Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Drug War Has Profoundly Compromised Prosecutorial Integrity

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is probably the single greatest disappointment for me with 45's administration. His anti-drug stance is retrograde cover for reinstituting the prosecutorial savagery which resulted in mass incarceration over the past forty years.  AG support for harsh or mandatory minimum sentences, coupled with the claim that it provides a vital service in making cases as leverage to flip people to inform on their associates, was the essential recipe for transforming America into the incarceration nation.

Even when it's used as prosecutors claim it is intended to convict ringleaders, the threat of harsh or mandatory minimum sentences to intimidate people into betraying their friends and family members is ethically suspect and legally corrupt. Claiming that it's used to dismantle illegal drug networks is at best historically suspect. In terms of practical results, this policy is has wreaked havoc and proven corrosive in terms of breaking down any pre-existing structures of social trust, community, and friendship that might have been built over time.  The explicit message of this policy is that treachery and betrayal is an act worthy of reward. The worst punishment is reserved for those who demonstrate loyalty and integrity. Drug Warriors justify this policy by asserting that Drug Dealers are already lower than murderers or violent rapists, and thus have no integrity to preserve, because they deal Drugs. But that isn’t the worst of it. What’s really ethically indefensible is the difference between the way the policy is described by politicians and prosecutors to the general public, and the way that it’s actually employed. 

Prosecutors routinely tout their use of the tactic as the use of informants to “bust up the ladder”- that is - to flip low-level retailers to snitch on the people above them in the hierarchy.  That's what's always depicted in the movies and on the teevee crime procedurals. Using snitches this way, the prosecutor claims he is working his way toward the “kingpin” at the top of the hierarchy.  The "kingpin" is finally made vulnerable to criminal conviction through informant testimony, or by having a snitch facilitate a transaction with government agents, as if there’s an ultimate "kingpin" whose conviction will lead to final victory in the Drug War. 

This simple plot line may hold a deep psychological appeal to children, buybull buddies, or people addicted to purely fictional crime procedurals - but there's no practical or historical reason to believe it's ever really happened, ever. Too many cases show that  drug selling organizations were dismantled in exactly the opposite manner.  The "kingpin" is the one who gets caught right up front and then receives lenient sentencing for informing on all his subordinates. 

Nicky Barnes is a name which comes to mind for buying leniency for himself and/or close relatives by ratting out everyone beneath him in his organization. Rayful Edmond is another prime example of the top-down snitching effect. 

Examining the stories of prisoners documented by FAMM and the Marshall Project shows cases where the heaviest time landed on the people at the bottom - people who literally had no one available to betray, no “substantial information” to provide to aid prosecutors. So all the time landed on the lowest underlings..  This is fine from the perspective of the harsh prosecutions system, because that System requires someone as a sacrifice to keep the numbers looking good and providing the image of an effective law enforcement campaign. (not to mention the profit motivation for the private for-profit prison-industrial complex itself)
People have been subjected to mandatory minimum sentences simply as a result of having once provided their residence or business as the location for a drug transaction. Mandatory minimums have been handed down for driving buyers and/or sellers to and from a transaction.  One instance of driving a buyer to the home of a seller is formally an overt act in furtherance of an illegal drug sale, and therefore all that’s required to convict someone of one count of “felony drug conspiracy.” 

Strictly speaking, millions of Americans have committed at least one felony in their lives. Anyone who’s gotten far enough into illegal drug use to purchase their own stash of weed and have acquaintances involved in the same activity has done the above at least once. From the prosecutor's perspective, conspiracy is conspiracy, no matter how minor.

Driving a friend over to a dealer’s apartment to buy a $15 bag of weed is taking part in a drug sales conspiracy, and conspiracy is a felony. Of course rendezvous like these take place daily in the underground marketplace. Most of the time the risk of getting arrested is negligible. In the event that someone is swept up in a raid and busted for that participation, felony conspiracy offers a lever for the prosecutor seeking people to snitch for them. This, notwithstanding the fact that someone who simply drives their friend over to a house and waits outside in the car while they do a deal may have no information of value to bargain with.

Meanwhile, those same ball-busting prosecutors reward those who have risen high enough in the hierarchy of a drug conspiracy to have detailed knowledge of its working and who can offer critical testimony against their companions with reduced sentences, comfortable confinement settings, or witness protection.


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