Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Odds and ends: How best to reduce pot penalties, surging toward inanity, pregnant in jail, and other stories

Here are several items which haven't made it into independent posts this week but merit Grits readers' attention.

Wu: Reduce pot possession <.35 ounces to ticket-only misdemeanor
Houston state Rep. Gene Wu has filed legislation, HB 325, to reduce possession of up to .35 ounces of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor. While Grits generally supports penalty reduction for pot possession, .35 ounces seems like an odd cutoff point. Presently, possession of up to two ounces is a Class B misdemeanor based on the assumption that such lesser amounts represent personal use levels. I see little reason to treat someone possessing a half ounce for personal use differently than someone possessing a quarter ounce. To my mind, the best solution would be to ratchet down current penalty categories by one level, not to create a new category to carve out small amounts.

That said, I'm incredibly appreciative that Wu's raising the issue at all and would not let the perfect become the enemy of the good by opposing the idea. But recent polling indicates the public would support more aggressive reforms.

Surging toward inanity
Following up on themes from recent Grits posts, check out a pair of recent stories on the politics of Texas' border "surge":
Drug war corruption? Say it ain't so
A Starr County sheriff's deputy was arrested smuggling pot through a border checkpoint.

Pregnant in jail
Check out an SA Current story titled "The fight for better care for pregnant women in Texas jails" which informs us that a coalition of groups led by the Texas Jail Project is "calling on the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to implement more robust, detailed policies and procedures to ensure pregnant women get proper obstetric, prenatal and postpartum care while they're incarcerated in Texas county jails. The coalition argues that, with more than 200 county jails statewide, the commission's minimum standards aren't strong enough, nor are county jails held accountable if appropriate care isn't available, creating a dangerous situation for expectant inmates."

Why grand juries don't indict cops
Riffing off the Ferguson kerfuffle, FiveThirtyEight has a column speculating on reasons grand juries almost never indict police officers. Scott Greenfield points out that, in the Ferguson case, the prosecutor did not actually ask the grand jury to indict. Their role was essentially to function as a stage prop in political theater. MORE: From Al Jazeera America, see "Why police are rarely indicted for misconduct" and from The Atlantic, check out a piece from Conor Friedersdorf on why the case more police reform is bigger than Ferguson and the Michael Brown killing.

Explaining the Great American Crime Decline
An article from the new Marshall Project suggests various hypotheses for the jaw-dropping decline in crime witnessed across the country since the early 1990s. The essay that reminded me of Grits own, similar compilation of hypotheses a couple of years ago, though he didn't mention my personal favorite "video game" theory, which holds that young men spending hours playing Grand Theft Auto on an XBox have less time to spend on the streets stealing my car. The National Academy of Sciences recently published an extensive report on this topic. See an overview essay on their findings and find the full report here.

Obama's clemency record sucks
Grits may complain that Texas governors under-use the pardon power, but it bears repeating that President Barack Obama's clemency record sucks harder than any American president in living memory.

Shameless self promotion
Grits was nominated for the American Bar Association's Blawg 100 list of top legal blogs which are chosen by reader votes. Go here to vote for Grits in the criminal justice section and to check out the list of other nominated blogs.


KBCraig said...

The cutoff of 0.35 ounce is odd, but it rounds off to 10 grams.

Anonymous said...

My suspicion is that somebody who smoked pot once or twice in college remembers buying a "quarter" and is operating on the assumption that .25 ounces = personal use amount, leaving a little extra in case somebody's dealer was generous, etc.. It's kind of silly though to punish a half ounce with jail and a quarter ounce with a ticket. Up to two ounces is definitely personal use. If a pot dealer has less than two ounces, they are basically out of pot as far as their customers are concerned.

Anonymous said...

I think pot should just be taxed and legalized but if this is a step in that direction, then it's a good step.

Anonymous said...

Police don't want it legalized because the the smell of marijuana would no longer allow them to conduct warrantless illegal searches on false claims of smelling pot.

Anonymous said...

Most police officer shootings are so unquestionably legally justified that they should probably never be presented to a grand jury to begin with. Nonetheless, because so many in the public and the media believe there's a cozy relationship between police and prosecutors, most DA's feel it's the best policy to allow a grand jury to have the final say. The Brown case is the perfect example. The more we learn about the facts of that case, the more it becomes abundantly clear that Wilson's use of deadly force was justified. In fact, it was not even a close call. I have read so many times on this site that it's not the prosecutor's job to seek convictions but rather to seek justice. For some of these commentators to now be suggesting that the DA in the Brown case should have advocated for a true bill just so the case could go to a jury trial is frighteningly and frustratingly absurd. I do wonder how many of these liberal talking heads will eat their words when the public focus eventually shifts back to cases involving the prosecution of real criminals.

Mark M. said...

Only if you pick and choose amongst the various witnesses presented to the grand jury is there even a non-frivolous argument that the shoot was justified. That's where the big Lie and the justice theater is perpetrated. The grand jury's only function is to determine whether there is probable cause to go to trial. Thus, the DA only presents the witnesses sufficient to indict the ham sammich--at least in every other case where the killer didn't happen to be wearing a badge. Here, the badge-licker DA obfuscated the grand jury's traditional role by presenting a mini-trial where the witnesses were safe from the crucible of cross examination.

capt coors said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Anon 11/27/2014 04:17:00 PM,
In most cases for a grand jury, the person being investigated refuses to provide the police a statement so they rarely call him in to testify. The rest of the evidence is damning and it makes the process much like an assembly line. A grand jury can stop to ask questions and demand more information at any time but find they don't need to because in most cases, the bottom line is that the facts literally speak for themselves.

In the Ferguson case, some genius decided to start the grand jury process on an investigation that was just barely beginning, whether they felt the need to use the grand jury to determine basic facts of the case or whatever, that alone helped make it play out in a manner that people like Mark M. wring their hands over. Contrary to his assertion, the facts were not like the media presented in their quest for ratings, the facts were pretty one sided despite every effort by the FBI and county investigators to listen to any crank willing to speak. When the evidence started coming in showing half the media darling witnesses were either lying or remarkably mistaken in their accounts of what happened, the free ride by the poverty pimps was over.

Like it or not, the officer's statement was coherent, in line with the facts, and straightforward compared to those claiming at first to be witnesses and later found nowhere near the events. Some claiming to have seen it all insisted that the deceased was shot repeatedly in the back, even the family's allowed autopsy proving that just didn't happen. Other facts like the man walking down the middle of the roadway or struggling halfway in the police car with the seated officer were admitted to. I know people like Mark that would discard such facts in their almighty effort to indict sandwiches but normal people don't walk down the middle of the street, don't fight with cops, and don't beat up store clerks half their size for smokes. Of all the cases to champion, this was a dog from the beginning but some can't let go of their bone.

Anonymous said...

The report you linked is about the growth in incarceration not the causes of the crime drop. Conflating the two is mistaken and dangerous.