Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Dispatches from the Still Raging Drug War

US Marshalls Office of Public Affairs

Dispatches from the Still Raging Drug War

Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

Media narratives around drug prosecutions have tended to overstate a turn away from punishment and towards rehabilitation for substance users. While this has been true in some instances, many jurisdictions are continuing to employ the same carceral “solutions,” and with increased fervor. Today, we shine a light on the district attorneys who made headlines over the weekend for their efforts to roll back, or deepen, our nation’s drug war.

  • A Prosecutor’s Unprecedented Expansion of Drug Prosecutions Causes Jail Overcrowding. Is the solution building a bigger jail? At a time when many state and local agencies are creating narrow means to keep people who commit drug offenses out of prison, Sebastian County (AR) Prosecutor Dan Shue is aggressively pursuing the opposite approach, overseeing a rapid expansion of drug prosecutions that has led to calls for a jail expansion. Whereas there were just 27 drug-related defendants in the local jail in 1970, that number has ballooned to thousands — particularly in light of an unprecedented two-year surge in drug prosecutions. Now, the jail “is overflowing from the issues created by drug arrests.” As a result, the jail has suffered “not just sewer system problems, but backlogged mail deliveries, lack of jail clothing and bedding, over occupancy in the hospital cells, fights among detainees in close quarters, and a general high level of stress on both sides of the bars.” Female prisoners have also complained of sexual harassment and “sleeping on floors of cells, some women without mats, directly in the way of cells, directly under toilets, or in an unsafe place due to overcrowding.” Unfortunately, this problem is likely to get worse. Rather than reexamine its prosecuting priorities, Shue, along with the county’s sheriff, are calling for new jails because “we have more arrests and criminal filings and people being sent to prison now more than ever.” [John Lovett / Times Record]
  • MD State’s Attorney brings county’s first overdose-as-homicide case.Anne Arundel County (MD) State’s Attorney Wes Adams has charged a man with involuntary manslaughter for an overdose death that occurred in January. Adams’ office and local law enforcement spent nine months of resources trying to track down the alleged source of the drugs that led to a fatal overdose. This carceral approach reflects a policy change within the office to focus on prosecution instead of treatment and diversion. As Anjali Hemphill explains, “In the past, fatal overdoses were treated more like a medical situation, but investigators said because of the county’s opioid epidemic they started treating them more like a crime scene so they can try to track down the supplier.” This is the first such prosecution in the county. State’s Attorney Adams’ brother died earlier this year from an overdose after he exited a 28-day inpatient treatment program. [Anjali Hemphill / Fox 5 News]
  • A 12-year-old found drugs in a house and overdosed, now her 60 year-old babysitter is charged with murder. In Columbus, Ohio, the office of Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien has determined that a 60-year-old woman accused of killing a 12-year-old with fentanyl must remain behind bars on a $60,000 bond, even though prosecutors do not allege that she administered the fentanyl herself. Instead, they believe that the child found her drugs and overdosed on them while she was out of the house. Charging overdoses as homicide is unfortunately not new for O’Brien, as he charged at least seven people this way this last year alone. [WSYX / WTTE / ABC News 5]

Goodbye Tent City; Philly’s Newspaper Makes A Crazy Endorsement; Oops — ICE’s Manual Tells Too Much … and more

Goodbye Tent City; Philly’s Newspaper Makes A Crazy Endorsement; Oops — ICE’s Manual Tells Too Much … and more

Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

In today’s news roundup, we bring you stories about a turn away from punitive practices in the jails formerly run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a look at campaign contributions to Brooklyn’s next DA, an ICE asset forfeiture handbook that gets a little too honest about the agency’s fundraising priorities, a growing recognition of the role of childhood trauma in the commission of adult offenses, and many others.


  • Injustice Roundup: Shaun King’s Weekly Roundup of Stories on Abusive Police Officers, Prison Guards, and Prosecutors. This past week, Shaun King highlights Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator, who complained about the impending release of prisoners and how he “hates seeing good men let go because they are the ones that ‘can pick up trash,’ ‘wash cars,’ ‘change oil in our cars,’ and ‘cook in the kitchen.’” To King, Prator’s comments show “how our current systems of mass incarceration are slavery by another name.” Also, in Orange County, California, Deputy District Attorney Sandra Lee Nassar deliberately withheld evidence from the defense. She also said she would “do it” again. King also highlighted the continued controversy over Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s and the appearance of a play to pay scandal in his office, the fact that Salt Lake City District Attorney Sim Gill decided that the fatal police shooting of Patrick Harmon in his back was “just fine,” and how several NYPD officers currently stand accused of rape and child prostitution. [Shaun King / In Justice Today]



Gym also challenged the editorial’s narrative that more incarceration equates with more concern for victims:

A reporter on staff with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Newall, also replied to the editorial, stating: “I disagree. We need[] safe injection sites now & Krasner is only candidate who has come out in full-throated support.”


Bail Reform

  • A county in North Carolina wants to give its bail system a serious makeover. Mecklenburg County, the largest county in North Carolina, just received a $2 million grant to reduce its jail population. One solution on the table is to advance a bail system based on risk assessment rather than a person’s ability to pay for their pretrial release. The county has slowly implemented a risk assessment tool over the past few years, but many defendants are still behind bars because they are too poor to make bail. There are also concerns about risk assessment tools within the criminal justice community. Critics say the tools can be racially-biased and reductive. [Carimah Townes / In Justice Today]

Asset Forfeiture

  • Leaked ICE Guide Offers Unprecedented View of Agency’s Asset Forfeiture Tactics. The Intercept obtained a manual used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to guide agents on when to seize assets belonging to individuals who may be under investigation. The manual advises agents to weigh the cost of seizure against the value of the property (and hence the financial benefit to ICE), and to refrain from taking assets when it does not make sense financially to do so. This squares with accusations that civil forfeiture is used primarily to generate revenue rather than to serve a particular law enforcement purpose. The manual does indicate that there are times when law enforcement priorities should trump profitability considerations, but the fact that this has to be specified — and indeed as a special case — does little to rehabilitate the image of a practice that has come under intense scrutiny in the past year, including a vote by the House of Representatives last month to limit its use. [Ryan Devereaux and Spencer Woodman / The Intercept]

Trauma and Crime

  • A Gun to His Head as a Child. In Prison as an Adult. Rob Sullivan grew up watching his father beat his mother, and both parents were often drunk by the time he got home from school. Sullivan himself started drinking before reaching his teens. His mother and a cousin who was like a sister to him both died of heroin overdoses, and he himself eventually began to use heroin. One could hardly disagree with his characterization of his childhood as “chaotic.” Sullivan has been in and out of various kinds of incarceration or rehabilitation facilities since his early teens, and a growing body of research is helping to show how his substance use and criminal offending stem from his childhood trauma. Sullivan scored a 9 out of 10 on a questionnaire meant to determine the severity of childhood trauma. Even a score of 4 would have shown him to be at a “substantially elevated risk of chronic disease, depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse and violence.” Recent research has shed more light on the extent to which childhood trauma changes the brain in ways that persist into adulthood, leading to problems with impulse control, decision making, and executive function. However, this is not to say that traumatized youth are doomed. Developments in the understanding of the brain’s ability to forge new connections even well into adulthood provides some hope. However, it is incumbent on justice system actors to take this research into account and develop methods of dealing with trauma that ameliorate rather than exacerbate its lasting effects. [Audra S.D. Burch / New York Times]

More in Explainers

Dallas Doobies in Doubt

Flickr user Heath Alseike

Dallas Doobies in Doubt

Texas residents have recently been coming around to the idea that carrying small amounts of pot shouldn’t be a crime. Houston’s current district attorney Kim Ogg announced in this year that she would no longer prosecute cases involving small amounts of marijuana, instead recommending a diversion program that would prevent a criminal record. DA Nico LaHood also announced a policy in Bexar County that would be more lenient on marijuana charges. And Nueces County DA Mark Gonzalez — of the “not guilty” chest tattoo — substituted jail time with a $250 fine.

Dallas is now the most recent Texas town to draft a policy known as “cite-and-release,” which would prevent police officers from arresting people caught with less than four ounces of marijuana and no prior convictions. Instead, those folks would get a summons to appear in court; the penalty would not change. (Texas has very strict anti-marijuana laws — those caught with two ounces can be charged a fine of up to $2000 and six months in jai, and it gets more punitive from there.) But now that policy is in jeopardy.

The Dallas City Council approved the policy, which was supposed to begin on October 1. But from the beginning, the change lacked law enforcement support. Last year, the City Council voted against a similar resolution thanks to the lobbying efforts of then-Police Chief David Brown. The Council’s goal, then as now, was to reduce the jail population and save police officer’s time.

This time, while law enforcement stayed in the background, the measure was largely supported by the faith community and council members who argued that marijuana prosecutions had a disproportionate effect on the poor.Then the Dallas County Commissioners Court delayed approving the funding for the program. According to the Dallas Morning NewsDallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price objected, raising concerns that because the County had not yet approved the policy, it would be implemented unevenly in Dallas County. The policy would only apply to the city of Dallas, not the county of Dallas, which includes over 20 other municipalities.

Nor has District Attorney Faith Johnson given the program her full-fledged support. “If you all don’t think cite and release is something that ought to happen because you don’t think it’s fair for everybody — since it’s not in Desoto and not in Duncanville — then vote it down.” She has also been adamant that she would not implement her own policy, like Ogg and Lahood. “I’m not here to legislate,” she said. She argued that cities should decide for themselves how they want to enforce marijuana possession laws. Johnson has reportedly agreed to allow those arrested for marijuana possession to be released without requiring a cash bond, which would help alleviate the burden on bail on those who can least afford it. But, as with catch-and-release, those people would still be subject to the same criminal sanctions.

Johnson justified her position by saying that she did not want to make law, nor did she want to create a situation where some people in Dallas County are treated differently than others. Her ideas, however, run contrary to the views of many of her fellow DA’s in Texas. Ogg and Gonzalez both created their own initiatives to decriminalize marijuana (pocketing the fines for the own offices as they go). Johnson could well decide to do the same by creating a diversion program. There’s nothing to prevent her from doing so. And this far, her office has been unclear how progressive it wants to be.

Johnson, Dallas County’s first female Black DA, ran on a platform of fairness and relatively progressive criminal justice policies, mostly supported by her largely faith-based backing. But she has continued to prosecute marijuana cases involving possession of less than two ounces of bud (the amount covered by the proposed Dallas regulation). According to the County’s records, over 400 people were arrested in September 2017 just for possessing under 2 ounces; a handful are registered in the system as officially homeless.

Despite Jeff Session’s best effort to bring back the marijuana boogieman, over a half dozen states have legalized recreational marijuana and almost 30 states have legalized medical marijuana to some degree. Many other places, both red and blue, have decriminalized marijuana. For example, this month Atlanta’s city council voted to make the penalty of possessing an ounce of marijuana a $75 fine.

“Catch-and-release” isn’t the same as decriminalization, and it’s certainly not legalization, which no jurisdiction in Texas has proposed. But the fact that a city like Dallas is even considering lightening the punishment for weed is a sign of the national acknowledgement that pot is now longer the harbinger of doom that it was made out to be by racist policy makers in the 1930s. The Texas legislature has considered bills to decriminalize marijuana, although Governor Greg Abbott has been steadfast in asserting that it will not happen under his watch, even for medical purpose.

The Dallas City Council is voting on the cite-and-release measure tomorrow.

This post has been updated with the following comment from Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson:

The authority to cite and release is given to the peace officer who is charging the person, pursuant to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Article. 14.06(c). Additionally, the District Attorney’s Office does not have the authority to force individual cities to adopt a Cite and Release policy. Because the City of Dallas voted to implement Cite and Release within their city, my office is committed to working with our law enforcement partners within the Dallas Police Department as well as the county, to help implement the program in Dallas, if the County Commissioners vote in favor of it. My office and I have been and will continue to be supportive of Cite and Release for those law enforcement agencies that choose to participate in it. We will help do whatever we can to make it a success.

More in Podcasts