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The Biggest Winners in Trump Budget: The DEA and the War on Drugs

Scott Olson / Getty

The Biggest Winners in Trump Budget: The DEA and the War on Drugs

President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal, released Monday, requests nearly $30 billion for drug control. The majority of that funding is slated for law enforcement and an $18 billion border wall, with the purported dual purpose of stopping the flow of immigrants and illicit drugs from entering the country.

The budget requests $2.2 billion in funding for the Drug Enforcement Administration, $400 million more than two years ago. Both the immigration and DEA funding are meant to attack the supply side of illegal drug trafficking. On the demand side, the budget requests $625 million for addressing the opioid crisis in the most affected states and $50 million to expand access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

Public health policy experts and others closely following the deadly opioid crisis told In Justice Today that Trump’s proposed budget heavily prioritizes law enforcement drug interdiction, and other front-end interventions while vastly underfunding substance abuse treatment.

“The president’s budget proposal sends a message that his primary response to the crisis is based on the 1980s and 1990s drug war playbook,” Leo Beletsky, associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, told In Justice Today.

Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a physician and professor at the University of California San Francisco, where he studies America’s heroin supply, described the president’s budget proposal as “sad,” and as having “misaligned priorities.”

Diane Goldstein, retired lieutenant commander of the Redondo Beach Police Department and a board member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, said the administration’s approach is dangerous. Putting “emphasis on an already failed enforcement, whack-a-mole strategy that will only result in more death, disease and addiction,” she said.

Critics like these hoped to see more funding in the budget reserved for public health and harm reduction interventions that have demonstrated their potential to reduce the country’s skyrocketing mortality rate. Thanks to the opioid crisis, life expectancy in the United States has dropped for the past two years straight, the first decline since the 1920s flu pandemic.

DEA’s Strategy for the Opioid Crisis

The Trump budget proposal comes one week after the Drug Enforcement Administration placed every illicit fentanyl analogue — potent opioids typically sold as heroin — into the Schedule I category of the Controlled Substances Act, reserved for drugs that have no medical benefit.

Emergency scheduling makes it easier for prosecutors to prove in court that illicit analogues are illegal and dangerous.

Ismail Ali, an attorney advising the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) on policy, told In Justice Today that the DEA announcement is another chapter in the agency’s long history of misusing emergency scheduling powers.

In the mid 1980s, when MDMA (also known as Ecstasy) slowly moved out of psychotherapy and into the club scene, the DEA ignored evidence from psychiatrists about its therapeutic uses and even the advice of a DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young who urged the agency to leave it in the Schedule III category, defined as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”

“Any purported evidence used to justify what goes in what schedule is not really relying on scientific data,” Ali of MAPS said. “[The] DEA can’t even begin to have a conversation around what we should actually be doing to respond to the crisis — things like supervised consumption sites and heroin-assisted treatment. The dominant societal perspective is slow to accept that we should not put the moral burden on the user.”

Dr. Ciccarone of the University of California San Francisco told In Justice Today that the move to emergency schedule appeared to be unprecedented. He said he’s never seen an entire class of drugs and all its derivatives — known and unknown — banned, which speaks to how serious a threat law enforcement views fentanyl.

But he added that efforts to disrupt drug supply could be costly without yielding desired outcomes.“Every $1 spent on harm reduction and treatment leads to multiple dollars of public health and individual benefit,” he said. “We can’t be robbing those funds to pay for things like interdiction.”

“We desperately need demand-side reductions,” Ciccarone added. “Lives are at stake.”

New Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Hits Reset on the Office’s Troubled Conviction Review Unit

New Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Hits Reset on the Office’s Troubled Conviction Review Unit

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is bringing much-needed change to the city’s notoriously ineffective conviction review unit (CRU). The district attorney’s office confirmed to The Appeal that Patricia Cummings, former head of the Dallas County district attorney’s conviction integrity unit, has joined the Philadelphia DA to lead the the office’s review of old cases for evidence of wrongful convictions.

Cummings — a former defense lawyer, prosecutor and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law — took over the position on February 1 and is nationally recognized for her work on behalf of the falsely imprisoned.

“Patricia is one of the top experts in the country on innocence and exoneration,” said Krasner’s spokesperson, Ben Waxman. “She has a tremendous record of standing for justice throughout her career. Larry is thrilled that she has joined the office and he expects her to make a huge impact in her new role. “

Cummings takes the helm of an office that has been dogged by criticism for being a conviction review unit in name only. For three years following its establishment in April 2014, the CRU was part of the DA’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) unit, which represents the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the appeals process. This caused criminal justice advocates to question its independence and its commitment to pursuing just outcomes.

During that period, it had just one part-time staff member — veteran homicide prosecutor Mark Gilson. His office considered dozens of petitions but did not oversee a single exoneration until 2016. In one case, Gilson even pursued the retrial of an inmate, Anthony Wright, whose murder conviction had been thrown out based on exculpatory DNA evidence.

Gilson was one of 31 old-guard prosecutors fired by Krasner just days after he took office.

Last year, former DA Seth Williams (who was given a five-year sentence on federal bribery charges in late 2017) announced changes to the CRU, including separating it from the PCRA unit and adding three additional full-time staffers. However, under Williams’ direction, the unit limited itself to cases based only on inmate innocence, refusing to hear those in which procedural misconduct played a role in convictions.

Dallas County is credited with launching the nation’s first conviction integrity unit, in 2007, and to date has overseen 28 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Philadelphia’s CRU has handled just four in the past four years.

According to a published biography, Cummings worked in Williamson County, Texas, as a prosecutor of juvenile offenders before transitioning into criminal defense.

Prior to taking over Dallas’ conviction integrity unit in 2015, Cummings was perhaps best known for her successful effort to free Michael Morton, who was released from prison in 2011 after nearly 25 years, when DNA evidence cleared him in the murder of his wife. She was instrumental in getting a law passed in Texas, known as the Michael Morton Act, that requires prosecutors to open their files to defendants and keep records of the evidence they disclose.

Cummings has remarked publicly on the need to revisit convictions based on flawed forensic techniques. In 2015, she helped free Steven Mark Chaney, who was convicted of murder in 1987 based on now discredited bite-mark analysis.

She has also spoken of the responsibility of prosecutors to review cases in which innocence is not the primary consideration.

“There may be sometimes you’ve convicted somebody and it was wrong,” she told the Dallas Morning News in 2015. “You may not be able to prove that they’re innocent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t deserve the relief. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t try to correct the wrong.”

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In Portland, A Mother Sues For Answers About Why The Police Killed Her Son

Crystal Maloney

In Portland, A Mother Sues For Answers About Why The Police Killed Her Son

On the morning of February 9, 2017, 17-year-old Quanice Hayes knelt on the ground in front of heavily armed Portland police officers as they yelled instructions at him. “Stay down on your knees,” they told him. “Move towards us.” A police dog barked. Hayes, who was unarmed, reached down toward his waistband. Why? We’ll never know — Officer Andrew Hearst shot him in the head with an AR-15 rifle and Hayes died instantly.

In the days that followed, police officials painted a sinister portrait of the African-American teenager in local media: He was on the run after a string of robberies, they said at the time. A fake gun was found a few feet away from Hayes, they claimed. A call to 911 allegedly referred to Hayes as armed.

By the time police officers testified in front of the grand jury a month later, they said they were certain Hayes was armed and dangerous as they surrounded him in the front yard of a home where Hayes had been hiding, even after he told the officers, “I don’t have anything on me.”

“There was no doubt in my mind the person that I was looking at had a gun,” Officer Hearst told the grand jury.

Moments before the shooting, Hearst said he told Hayes repeatedly, “If you reach for your waistband, I will shoot you.” Hearst said he grew frustrated.

“We told you to crawl,” he recalled telling Hayes at the time. “How could you have gotten that wrong?”

The witnesses to the shooting who testified in front of the grand jury were all law enforcement officers, and prosecutors from Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill’s office repeatedly played up the danger that Hayes posed, even though officers on the scene admitted that they never saw Hayes with a gun.

Crystal Maloney

“I knew that if he were to get to his gun, I would not be able to react fast enough before he was able to shoot one of us,” Hearst testified. “So it was absolutely a conscious decision on my part to defend myself, my coworkers and any citizen that might be behind me from the threat of him getting that gun out and shooting us.”

The grand jury members had no questions for Hearst after an assistant district attorney completed his questioning. They decided, as in so many other cases across the country where police officers have shot unarmed Black and brown people, not to indict Officer Hearst, who faced no further disciplinary measures for the incident.

Each year, there are approximately 1,000 police shootings in the United States, according to recent research by Bowling Green State University professor Philip M. Stinson. Stinson told The Appeal that since the beginning of 2005, there have only been 84 police officers who have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting where the officer shot and killed someone. Of those 84 officers, according to Stinson, only 32 have been convicted of a crime resulting from the on-duty shooting, with the vast majority of those convictions being for a lesser offense than murder, like manslaughter.

Since the grand jury deliberations last year, the Hayes family has been given no further information from the district attorney, city of Portland, or the police regarding Quanice’s death.

So on February 7, lawyers for the Hayes family sent a notice to the city of their intent to sue, charging that Portland is “a city where young Black men are discriminated against at every stage of their interactions with police and the criminal justice system.” The family is requesting information like 911 call transcripts, photographs of the scene, and police reports, evidence that would have come out during a criminal trial but did not emerge during the grand jury proceedings controlled by DA Underhill.

“Families of the victims of police shootings are just so disempowered and frustrated by the process,” said Portland-based attorney Ashlee Albies, who, along with Jesse Merrithew, is representing the Hayes family. “Deep down, many of these families know that they’re not going to get an indictment of these officers, but they still hope for it and when the police talk to the families to do the quote unquote investigation, the families believe it. They need to believe it.”

The families often hope that if the truth comes out, it will help spur reform, Albies said. “At least finding out what went wrong, to try to use that as a leverage point to change policy, to change training, change practices so this doesn’t happen to somebody else and no one has has to go through something like this.”

Last Thursday, a consultant working on behalf of the Portland City Council released a report criticizing the Portland police department for its handling of six officer-involved shootings between 2014 and 2015. In one case, the department allowed officers to view video evidence of an officer-involved shooting scene before speaking to internal affairs investigators. The consultant also blasted prosecutors for asking “leading” questions during one grand jury hearing that seemed intended to portray the shooting victim in a more criminal light.

The Hayes family is crowdfunding $20,000 to help pay for the first part of the lawsuit, which would cover filing fees, some initial depositions, and retaining experts. The family was told by Albies and Merrithew that the lawsuit, even without lawyers’ fees, could cost as much as $150,000.

Terrence Hayes, Quanice’s cousin, has played a large role in advocating for the family’s interests in the case. He said high costs and massive logistical barriers keep families like his from getting basic answers about police-involved shootings and present an enormous obstacle to justice.

“This further establishes to me the system would rather see a poor family spend every last cent of theirs fighting a district attorney with the purse of the county then reveal the truth,” Terrence told The Appeal. “I shouldn’t have to hope to raise some astronomical amount of money in the hope that some information will finally come out. You would think the district attorney would have enough belief in the evidence to release it on their own, to just say, ‘We believe what happened was right and here’s the evidence.’”

Terrence believes the fate of the case was sealed by the flawed grand jury deliberation, where the DA’s office reversed its traditional role in the criminal justice system and actively worked against an indictment.

“When the DA is trying to find someone guilty, they don’t call witnesses who are there to try to prove your innocence,” Terrence said. “That’s just ridiculous. But for police officers, for some reason, fellow police officers, their captains, their trainers, everybody who will continue to fight for the protection of police officers is allowed to make a case on their behalf. The grand jury process was a sham.”

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