Home » Side event: The ineffectiveness of disproportionate sentencing: Towards sensible and people-centred policies

Side event: The ineffectiveness of disproportionate sentencing: Towards sensible and people-centred policies

Organised by the Instituto RIA AC with the support of Colombia, Elementa DDHH, DeJusticia, Acción Técnica Social, the Drug Policy Alliance, the International Drug Policy Consortium and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership

Luiz Felipe Cruz, Lyn Ulbricht,Tehshia Naidoo, Neil Woods, Camilo Eduardo Umana

Tuesday 14th March


Luiz Felipe (DeJusticia):  There has been the implementation of an alternative to incarceration with the law that came into force in April of 2020 in Mexico. 244 people have been granted amnesty and 93 of them were woman. I would like to call all the states taking decisions for this issue to reform their polices, and end the use imprisonment as a form of punishment, but raise the worth of PWUD. This would also involve the adoption of alternative measures according to the persons’s socioeconomic situation, while respecting the rights and good work performed by the woman who go to prison for drug offenses – at least in Colombia. We really need a deeper conversation on this question of the use of criminal justice policy, not only for trafficking offenses, but the criminalization of small growers, which is limited in the scope of the substitution plan for growing alternative crops.

Zara Snaap (RIA): Thank you very much for bringing up several very important points about what are the reforms that can happen to begin to move towards what effective decriminalization will play for alternatives to an incarceration model. We’re now going to see watch a short video that we have from Lynn over who is the mother of Ross Ulbricht he was the founder of the Silk Road. He is currently serving two life sentense.  This is a person who created a platform, an online platform, which was being used to distribute drugs. He didn’t have any personal involvement in the distribution of these drugs.  Since his arrest and the closure of SilkRoad, there have been lots of other Silk Roads and or other online platforms have emerged as alternatice online markets. This is another consequence and we see this all the time of the flexibility and device diversity of the legal market and the capacity to move more than others and states and governments. So Ross was really used as an example to deter others from replicating his model. And he’s being used as an example of criminalization as a means to deter others from doing something similarly so we’re gonna hear from his mother shortly. He’s feeling the impacts of this and I think that you’ll see, when you incarcerate a person, you are not only incarcerating that person you are also sending to their family and their communities, to deal with the impact, whether that’s because of their mother, their grandmother their father, their son, etc. So this is where we’re seeing impact of prohibition on full communities.

Lyn Ulbricht (Free Ross US): Hello, my son is serving a double life, plus 40 year sentence without parole for all nonviolent convictions. This is a death in prison. Since the day I heard the judge pronounced that brutal sentence and my son, who I love with all my heart, was the most terrible day in my life. He was just 31 years old and had no criminal history. His adult life was just beginning and he was  locked away as irredeemable. Eventually, my shock and grief lead to a heart condition, which put me in the hospital where I almost died. Having your loved one condemned to die in prison has a huge impact in so many ways, and ripples out into the family. It’s like  they are indeed being buried alive.  This all began when Ross was 26 years old, an idealistic young man full of ideas. He created the e-commerce website SilkRoad, it was similar to eBay only ran through an anonymous browser and only accepted Bitcoin.  It adhered to the non aggression principle and forbade anything that uses force or violence. It was meant to be a voluntary and honest marketplace for willing adults could find what they wanted as long as it didn’t hurt a third party –  because some things are strictly prohibited. For example, no child pornography was allowed, or violent services, weapons or anything of that sort, or use of force was not permitted. However, drugs, both hard and soft were permitted – it was mostly small amounts of marijuana that were being sold.When Ross was arrested, the site was taken down Although he was not charged with selling drugs himself as a first time offender was all nonviolent crimes. He was given that sentence of two lifetimes, plus 40 years. That’s about two centuries.  After Ross’s arrest my life changed, and I was propelled into another world. It was alien, and anything I had known before. I knew nothing about prison life or the criminal justice system.  I’ve seen those children claimed their father’s pride away wailing, leaving the visiting room tears shattered. Since Ross’s incarcertation, i’ve heard stories of children are statistically destined to also end up in prison, continuing this horrible cycle.  Ross turns 39 this month and currently serving his 10th year in prison.  He is a very different person than the reckless, idealistic young man who created that website years ago. He is matured, taking responsibility for what he did, and understands that his actions can have very severe consequences on himself and others. He knows he would never break the law again. Instead he wants to make a positive difference in the world and benefit others and is doing his best to do that even from prison. However, there is no longer have a chance to make amends or prove your change, no matter how draconian your sense or how societal attitudes have evolved. No matter how much you grow, improving yourself. If you’re in a federal prison, you are permanently condemned short of clemency from the President of the United States. And Ross is not unique. One out of every seven prisoners is serving life in the United States. This is more than ever in the history of this country. Since the 1980s the number of people in prison overall has metastasized 800%, from less than 200,000 to 1.4 million. 1000s of them are serving extreme sentences far beyond. Over half of these are nonviolent drug offenders. According to the ACLU, at least 70 people are serving life for nonviolent marijuana charges. Ross was friends in prison with one name Tony. Before he was convicted by President Trump. Tony was serving life for pot in a federal prison in Colorado. All while it was legal on the state level and dispensaries are open for business. Every day that passes my family and I pray that Ross will be given a convocation from the President, and the opportunity to be free again and raise a family with his fiancee. He poses no threat to society. On the contrary, he has so much to contribute, like 1000s of others serving excessive sentences. He should have a second chance. As Ross once wrote, pain does not heal pain. A lost soul is not engage in a cage. To learn more about Ross and his case, and to sign the petition, please visit free ross.org

Zara Snaap (RIA): So that gives us a sense of what people are suffering through and their families. So we’re gonna go on with Neil. Neil was just part of the law enforcement action partnership, and which is an organization that has been sometimes behind the criminalizing authorization but people who have served in law enforcement finding a way to talk about this to be able to bring a voice that what what many of you dedicated your lives to is not working. And so how do we make those big changes, which is one of those very important voices, yours, people who have had children who have been with had drug overdoses, people who have children who’ve been disappeared because of the war on drugs…these voices that are so important to be able to understand the dynamics of the status quo.

Neil Woods -Law Enforcement Action Partnership (Europe): I’m part of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. We are the leaders of the growing worldwide movement of police and other law enforcement figures who are campaigning, all my fellow LEAP members have some personal stories that we’ve realized that we were only causing harm, not just to the detriment of communities. And that brings us to the to the topic today. I think one of the things that we’re most useful for at least, is that we can explain the reality of what happens on the ground. And actually the mechanisms of we use in ourinvestigations.  95% of the information from political science is about drugs. So it’s a war on drugs, tactics, approach and tactic to use this information. Now, if someone gets caught with drugs, and they’re waiting on the police, they know that two detectives are going to come into that cell door and offer them a deal, and quite often that deal that’s been offered is a reduction in prison sentence. This is a universal tactic right across the world. When police have big sentences to threaten them, it makes them very happy, because it puts more pressure on the person who sat in the police cell.  They’re thinking to themselves, who am I scared off? Who can I provide information about to the police that’s not going to get me killed or even tortured?  So that process of thinking about what information to give to the police creates a commodity of fear on the street. This one creates a Darwinian situation out there, where the most violent and the most ruthless are the most successful because that commodity of fear means that you’ve got to be strong enough to intimidate, that man sat in that cell, wondering who is safest for him to grasp. That’s what is driving the violence, and i  think it’s the most significant drivers of the violence of the community. Now, I remember working undercover, and I’ve been manipulating this particular vulnerable person, and he was introducing me to various gangsters, and he got arrested. And I thought, oh, no, this is terrible. he’s not going to get bail. I’m going to have to start working on something else. I was listening to one of his companions, and he came out, and assess how you’ve got you just got cool they are with a load of variable. How did you get released ?And this is where the cops came in and they said “you’re gonna have to give us some information”. This is what I couldn’t give them any information, because they might be working with the same person. So this insidious threat of violence is created by the system of gathering intelligence through police involvement in every country domestically, but it also impacted the transnational organized crime, because the biggest gangs and the ones that were in particular with it, because of our delegate from Colombia, I’m making reference to the relationship in regard to the United States because the United States routinely catches up and they get arrested get quotes published and how many Colombians are in American jail serving huge sentences, but we do have some allies and friends in the United States. So my good friend Kendra senior that gave me a list.  Every single one of these huge prison sentences on this, let’s turn this wherever it is.. It represents the intimidation of their families, in their communities back home. Because in response to what police do in offering deals, organized crime, sbecause you’re not likely to take a deal to reduce your prison sentence if your family is under threat. So that is the reality of this. And I have to say, speaking from a law enforcement perspective, cops who are engaged in this with great enthusiasm. They want those prison sentences. To put that pressure on them it sokes the law so we need to be understanding these mechanisms and use knowledge as our mechanism to advocate for change. So I’ve got that less than I can introduce it to bring up this this confluence of state violence and non state actors violence and suddenly these in between those two, there is no space to maneuver and cultivate alternative. To eradicate your crops or organized criminal is going to  require you to sell to them.

Zara Snaap (RIA):  how that impact families is also very important. And since you brought up you know, what this is doing in the United States and the broader global global perspective, but obviously we all have many of these policies began in the United States that there was this idea of minimum sentencing, mandatory minimum senting. And so now, I’m very happy to have Teshiaa you from the Drug Policy Alliance take the floor, which is the leading drug policy reform organization in the United States.

Theshia Naidoo (Drug Policy Alliance):Thanks for having the height of this really important conversation. So this will provide some historical context for disproportionate sentencing in the United States. 150 years ago, Nixon started a war on drugs by making drug use public enemy number one,  intensifying lifelessness responses and a an over 1,000% increase in state the state prison population for drug offenses within a 30 year period. Over the years, the sentencing has been enhanced and become increasingly punitive. So with this escalating penalties and mandatory minimum sentences imposed for drug offenses, this has resulted in disproportionately severe sentences for drug offenses and tremendous racial disparities in the system. When you look at the data on people who are involved in drug offenses, and certainly have been drug free, they span all segments of society, but the ones that are most harshly actually from marginalized communities. Those are individuals who may be using are those in poverty women, non citizens, and people of color. The reality is that when you look at the data most people caught up in selling offenses are also ones that produce drugs. So there’s this overlapping identity or individual, but the law treats them different with one given leniency in the in terms of reviews and because of sales, having harsh sentences impose laws against drugs, selling everything so broadly, that young people would never engage in a drug sale.  Some people are actually prohibited from even entering the formal economy,  based on your criminal conviction. You’re denied opportunity to get an education or employers will be unlikely to hire you because you have this criminal conviction. And so people living in poverty sometimes have no meaningful way to either have meaningful living, and they turned to sales in order to meet basic subsistence needs. I mentioned people of color. While the data is very clear that drug sales drug use rates equivalent across racial groups of color, searched, stopped, convicted, arrested and sentenced for drug offenses and far higher rates than than white people in the United States. And the fact that people of color are more likely to be the ones locked up in prison for these offenses reinforces the racist stereotype that these are the communities that are most engaged or involved in front. Just quickly turning to women. My co panelists talked about women in Colombia. Likewise, women in prisons in the United States also overrepresented in terms of drugs selling.  If they live with a partner, a male partner, who may be involved in drug selling, the simple act of taking a phone message or passing on information, gets them caught up in these conspiracy laws and a lot of women are spending time for lengthy periods for drug selling offenses, even if they weren’t actually involved in any kind of drug. Quickly, you know, looking also at present data from like official sources in the United States, the vast majority of people involved in drugs trade in the in the US are low level convictions. Mandatory minimum offenses have been imposed in the United States with the at least the thinking behind having these mandatory minimums is that they’re gonna go off to the big fish they get it off to the kingpins but the data actually shows that mandatory minimums apply much broadly doesn’t go after these high level actors in the system. And in fact, most of the people currently setting time for settling offenses are really the lowest level of the of the drug trade.  ooking at the past few decades and increasing penalties mean they’ve been, you know, some reforms. I will turn to that shortly. But what we’re also seeing is that despite these tremendous sentences, drug use rates have declined. You know, availability of drugs is still as ever as available as they have previously. And we have an unprecedented overdose crisis in the United States. But despite that, some states are doubling down and they’re trying to increase increase penalties, suicides and drug offenses. With the hopes that if we throw more punishment at the problem, that somehow we can address the overdose crisis. And what we’re seeing is that that’s not happening. So I will just pause there and say, despite this increased increase in punitive trends over the last several decades, there have been some reforms and civil society has been pushing back very strongly in the United States. We have some alternatives. I’m happy to ask that, you know, present them during the q&a, but one thing I will say he gets that there’s been a growing movement to decriminalize drug possession and revenue from the US the state of Oregon was the first one in 2002 actually formally adopted to criminalization policy.  And the lessons learned from from passing that the current policy is that, you know, in trying to build a strong, inclusive movement it’s really important to make those connections between policy and housing rights and social justice and racial justice. Because it’s clear that systemic injustice really is targeting some of the more marginalized groups in the society. And when you when you make the connection, for example of a housing greater advocate, so you’re working for housing, access to housing, but do you realize that as a result of a drug conviction, people are prevented from having access to housing and so making those connections between various issues in terms of educational rights, anti poverty, housing, I think building an inclusive movement we’ve already been once on the drug policy, because it really has lasting impacts in other systems as well. So I’ll pause there and before thank you so much.

Camilo Eduardo Umana (Viceministro de Justicia de Colombia): Let’s start out discussion with the dispersion of detention centers.  The justice system, but maybe as you just suggested, a question is more about the the lack of justice in the general social system. We have to acknowledge that there is something happening previously from savings for me, which refers to the design of the house, the institutional framework, and also who are the clients of this system. The people, the people more marketing every week to a different prison in Colombia, and I’ve met a lot of people who are there because of drug trafficking. Different ways. I haven’t met anyone that use increase when because the brain of a money laundry operation I have but it has made a lot of people who are there because of smoking or, or different chains off the top of the drug industry. There’s also a question on on what happens after selling. What happens to the farmer, to the community? What happens to the stigma that community suffered based on on on this community? If even the country itself, the homeless, when we go abroad, we have a sort of offset that To be tarnished all together because of these issues. The stigma is also a part of this question of the proportion between ethics and legal system and economy because it’s the first is against most of these variables are there because they are increasingly because of drug trafficking and money a more efficiently and have a our heads of households. The other eyewitness is the impact on youngsters, 70% of youngsters that are in the adolescence. The other eyewitness is the impact on youngsters, 70% of youngsters that are in the adolescence. are there because of a drug trafficking issues. But n some of these are health issues, because they don’t have anything in to do. And these people end up in the criminal justice system. The other thing i noticed was the emphasis on teh criminal justice system like microtrafficking, but not the stronger chains and gangs that effect the security of the country and region. .So well today we are taking two steps forward. The first is that we have a conference that is called humanizing the criminal because a different restorative measures we need, but also a one of the articles that I want to focus on these about some. So suspending a punishment, or the deprivation of liberty of those people, especially those who are vulnerable and are in the inner substitution program. They could not be a sent to prison. Because we are sending a complaint or a message. You’ve come to the state. We give you a program to substitute your crops and at the same time if they unilaterally says so. If they can prosecute you So this is a contradiction that we need to arrange in our system. There are two controls of that a possible measure, which are the control of the judge, but also the administrative code that needs to take those people into the program. So, we have created our control mechanism. The General Attorney Khurana has criticized extensively. He made sure that we want to give amnesty to a drug trafficking gangs and this is not the case. We want to know to criminalize poor and marginalized people that are so vulnerable that don’t have any other choice. That’s what we want to through these control measures. The other measures that we are taking for you for the East Bay a new law that you just mentioned, the law about restorative measures with regards to women who are at in centers to or to the provision of liberty, a minor of a or below eight years. In nonviolent crimes. Most of the women are there because of a micro trafficking issues. And if women are going to be able to replace or substitute the deprivation of liberty by a working or community work is trying to bring about again a concept of care to the community. But also try not to break down their relations with their kids with their family members and trying to build trust with with the society. I have discussed is with the peak was just appealed. And now it is hello with different woman and it’s told them using if one of you or a group of you fail if you a good again into the business. How these will be a good meet a low chance to keep these low and these policies in in forth. This is because there is a lot of resistance opposition towards all that has to do with identity or restorative justice. There are a lot of groups, a lot of people who are supporting these people, but these folks are really concerned about different communities way. So this we have to deal with this and to think about how can we advance with these difficulties and also, let me finish by by sending a message is all of you are worried about these effects of sentencing the disproportionate sentencing or re talking about it In Colombia, we’re trying to do something very If we can actually implement this law. So this we have to deal with this and to think about how can we advance with these difficulties and also, let me finish by by sending a message is all of you are worried about these effects of sentencing the disproportionate sentencing or re talking about it in Colombia, we’re trying to do something very if we can actually implement this law, we can do an effective action to fight against the effectiveness of proportional sending. Please join hands with us and help us to design a few programs in six months to implement these programs to make them effective to make translating into reality.Please, if you come from any institution, reach out from any government in multilateral policy, please reach out I hear We need ideas we need cooperation we need a human resources, financial resources. We are going to say that this kind of of measures make sense. You have here to put on another Please let’s do it together, thank you.

Zara Snaap (RIA): We have time for two questions,

Question: Will women be payed for their community work, will they be put under surveillance? I think a lot of social services today, and incentive programs mimic systems of policing, and set people up for failure. If people are out in the community, they have expensive paid labor rights and other kinds of protections. then we’re setting them up for kind of going back to doing things that we need to do to get about the details of that program and how you’re thinking about setting people up for success because you talked about talking to the women, you know, to encourage them to make it work, so that we can validate the program that can continue but often people are, as we all know just responding to material conditions. So, how are you deciding on how to implement a program to set them up for success?

Camilo Eduardo Umana (Viceministro de Justicia de Colombia): This will be one of the equations that they have to solve but since we mentioned there are many ways we can forget that when we are making we have created a program that helps us to work is means that we have a chance to be part of these programs. Used to that not every word has this issue of greeting, but a lot of people do have so we’re trying to do this the selfie receive part of the subsidy goes to that, but also there is for a social work that they have to do which means that they they can have the time also to work and to be with their family. This is not complete or are extensive. If you have any tips on how to create a more, more sustainable alternative I will be happy to receive this advice. This person needs to need to be different institutions to see what are the unity but also to have the sort of, so that they have to do work for the community work, or work as part of their broader communities.

Question: Question re: mandatory minimum sentencing – has anything been done to rectify this?

Theshia Naidoo (Drug Policy Alliance): I mean, the US Sentencing Commission has issued guidelines to federal judges to try and help mitigate the impact of mandatory minimums of course they don’t go far enough. But what I will say is under President Biden, the Attorney General the US Department of Justice has issued guidance to prosecutors that typically the by charging the drug quantity it triggers mandatory minimums. There’s guidance to attorneys to not charge for certain quantities and not trigger those mandatory minimums. And there are also other ways to not look at criminal history or prior criminal record because that also triggers certain employment. So they have definitely been steps in the right direction of the Biden administration. But that could change from one administration to another.

Zara Snaap (RIA): I mean, what we’re seeing is really the need to how do we liminal codes because even as we create pressures, those are never actually going to help because they continue to create this divide that special was talking about between drugs and people who sell drugs, and we know that it’s more than most of us who use drugs, drugs, and so that how do we really think about ruining the social control that’s used for the criminal justice system under surveillance? And thinking about maybe using this to avoid the no repetition? Because the thing is, as we take women into these community services, how many more are coming into the other tribe? And so it’s how are we creating structural changes? That are not just creating a vicious cycle and how have you been extract this from a criminal justice framework into a social framework around housing rights around other alternatives to incarceration andcriminalization

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