you could go back to college. The stigma and social ostracism of a felony has a life sentence of its own for an 18 year old man caught with methamphetamine and for his entire life he will be forever branded. People make choices but there is very little mercy or second chances built into this system and American justice should bring back that virtue of justice that separates us as a beacon of hope for a first time drug offender in America."
ARE WE BURNING MONEY ON THE WAR ON DRUGS?
El Defenzor will be focusing in on its next part of this series on former police officers who themselves say that other measures need to be added to fix the problems associated with the War on Drugs.
Homero Villarreal is a Journalist and Publisher of El Defenzor and a Blogger on political and social issues. His longstanding publications have received critical attention and have unconvered corruption, flaws in the system and he has been a radio and television personality on both consersative and liberal radio and television shows.
Joe Flores is a veteran trial attorney in state and federal practice in Texas. He is a national speaker on areas where the law and medicine overlap and has been a professor and lecturer on medical and legal ethics for over 15 years. He is also a primary care provider in his role as a healthcare professional/NP and delivers care to the elderly and infirm. He is executive producer and host of the long-running television program South Texas Crossfire on Time Warner television in South Texas and is a lecturer on areas where the law and medicine overlap. www.floreslawfirm.com