Prison-Go-Round

This week, a new report shows one in every 37 adults is or has been imprisoned; Florida’s recent prison population upsurges due to dramatic drug treatment budget cuts; Seattle Hempfest receives praise for its diversity, success; John Ashcroft is chastised for keeping lists of judges using their own discretion; and Texas governor Rick Perry pardons the Tulia drug war victims.

August 18 -- The Associated Press reports: About one in every 37 U.S. adults was either imprisoned at the end of 2001 or had been incarcerated at one time, the government reported Sunday.

The 5.6 million people with "prison experience" represented about 2.7 percent of the adult population of 210 million as of Dec. 31, 2001, the report found. The study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics looks at people who served a sentence for a crime in state or federal prison, not those temporarily held in jail.

The number of people sent to prison for the first time tripled from 1974 to 2001 as sentences got tougher, especially for drug offenses.

August 18 -- The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reports: Florida's sudden upsurge in inmates imprisoned on drug -- related charges comes after two years of state budget cuts that have dramatically reduced treatment dollars for drug offenders behind bars.

Experts say that may have contributed to the need for state lawmakers to dip into reserve funds last week and approve $66 million in emergency funding to build about 4,000 new prison beds.

With Florida's serious-crime rate at its lowest point in 30 years, this summer's sharp increase in prison admissions caught state leaders by surprise.

"I think it's probably going to wind up being a combination of several things," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who has steered tougher sentencing laws through a willing Republican Legislature since taking office in 1999.

"It's a significant investment," Bush said of the additional prison funding. "But if we need to build prisons in order to make sure public safety is first and foremost, we'll do that."

August 20 -- The Seattle Weekly reports: The 12th annual Seattle Hempfest came and went this past weekend at Myrtle Edwards Park, with approximately 200,000 people attending the marijuana-policy-reform-rally-cum-smoke-out.

There was a polyglot of ethnicities in attendance--African Americans, whites, Asian Americans, Latinos, etc., hanging out with one another in ways they rarely do in the Northwest, and suburban youth, with their Abercrombie & Fitch-inspired bodies, swarmed the event.

It also was the best example we've seen anywhere of activist-police cooperation. Seattle cops largely stayed out, permitting Hempfest organizers to police the event themselves. There were no arrests, not even a hint of a fight.

Seattle media gave the festival obligatory coverage and treated it as an annual oddity instead of the diverse and strongly supported gathering that Hempfest has become. Might be time for some reporters and editors in town to inhale.

August 22 -- The Salt-Lake Tribune editorializes: If John Ashcroft is going to act like judge, jury and executioner, then it might be time for William Rehnquist and Anthony Kennedy to act a little more like politicians.

Attorney General Ashcroft, who has milked post-9-11 security fears for all they are worth, is on the lookout for federal judges who are squishy when it comes to handing down the sentences the Justice Department wants. He has instructed U.S. attorneys across the country to keep a watch list of judges who depart from federal sentencing guidelines.

That directive, combined with the attorney general's previous actions to take away from local prosecutors their traditional authority to decide when to plea bargain and when to seek the death penalty, is a disturbing centralization of power by a supposedly conservative, small-government administration.

Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, said at the recent American Bar Association convention, "A people confident in its laws and institutions should not be afraid of mercy."

But the United States, Kennedy notes, has the world's highest percentage of citizens behind bars, has forgotten about the redemptive power of the executive pardon and has a system that puts the need to punish ahead of any real search for justice.

Kennedy and Rehnquist are believers in judicial restraint. They have to be pushed a long way before they will speak out in public as they have. Ashcroft has pushed them that far. They are right to push back.

August 23 -- The Oklahoman reports: Gov. Rick Perry on Friday pardoned 35 people who were arrested in the 1999 Tulia drug busts and convicted based on the testimony of a lone undercover agent later charged with perjury. "I believe my decision to grant pardons in these cases is both appropriate and just," Perry said in a statement.

The governor said he was influenced by questions about the testimony of Tom Coleman, the only undercover agent involved in the busts. In June, Perry signed a bill allowing the release of the 12 Tulia defendants who were still in prison.

Send tips to Kevin Nelson drugwarbriefs@yahoo.com.

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