Saturday, October 06, 2007

The "Bleeding Edge" of the Drug War

I just finished up an intensive, week-long training course called "Finding Words" at which detectives, prosecutors and child welfare investigators are taught the necessary and valuable skills to conduct competent, non-suggestive forensic interviews of children suspected of being the victims of sexual abuse.

The interdisciplinary team of instructors was outstanding, and the course provided a great opportunity to catch up with some old buddies from other prosecutor's offices in New Jersey. For all the high-profile reptiles like Nifong and Dane County ADA Paul Humphrey (the latter profiled in the truly jarring Wisconsin State Journal article that Mike linked to in a earlier post), I can say objectively that the vast majority of my colleagues in Jersey embody all the the hallmarks of a "good DA," including a well-honed sense of fairness, integrity and decency. In one of my favorite John Le Carre novels, a character remarks that "there is no one better than a good Englishman and no one worse than a bad one." I think the same very much holds true for prosecutors. I'll expound on that theme in future posts.

Meanwhile, check out this excellent and very comprehensive story in the Des Moines Register about Iowa's intractable and growing racial disparity among prison inmates. Here are the first several paragraphs:

The number of blacks behind bars for drug-related crimes is rising again in Iowa. At the same time, a new anti-methamphetamine law has resulted in fewer new prison admissions for white Iowans.

Officials in drug, corrections and law enforcement circles say it's not yet clear why more blacks are being sent to prison, but the impact is clear: The state's notorious disproportion of blacks behind bars vs. whites is growing again.

"You may be at the bleeding edge of something really new going on in the drug war at this point," said Ryan King of the Washington-D.C.-based Sentencing Project. The nonprofit sentencing reform group released a national study in July ranking Iowa No. 1 in the nation for the rate that it disproportionately incarcerates blacks vs. whites. "What you may be witnessing there may soon be replicated elsewhere around the country."

News that Iowa's black incarceration rate is growing comes at a crucial time. This week, a group appointed by Gov. Chet Culver to revisit the issue delivered a series of budget requests worth about $9.7 million.

If approved by the Legislature, that money and manpower promises to benefit a variety of state agencies that deliver early childhood education, community-based corrections, re-entry programs for former inmates and drug-abuse prevention. Several state officials said that money is a long-term vaccination for black children, who are more likely than whites to enter the juvenile justice system and be expelled from school in Iowa.

But state legislative leaders, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court also are revisiting disparities in state and federal sentencing laws for some drug offenses that many advocates say could make the biggest difference.

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