When Poverty Becomes a Crime 

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Collateral Consequences, Harm Reduction

When it comes to criminal justice in the United States, it is comforting to believe that “poverty is not a crime” and we are all “innocent until proven guilty.”  But these are platitudes, mere empty words. Nobody knows this better than those who sit in jail awaiting trial, often for months, only because they are too poor to afford bail.    

The 8th Amendment to our Constitution recognizes the use of bail. In a frontier society, bail might have been necessary to ensure that the accused did not skip town to avoid trial. Today, however, this is not an option for most of the poor in our crowded cities. Instead, money bail has become one of our many techniques to ensure that large numbers of poor people, mostly Black and Brown, end up in prison. 

In 2016, the jail population was over 730,000 on any given day in the United States. Of this number, approximately two-thirds were detained solely because they could not post bond. Most were being held for non-violent offenses. 

In the last few years, the use of money as bail, or “bond,” has been challenged in Washington D.C., New York, California, and perhaps most successfully, in New Jersey. In Illinois, legislation was filed yesterday –  The Pretrial Fairness Act  – that would reform the pretrial process in ways that are fundamental and long overdue. This legislation deserves our strongest possible support.  

Why is the Pretrial Fairness Act so important?

Most fundamentally, it would end money bail. It is simply immoral for personal wealth to determine whether someone will be detained in jail or permitted to go free.  

More broadly, the use of money as bond is wrong because it creates two separate systems of justice. How does this happen? 

In Cook County, Illinois, individuals await trial for an average of three months. Sitting in jail even for a few days, defendants can lose housing, jobs, participation in education and training programs, and may have to pay larcenous fines to recover an impounded car.    

When people are not able to meet bail, they lose the chance to arrange a defense while awaiting trial. This is not true for the wealthy.

Of greatest long-term consequence is the likelihood that those who have been detained often plead guilty rather than going to trial, especially when prosecutors pressure them to do so. (Shockingly, 95% of all cases in the Cook County system are settled through plea bargaining.)  Upon leaving prison, those individuals are burdened with a criminal conviction for the rest of their lives. So much for another platitude: “you’ve paid your debt to society.” 

Since SB 4025 will end money bail, some will ask how we can ensure that the public will be protected from the release of potentially violent individuals. The answer is clear. Judges already have the ability, indeed the responsibility, to make such judgments. Wealth of the defendant should have no relevance. In fact, when bail is a choice, those who are dangerous but can afford it become a threat. 

One of the very important things the Pretrial Fairness Act would do is require judges to do a much better job of determining who should sit in jail and who should be released. Right now, in too many cases, bewildered defendants, accompanied by public defenders who barely know them, appear before a judge for an average of about 40 seconds.

The bill includes many other sensible reforms. It will, in effect, “deputize police,” thereby expanding their ability to release those arrested without requiring a pretrial appearance before a judge. Of special relevance to Clergy for a New Drug Policy, it does not permit the pretrial incarceration of people accused of low-level drug possession.

In short, there are many important policy reasons why those of us in Illinois should support the Pretrial Fairness Act, and those of you across the country should insist upon similar legislation for your state. 

But at the end of the day, the words of Sharone Mitchell, Director of the Illinois Justice Project, capture what matters most: “What we talking about is punishing people pretrial, not because a judge is saying that they’re too risky to be released or anything, but just because they are poor, and that’s just not right.”  

Major Steps Forward on Election Day

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Legalization, Marijuana Legalization

As a result of ballot initiatives approved in six states on Election Day, it now possible to visualize an end to the War on Drugs with some clarity.  

The most dramatic breakthrough, of course, was the strong mandate – 59% in favor and 41% opposed – to decriminalize low-level drug possession in Oregon. “Yes on Measure 110” means that treatment rather than criminalization will be an option for all persons using drugs who seek it.  

CNDP endorsed and publicized this initiative. Our piece in the current issue of The Christian Century describes how the initiative will work, and why we believe what happened in Oregon is not just an isolated phenomenon in a predominantly liberal state.  Instead, it is a harbinger of what we will see elsewhere soon.  

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “The Oregon victory demonstrates that decriminalization is politically viable, spurring potential efforts in other states, including California, Vermont, and Washington, and even in Congress.”  

Legalization of cannabis for adult use also received a strong mandate. Initiatives were approved in four states:  Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey.  South Dakota also approved medical cannabis, along with Mississippi. We were especially gratified by the results in New Jersey, where we traveled last January to recruit clergy and testify on behalf of the Initiative.  

No longer do we need to think of cannabis legalization as something inching its way forward.  Fifteen states, covering one-third of the U.S. population, have taken this step.  70% of all states have now approved medical cannabis. 

Especially striking is the fact that all sections of the country are stepping forward. We were delighted, and frankly, a little surprised, when Oklahoma approved medical cannabis three years ago. But now we see Mississippi and South Dakota approving initiatives. All of this makes it reasonable to anticipate some kind of breakthrough on cannabis legislation at the federal level within perhaps the next couple of years, if not sooner. 

To all of you who have participated in the work of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, thank you for all you have done to help bring about these results.  

Yaa Gyasi Tackles the Opioid Epidemic, and So Much More, in Transcendent Kingdom

Tom Houseman Guest Pieces, Harm Reduction

“We read the Bible how we want to read it,” explains Gifty, the protagonist and narrator of Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. “It doesn’t change, but we do.” If there is one idea at the core of Gyasi’s brilliant and heartbreaking new novel, it is about how people change, whether they want to or not, and what happens when they no longer recognize who they used to be, or when the people they love don’t recognize who they’ve become.

Transcendent Kingdom is about contradictions, whether between religion and science, community and isolation, or what we choose and what is beyond our control. It is about the struggle that we all experience when faced with absolute confrontations, when there are no sides to be picked, clear right or wrong choices, or tidy resolutions. Sometimes the only answer to an impossible question is to accept that there is no answer, a conclusion that can be equally challenging to people looking to either a church or a laboratory for resolution.

Gifty has lived in both places. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Gifty grew up in the deeply religious and almost entirely white town of Huntsville, Alabama. Her life is a series of tragedies outside of her control: Her father moves back to Ghana, abandoning her family; her older brother dies of a heroin overdose; her mother develops depression and attempts suicide.

Gifty feels like an outsider in Huntsville, but when she spends a summer in Ghana, she feels alienated from that culture as well. These are the contradictions that plague Gifty:  she is a foreigner wherever she goes, and the comfort she finds in religion is crushed by the losses she experiences.

She decides to put her faith in science, to pursue her PhD in Neuroscience at Stanford. Gifty studies neuroscience because she wants to understand what went wrong in the brains of her mother and brother. She grapples with her own internal contradictions, knowing she shouldn’t blame either of them for their circumstances, but still feeling anger and resentment. “This science was a way for me to challenge myself,” she says, “to do something truly hard, and in so doing to work through all of my misunderstandings about [my brother’s] addiction and all of my shame. Because I still have so much shame. I’m full to the brim with it; I’m spilling over.”

But even as she pursues knowledge through the scientific process, she cannot completely abandon her religious upbringing. “I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way,” she confesses, “but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth.” There are some questions, she knows, that science might never be able to answer.

Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, after her acclaimed debut Homegoing. Her writing is poetic in its bluntness, moving briskly while still allowing the reader to sit with its heaviest moments, and few novels have tackled the opioid epidemic with such ferocious honesty.

Gifty’s response to her brother’s substance use disorder, and his death, reflect the pain and helplessness that so many people experience in the face of a loved one’s struggles: “In just that short amount of time, Nana’s addiction had become the sun around which all of our lives revolved. I didn’t want to stare directly at it.” But she is also willing to challenge her own assumptions and beliefs about this illness. “It’s true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own. The waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”

Gifty’s narration twists and weaves through time, from childhood to college to life as a PhD student in the space of paragraphs. There is no arc to the story because there is no arc to Gifty’s life. But Transcendent Kingdom is transfixing not in its tidiness, but in its messiness. It wrestles with questions not to give us answers, but to force us to ask them of ourselves. “The hard part,” Gifty explains about scientific experimentation, “is trying to figure out what the question is.” It can be hard to find the right questions to ask, especially when we might not want to know the answer.

Everyone is full of contradictions, but Transcendent Kingdom is about loving someone, be it family, friends, ourselves, or God, in spite of those contradictions. It isn’t easy, but the struggle is intrinsic to the process. For Gifty, as for so many of us, it’s not about the answers. It’s about being willing to keep asking questions.

Tom Houseman was the Policy Director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy for two years. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel. You can find him at www.tomhousemanwrites.com.

Will Oregon Be the First?

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, OR, State

Over the summer, like all of us, I adjusted to life in a world of the coronavirus (no, my family and I have not contracted it). In that time of enforced solitude, I focused on longer-term writing projects. As I resume newsletters, I am writing to you now on a topic of seismic importance. On November 3, voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative that would make Oregon the first state to decriminalize the possession of all drugs.

If approved, the proposed measure will strike at the heart of the War on Drugs, both at home and abroad. Many other states will have to follow suit for this to become a national movement. It may take a long time for the massive drug war bureaucracy to wither away.  But at the end of the day, why fight a War on Drugs when drug possession is not a crime?

This measure is not the same as drug legalization.  Selling drugs would continue to be a crime.  But possession of low amounts of drugs would not. Last year, about 8,900 individuals were arrested in Oregon solely for low level drug possession. They would not be subject to arrest under the proposed law.  Instead, they would be offered the opportunity for treatment.

Campaign organizers collected over 150,000 signatures, far more than the 112,000 required to get their measure on the ballot. Called “Yes on 110,” the measure is likely to pass. Opposition so far has been slight. Over 100 organizations, including mental health and treatment providers, unions, African-American and Latinx activists, and legal advocacy groups, have endorsed the initiative. It is significant that law enforcement officials in Oregon have signed on as well.

“Yes on 110” is likely to succeed precisely because the initiative is about treatment for addicts not criminalization. I cannot improve on the opening words of the initiative:

“The people of Oregon find that drug addiction and overdoses are a serious problem in Oregon and that Oregon needs to expand access to drug treatment.”

“The people of Oregon further find that a health-based approach to addiction and overdose is more effective, humane, and cost-effective than criminal punishments. Making people criminals because they suffer from addiction is expensive, ruins lives and can make access to treatment and recovery more difficult.”  

“The purpose of this Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act of 2020 is to make health assessment, treatment and recovery services for drug addiction available to all those who need and want access to services and adopt a health approach to drug addiction by removing criminal penalties for low-level drug possession.”  


The proposed legislation would establish addiction recovery centers within each of the state’s 13 coordinated care service areas. Individuals possessing a low level of any drug (up to one gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, less than 40 pills of oxycodone, for example) would not be subjected to criminal punishment. Instead, individuals would receive a $100 fine which could be waived upon the completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.  

The centers would triage the needs of all individuals; services would be free and providers could seek insurance reimbursement. Funding for these services would come from cannabis taxes which have outpaced estimates following legalization in 2014, as well as savings from an anticipated reduction in the number of arrests under the new legislation. An Oversight and Accountability Council appointed by the Oregon Health Authority would provide grants to the treatment centers and oversee their operation. 

As the Oregon initiative nears success, I am reminded of Linda Woodhouse’s tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, published in the Washington Post:

“We all have goals, big or small, and we all encounter obstacles to accomplishing some of them. But only a few have the turn of mind to confront head-on the structural obstacles that stand in their way. Some do it with the gift of an outsize personality that can inspire others and galvanize them to action. …That wasn’t Ruth Ginsburg. 

As a lawyer appearing before the Supreme Court, she presented herself as a modest incrementalist. She had to. If she had come before the court as a social revolutionary, the justices — never having viewed the Constitution as having anything to say about women — would have recoiled.”

It is the same with the Oregon initiative.  If this measure passes, it will be due to the incremental work of so many in states across the nation. It has taken a broad coalition, led especially by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project, more than 25 years to get to this point. Eighteen states have defelonized the possession of small amounts of drugs like heroin and cocaine (use is still a misdemeanor), 33 have approved medical cannabis, and 11 have legalized adult recreational use. New Jersey and Arizona are the states most likely to legalize cannabis on November 3. In no state has this been easy.

There is a long way to go before the shameful War on Drugs is history in the United States. We are not there yet, but we are on the way. Thank you, Oregon!

I am pleased to share the statements of a few of the many who have endorsed “Yes on 110,” including several ministers. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon has been significant voice in support. May these voices inspire you as the opportunity to support drug decriminalization comes to your state, as it surely will.  

Keep safe, and get out the vote.

Sincerely,

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, 
Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy



ENDORSERS:

Nate Macy, Pastor, Yamhill County
“Our communities need to work towards justice and the end of systemic oppression. Providing people with addictions with compassion and care is one way we can work towards that, and build stronger communities. This initiative gives pragmatic tools to help make that compassionate care accessible to more people.”

Rev. Tara Wilkins, Pastor, Bridgeport United Church of Christ
“I believe that we have a responsibility to care for those on the margins, that includes people who are addicted to drugs. Instead of punishing and judging, we should provide people who are addicted to drugs with the love, respect, treatment and support they need to recover and heal. That’s why I support this initiative.”

Rev. Connie Yost, President, Farm Worker Ministries Northwest
“As a people of faith, Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  People struggling with drug addiction should be treated with compassion and care, not criminalization.  It is our shame that Oregon ranks last out of all the states in the availability of treatment and recovery services.  We can and must do much derecognized better than that bypassing Measure 110 which I support because it will provide critically needed funding for treatment, recovery, harm reduction and sober housing services in Oregon.”

Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Portland’s UnShul/As the Spirit Moves Us
“I support the Measure 110 because those suffering with addiction are in need of healing, not imprisonment. This brilliant measure has a ready-made income source, and it will eliminate the expense of incarcerating those who should not be in jail in the first place. We need to pass the initiative and ever more integrated solutions like it if we want to achieve our vision of building a just, equitable and compassionate society.”

Rabbi Michael Cahana, Temple Beth Israel
“Drug addiction is a serious health problem in our community. It destroys lives and families. But criminalization has proven to be a terrible tool to save those afflicted. It is discriminatory and furthers the cycle of family separation. I support Measure 110 because treatment and recovery are the paths to overcoming addiction.”

Amanda Marshall, Former US Attorney for the State of Oregon
“I spent 20 years immersed in the criminal & juvenile systems in Oregon as a prosecutor, child welfare lawyer, US Attorney and criminal defense attorney. I have witnessed first-hand the devastating failures of criminalizing, shaming and stigmatizing people who suffer from substance use disorder. As both a person in recovery and the mom of a teen in recovery, I can’t escape the truth that what separates me and my son from the people who are prosecuted for possession is our privilege. When we needed treatment, we left the state of Oregon to find it. The options we had aren’t available to most Oregonians suffering from substance use disorder. It’s time to end the insanity. Vote yes on Measure 110.”

Pete Tutmark, Sergeant, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office (retired)
“Looking back on my 33 year career in Oregon law enforcement, I believe the criminal/punishment model for addressing drug addiction has failed. This is a public health crisis and should be treated as such. Nobody wins when police spend our days punishing people for drug possession. Every person we arrest for drugs is one more person who refuses to talk to us when we’re questioning witnesses and gathering clues. Our drug laws make police work harder and communities less safe.”

Mike Schmidt, District Attorney, Multnomah County
“It’s time for a change in our public safety system so that drugs are not used as an excuse for arresting people, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color. Misguided drug laws have created deep disparities in the justice system. Arresting people with addictions is a cruel punishment because it slaps them with a lifelong criminal record that can ruin lives, exactly when they need better access to supportive services. We need to change our approach. Lowering criminal penalties for simple drug possession and providing more drug treatment and recovery services to help people move forward with their lives—these are the two pillars of Measure 110. Please join me in voting yes.”

How We Can Seize the Moment

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Diversion, Racial Inequality

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

When George Floyd was killed, we were already tragically familiar with black death due to police brutality —Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown, Aumaud Arbery, and, most recently, Breonna Taylor since 2014 alone. Despite short and largely localized expressions of outrage, little had changed. But might this be a turning point? 

A black leader in my church commented, “What happened this time really showed the whole world how we treat our people in this country.” In the past,” she went on, “maybe our slip was showing. This time we were butt naked.”   

The protests are continuing three weeks after George Floyd was murdered. A new generation of young people is involved. The call for change is multi-racial. National, state, and city officials and legislators are speaking out. The world is watching, and protests are happening globally.   

But will anything be different now? I think it is possible.  

For decades we have been saying we need to change hearts and minds. This must always be our goal. Sadly, that kind of change happens slowly, and the deaths continue. I cannot bear the thought that what seems like the possibility of real, meaningful, reform will somehow slip away. 

Martin Luther King once sardonically observed, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.”  Although we pray for so much more, we must at the very least stop the modern-day lynchings – all too many in the name of an immoral drug war —  by seizing the moment to write new laws and regulations and throw out bad ones.  Here are three changes that can happen relatively quickly.  

The first is for cities to revise police contracts. I recall two cases of police abuse that led to death in Chicago in 1996. The facts were damning, and community activists called for accountability.  But they found that over many years the City had bargained its way to a police contract that made it virtually impossible to monitor, discipline, and fire officers — even after multiple offenses.  

Even today, anonymous citizen complaints are not permitted. Records from inquiries into possible police misconduct are expunged after five years. Officers have 24 hours to coordinate their account of shootings in which they are involved. No wonder police have the impression they can get away with murder. 

If city officials cannot resist political pressure from police unions there is a new and promising path to accountability — the licensing of police at the state level.  In the words of Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot, “If I go get my nails done … the person who is handling my nails is licensed by the state. If I go get a haircut, the barber is licensed by the state.” Why not police? Both the Mayor and Illinois Governor J. B, Pritzker seem ready to press for this reform.  

Second, the law can change whom police choose to arrest. Right now, all low-level drug offenders can be charged with a felony. This cripples them. If jailed, they are likely to lose their jobs and be separated from their families. They have little chance of obtaining employment or housing upon release. Life with a felony record is a life without a future for those who are poor and black.  

We can reduce arrests by supporting the national movement for what is called police diversion, or “deflection.” When police see those suffering from drug addiction—often individuals they have been recycling through the criminal justice system —instead of jail they already have the discretion to steer them to drug treatment and other services. Over 800 police districts have already initiated deflection in some form. This should become national practice. 

The third possibility is to carry deflection to its logical conclusion by decriminalizing all drugs. Right now, over half-a-million individuals are incarcerated in each year solely for drug possession. Yes, half-a-million. We can end this mindless and slow-motion violence right now. Impossible, you say? Consider: in Oregon signatures are now being gathered for a ballot initiative in November that would make it the first state to take this step. As others follow suit, this will collectively sound the death knell of the already failed War on Drugs. 

What change can we expect in days and months ahead? Let us start with reforms that will limit what even the racists among us are permitted to do in our society. Laws matter. Regulations matter. Such changes are within our grasp. If we stop the lynching, hearts and minds will follow. Dr. King knew that over fifty years ago. It is no less true today. 

Sincerely,

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, 
Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy


A REFLECTION ON HOPE

This message was posted last Monday on Facebook by my son-in-law Brendan Brown. He and my daughter Joanna and their two young children have just moved to Old Irving Park, Chicago. Brendon has kindly permitted me to share these words with you. I believe you will find them as moving as I did. Brendan, we share your hope. 

On the morning of Sunday, June 7, I took a walk with my two year-old son because we needed something to do. As we made our way around the new neighborhood we just moved into during a pandemic (introductions have been scarce), we saw people with signs and strollers on their way to a Family March for Equality. I saw an opportunity to, hopefully, make an impression on my son, however minutely, that might linger in his head somewhere. 

As we merged into the procession, a man near me said something about what a nice day it was and I said something about what a nice turnout it was. And then he replied, ‘Yeah, it makes me proud to live in this neighborhood.’ 

And I started crying.

The essence of what he said cut through the calm and personal reserve I usually try to maintain.

All of this is about being proud of your neighborhood. It begins at home. To see so many people who didn’t all look like me and didn’t all look like each other. On a Sunday morning, when they didn’t ‘have’ to be there. With their children. It wasn’t performative and it resonated in a way that struck me deeply.

The thought that my kids, the grandchildren of a Black man who grew up in Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s, might grow up in a country that is not just technically different, but materially and functionally different than the America that he and I grew up in, gives me hope. I know better than to believe that what we’ve seen lately is anything resembling meaningful change. But when I look into the faces of my children, all I see is hope. I want to be able to return it to them. We have to.