A couple weeks ago, I attended a graduation ceremony for a new drug court program for parents who have been charged with child neglect. The new program meets weekly, so the judge gets to know the participants well, and sanctions or rewards them quickly if they're either messing up or doing great. Of the participants, more than half were former clients from my days in the Public Defender's Office, so I got to see how the people I helped get into drug court were doing.
The results were stunning. A person who was graduating, whom I met for the first time in jail, and who was on the verge of losing his parental rights when he entered drug court, was doing well enough now to graduate and return to his family's home. I was helping another person enter drug court that day and it was great to see a former client, doing well, have all kinds of great advice to a current one. It reminded me of the AA principle of "one alcoholic to another" as I stepped out of the way and allowed a former meth user instruct my current client on the best way to navigate the system to remain both drug and jail free.
It was also nice to see a different approach to dealing with the issues of drug addiction that make up most of my criminal cases. Drug courts, per se, are not the answer as the effectiveness depends on the structure, but, in general, they are a step in the right direction, assuming the bad elements of the old punishment-based system don't creep in and destroy the unique elements that make well-structured drug courts work well.
Along those same lines, yesterday Time.com featured an article by the writers of HBO's The Wire. I noticed it for two reasons: first, I subscribed to HBO just yesterday, partially to be able to see series like The Wire and movies like Taxi to the Dark Side, which will be hard to find anywhere else. Second, I flagged the article for the frank way it discusses the drug war. While fictional series like "24" seem to be having a negative influence on public policy, perhaps another fictional series can affect the drug war debate positively by demonstrating realities that politicians of both parties won't touch. For example, the article states:
Yet this war grinds on, flooding our prisons, devouring resources, turning city neighborhoods into free-fire zones. To what end? State and federal prisons are packed with victims of the drug conflict. A new report by the Pew Center shows that 1 of every 100 adults in the U.S. — and 1 in 15 black men over 18 — is currently incarcerated. That's the world's highest rate of imprisonment.
The drug war has ravaged law enforcement too. In cities where police agencies commit the most resources to arresting their way out of their drug problems, the arrest rates for violent crime — murder, rape, aggravated assault — have declined. In Baltimore, where we set The Wire, drug arrests have skyrocketed over the past three decades, yet in that same span, arrest rates for murder have gone from 80% and 90% to half that. Lost in an unwinnable drug war, a new generation of law officers is no longer capable of investigating crime properly, having learned only to make court pay by grabbing cheap, meaningless drug arrests off the nearest corner.
What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass. Since declaring war on drugs nearly 40 years ago, we've been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.
Our leaders? There aren't any politicians — Democrat or Republican — willing to speak truth on this. Instead, politicians compete to prove themselves more draconian than thou, to embrace America's most profound and enduring policy failure.
The article ends with a proposed solution that I've never argued for but have always wanted to request: jury nullification.
If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.
Jury nullification is American dissent... If some few episodes of a television entertainment have caused others to reflect on the war zones we have created in our cities and the human beings stranded there, we ask that those people might also consider their conscience. And when the lawyers or the judge or your fellow jurors seek explanation, think for a moment on Bubbles or Bodie or Wallace. And remember that the lives being held in the balance aren't fictional.
What do you think?
UPDATE: nebraska law on jury nullification is sparse, but in Nebraska v. Green (1990), 236 Neb. 33 (1991) the Nebr. Supreme Court held that "Although a jury may acquit an accused even if its verdict is contrary to the law and the evidence, the defendant is not entitled to have the jury instructed about the power of jury nullification."