Law and Disorder Radio – Campaign to Release Elderly Prisoners – Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Circumvented for Non-Violent Drug Offenders – William Kunstler’s Performance at Caroline’s Comedy Club – Hosts: Heidi Boghosian, Michael Steven Smith & Michael Ratner – Produced by Geoff Brady

Law and Disorder Radio

Campaign to Release Elderly Prisoners

Here on Law and Disorder we’ve reported about the Compassionate Release Program regarding Lynne Stewart’s condition. The CRP is designed to reduce the number of elderly and sick people in prison, if they have a terminal health condition or a significant and permanent non-terminal health condition, disease or syndrome. This program is part of a larger effort to release aging prisoners in the United States. Nationally, the number of prisoners over age 55 nearly quadrupled from 1995 to 2010, eight times the pace of growth for the total prison population, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Because of long sentences handed out in the ’70’s and ’80’s, American prisons now serve as quasi-nursing homes, albeit lacking the long-term care we associate with geriatric facilities. We talk today about a major new initiative called Release Aging People in Prison that’s working to make prison parole boards correctly assess elderly prisoner risk and get them out.


Laura Whitehorn:

  • In New York State, there are about 9,200 prisoners at the moment above the age of 50.
  • By 2030, it’s estimated that about a third of the entire incarcerated population will be over the age of 40. There will be at least 400,000.
  • For the last 20 years this country has been drunk on the concept of lock ’em up and throw away the key.
  • You lock ’em up and throw away the key…they’re gonna get old.
  • Our project is called Release Aging People in Prison.
  • These people have done a lot of time and the lowest rate of recidivism is in this group. They’re over the age of 50, have done 15-20 years in prison and have committed murder.
  • This group is ready to be released without a threat to public safety.
  • You’ve advocated for Lynne Stewart on this show for compassionate release. She’s in the federal system.
  • The Feds are very stingy with compassionate release; so is the state of New York. In 2011, I think they let out 8 people on compassionate release, in a year when 200 people died in the system.
  • I’m now 68, but I feel about 78 on some days.
  • We don’t really need a new law to release the people we’re talking about.
  • What we need is for the parole board to follow the law. What we need is the state to follow the law for compassionate release for those who are ill.
  • One thing we’re doing is we’re trying to join with other people in the state who’ve had enough of the way that parole board denies people over and over again and say use actual risk assessments that do exist.
  • If the risk is low, let them go.
  • RAPP – Release Aging People in Prison

Mujahid Farid:

  • The issue of mass incarceration has many facets. The impact on some communities is from the cradle to the grave.
  • The prison population has somewhat stabilized. It’s still at a rate that beats out every other country. Although that rate has stabilized it hasn’t done so with the elderly.
  • In New York State, the prison population has gone down 24 percent in the last 10 years.
  • During that same 10 years the population of the elderly in prison increased by 64 percent.
  • The zeitgeist in this country is about punishment and never giving up on punishing a person, especially those committed for serious crimes.
  • In my own case, I had a sentence of 15 years to life. You would assume if I did the minimum sentence, if there were indications I had rehabilitated myself and shown that I was a changed person, that I would’ve been released. But that didn’t happen. I served 18 years above and beyond that 15-year sentence.
  • The sentencing structure that allows what we’re talking about is called an indeterminate sentencing structure. That means you’re given a minimum and a maximum.
  • Some people get 10 to 20, some people get 10 to 15, and others with the most serious crimes get a number and on the end they get letters.
  • In that indeterminate sentencing structure, there’s an indication that the prisoner should be released if they’re reformed or rehabilitated at that minimum posed term.
  • In my case, I received a 15-life on attempted murder of a police officer. He didn’t get a scratch.
  • That was the least amount imposed on me; I couldn’t get any less.
  • So a person who is serving a sentence such as that would have an expectation of 15 years or whatever they have to be released if they change.
  • To not give them a reason for the denial, saying it’s the nature of the crime, takes away hope from a person.
  • I was arrested in 1978. I went upstate within 6 months. Before that 6 months came I had earned my GED. I did that while facing trial.
  • I went upstate with no expectation of serving 15 years. I actually thought that because of the facts I was convicted for that I would eventually win on appeal.
  • Within a few years, I had earned an Associates Degree in Business. I went on and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts.
  • Shortly after that, I earned a Master’s Degree in Sociology and then I earned another Master’s Degree in Ministry.
  • All of that happened before that 15-year period.
  • None of that was considered by the parole board when I entered that 15-year mark.
  • They simply denied me and didn’t give me any guidance on what I could do to better myself to earn release.

Guest  – Laura Whitehorn is an ex-political prisoner and native New Yorker, who was active in supporting groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Movement and was active with Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. Laura also worked to expose the FBI’s COINTELPRO program.

Guest – Mujahid Farid is investigating potential mechanisms for increasing release rates for incarcerated aging people at the Correctional Association in New York. He’s spent more than three decades incarcerated in New York. He co-founded the Prisoners AIDS Counseling & Education program and helped design prison-based sociology and theology courses that allowed others to earn college credits in prison. He also earned four college degrees and other certifications while in prison, including his paralegal certificate, New York State Department of Labor Certificate in Human Development Counseling, and New York City Department of Health Certificate in HIV/AIDS Counseling.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Circumvented for Non-Violent Drug Offenders

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would begin reassessing the harsh mandatory minimum sentences on non-violent drug offenders that unfairly target young African-Americans and Hispanics, some drug reform advocates said it was a breakthrough. However, our guest Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says there was no mention of clemency or pardons for those imprisoned with disproportionately long sentences. Attorney General Holder mentioned that the United States represents about 5 percent of the world’s total population and it incarcerates nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The Drug Policy Alliance has made great strides in criminal justice reforms and to help decriminalize marijuana in states such as Colorado and Washington.

Ethan Nadelmann:

Early on in the first term, President Obama and Attorney General Holder, working with Drug Policy Alliance and a whole range of allied groups, did actually change the penalties, the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine.

Then they dropped the ball. They did nothing in the following years.

The substance of the recent speech by Holder was important, by saying he was going to issue explicit directives to US attorneys around the country that would effect the way they charge people, especially low-level players in drug trafficking organizations. They’re really pushing this through in a bipartisan way.

I think Holder does regard this as a legacy issue.

Obama has recently mentioned incarceration and the need to reduce it in the context of memorializing Martin Luther King Jr.

We’ve seen the drug law violators decline from 65 percent of the total of federal prisoners to 48 percent of the total, even as the absolute numbers have gone up.

I think we’re going to see low-level drug violators charged in different ways. One thing about mandatory minimums is they shift the discretion from judges to prosecutors.

Mandatory minimums empower prosecutors at the hand of judges.

I think what we’ll see is a downshifting in how much prosecutors are looking for. We’ll see fewer people going to prison on federal drug charges.

Legislators are notoriously resistant to having sentencing reforms be retroactive. They’re willing to say going forward we’ll reduce the sentence but we’re not going to touch the issue of the people who are locked up under the old laws.

I bet we will see some movement on behalf of the people who are behind bars as well.

Non-violent drug law offenders, sitting there for 10 or 20 years. Statewide, 20 percent of all inmates are in for drugs and in the federal prisons it’s 50 percent.

  • Half of all drug arrests in America are for marijuana, overwhelmingly for marijuana in small amounts.
  • When states move forward with the ballot initiative process to legalize marijuana either for medical purposes, which 20 states have now done, or more broadly for all adults which Washington and Colorado have done, that presents a basic issue for the federal government.
  • What the US attorney general’s office can do is offer guidelines saying to US attorneys around the country, here are our priorities, here’s how we think you should handle this.
  • The feds are basically saying, we get it, that legally regulating marijuana may accomplish the objectives of federal drug control more effectively than continuing an ineffective prohibitionist policy.
  • New York was one of 11 states that decriminalized the possession of marijuana of less than ounce, back in the ’70s. Which means you could have less than ounce in your pocket or home and it’s like a traffic ticket.
  • But if it’s in public view, then you can be arrested. It’s a misdemeanor offense.
  • New York is the only state in the Northeast that hasn’t legalized medical marijuana.
  • Every 2 years we organize the leading gathering in the world of people who are against the drug war.

Guest – Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs.

William Kunstler’s Performance at Caroline’s Comedy Club

We hear a part of William Kunstler’s presentation at Caroline’s Comedy Club. This was his last public appearance. He shares a great story about a particular dialogue with a judge and an envelope of marijuana.