Proposed Sentencing Reforms Would Keep Drug War Policies Intact

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: In a response to mounting pressure to fix a prison system in a country with 5 percent of the world’s population that locks up a quarter of the world’s prisoners, on Thursday a bipartisan group of senators unveiled what they are calling the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act targets mandatory minimums, including retroactively for drug offenses. It increases support for anti-recidivism programs, and limits juvenile solitary confinement. Increasing the likelihood of passage, Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, a Republican, is backing the measure.

Grassley spoke at a press conference with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): For the first time, we are cutting back many of the most severe mandatory minimums so that they apply more fairly. We’re also expanding the current safety valve and even creating a second safety valve so that offenders who have minor criminal histories and play minor roles in drug organizations are not swept up.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): We believe that there are people who are incarcerated today for lengthy sentences at great expense who frankly should not be in those prisons. We think resources spent on those incarcerations are better spent in good law enforcement in our communities and good work by prosecutors, and good work in our criminal justice system to avoid the incidence of crime.

NOOR: But the measure has drawn criticism for not doing away with mandatory minimums altogether, and for expanding them in some cases. Now joining us to discuss this from Washington is Matthew Fogg. He’s a retired chief deputy U.S. federal marshal. Also, the second national vice president-elect of Blacks In Government. Thanks so much for joining us.

MATTHEW FOGG: Good to be with you.

NOOR: So you’re a 32-year veteran of this federal prison system. Right now we have something like 100,000 people in federal prison alone for drug-related offenses. What’s your response to this reform?

FOGG: Well, I think the reform is a major step in the right direction, but it’s clearly not enough. I mean, definitely speaking on behalf of an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and certainly even other organizations I’ve been affiliated with, Blacks in Government, and so forth. I mean, the war on drugs has been a total failure. I mean, when you look at the numbers that even Grassley was, Sen. Grassley was talking about, when you look at how the numbers of folks have been put in prison that should never have gone to prison–and I was on that war on drugs. I was also assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration. I was a group supervisor and DEA, so I did dual tasks. U.S. Marshal and DEA. And I brought up the issue oftentimes of how the disparities in the war on drugs were simply going after one race of people, basically. I mean, it was going after people of color, and I saw it. I raised the issue oftentimes and was always told, look, we go to the weakest link. We go to the areas where we can get our numbers up.

NOOR: That’s exactly right. Because drug use between white and black communities is about the same, but the prosecution is only in the black communities.

FOGG: That’s exactly right for the most part. I mean, the bottom line was that, I remember when I was out there operating and we were trying to set up our drug and gun and addiction task force. And I had a white manager even tell me–he said, Fogg, if we go into the white areas and start kicking in their doors, doing all the same things that we do in the black areas, those folks are going to complain to their judges, to lawyers, to politicians, and they’re going to shut our operation down. So we just go to the low-hanging fruit. We go to the weakest link. Which pretty much, turned out, was tantamount to ethnic cleansing. So to me the war on drugs was, not only was it bad policy, but it was a human rights violation. It was a civil rights and human rights violation.

NOOR: So let’s talk about the groups that may oppose these bipartisan measures, mainly those who depend on the drug war for employment. So for example we have Steve Cook, he’s the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. He was recently quoted by U.S. News and World Report. He said, the federal criminal justice system is not broken. What a huge mistake it would be, he said, to change sentencing laws. He actually went on to advocate building more prisons to deal with prison overcrowding. What’s your response to, to people like this who also are part of the criminal justice system? And you know, we’ve interviewed members of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition before, a group you’re also a part of. And they say these type of unions are the biggest advocates for maintaining the war on drugs.

FOGG: Well again, you know, it’s hypocrisy at its highest. These same individuals like him that’s saying, that I guarantee you he probably has relatives, friends, people that are using drugs, that are smoking marijuana, probably in college and everything else. And we went up and started locking up, again, the folks that he knew and the people that are in the influence that he has in that world, I guarantee he’d have a different opinion if we were doing the same thing.

The hypocrisy of it is that he knows that. He knows that it has–all you have to do is look at the numbers and see who’s been targeted. And then you look at all the surveys that show that drugs are used by everyone similarly, it doesn’t matter what race. But yet you look at this racial disparity. It’d be just like him saying slavery worked because we need the cotton picked. We just got to have somebody to do it. And this is the problem we have, when we’ve got officials like that making statements when the numbers don’t back up what they’re saying.

NOOR: I also wanted to play another clip from the press conference. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker addressed some of the issues around racial disparities of the criminal justice system.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): We have a severe problem in our country. We are notable amongst humanity for being the most incarcerating nation on earth. It’s a distinction no one should be proud of. We should not have 5 percent of the globe’s population and about 25 percent of our prison population. The system is so broken that it is holding back our economy in ways people don’t understand. If we hadn’t had this explosion in incarceration during the years, from the time I was in grade school to the senate, we would actually have according to one study about a 20 percent lower poverty rate in our country. We are a nation now that has a criminal justice system that different people experience differently. The criminal justice system I knew growing up in a relatively affluent community in northern New Jersey, walking around the campus of Stanford University, is dramatically different than the justice system experienced by folks that live with me in Newark, New Jersey.

NOOR: So that’s a little bit of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. And so this, this measure that we’ve discussed, it is a compromise measure because they had to get Republican support and the support of Democrats. But what kind of reforms do you think would actually address this problem?

FOGG: I think one of the reforms would be to, to just legalize and regulate the same way they did alcohol and cigarettes. But you know, the bottom line is if you’re not going to legalize and regulate one of the major things that you would have to do is say that the arrests will line up with the, with the racial, the population that we are serving. If the arrests don’t line up with that then we’re not going to do it. We’re not going into just particularly low income or black areas. We’re going on Yale University’s campus and lock up those students. And we’re going to go all over the country where they believe the drugs are, and we know where the drugs are.

And somebody says well, you know, it’s–when you’re into the [open air] drug markets it’s easier. No. If we can go out–we’re federal agents. We know, we got informants. We know where these drugs are coming from everywhere. I don’t care if it’s high influence, major economic locations or whether it’s low-hanging fruit. The bottom line is we can go after it equally, and we need to make it an equal-opportunity enforcement operation. That’s what it has to be. The other part would be simply, like I said, just simply do away with regulation. Do like Colorado and I think the state of Washington, and start to figure out ways to, instead of going after these folks, figure out treatments.

It should always be treatment over incarceration, because this is a habit. This is a medical issue. This is not an issue that law enforcement should be involved in.

NOOR: Matthew Fogg, you know, that means a lot coming from you. You’re a 32-year veteran of this same system. So we want to thank you for joining us.

FOGG: Thank you. Appreciate it.

NOOR: And for our viewers, thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

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