Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Wire on the drug war

By Libby

This article from the writers of The Wire reinforces my desire to get the DVD and watch the whole series from the beginning someday. It makes one of the best arguments against the war on some drugs that I've seen in a long time. Read it all, it's short, but I want highlight a couple of key quotes. First on the hidden costs of prosecuting this failed 'war.'
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.
This is of course in addition to the prison side of the equation where non-violent drug offenders languish in cells for years under draconian mandatory sentencing while violent criminals are let out on earlier releases to ease the crowding caused by drug war incarcerations. But I'm really impressed with their advocacy for 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, as old and as heralded as the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, who was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor of New York, and absent a government capable of repairing injustices, it is legitimate protest. 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.
This unfortunately is easier said than done. Judges routinely wrongly instruct the jury that they don't have this right and attempt to weed out jurors who might try to invoke it during jury selection. I recall specific instances where single jurors who managed to get seated and tried to do so have been harassed and even punished. I even remember one instance where some people handing out instructional pamphlets outside of the courthouse were arrested for interfering in court business.

The key to making this strategy work is for more people to embrace it and to advocate for change of policy in the courtroom. Where a single juror can be targeted without much notice, several jurors standing together would not be so easily dismissed. If a movement developed to at least force judges to instruct jurors on this established right, the people would gain a meaningful tool to challenge wrongheaded laws.

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