Friday, November 22, 2013

U.S. Atty Gen Holder Rejects Mass Incarceration, 'One-Size-Fits All' Security Policies

Speaking at a meeting of the hemisphere's security ministers in Medellin yesterday, United States Attorney General Eric Holder touted the Obama administration's efforts to curb mandatory minimum sentences. He also backed a more heterodox approach to citizen security, a sign of a subtle shift in the U.S.-backed “War on Drugs” in the region.

Holder delivered his address at the Fourth Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas (MISPA IV), a biannual OAS-sponsored conference designed to promote policy coordination on the issue. Press coverage of the event has focused on Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza’s calls for deeper cooperation (see EFE) or on the symbolic significance of Medellin as the venue (El Colombiano, AP), with most outlets glossing over Holder’s statement.  

This is a shame, because it contained some interesting tidbits for drug policy reformers. The full speech is available here. Highlights include:
“We must cooperate if we are to protect our respective citizens from the criminal enterprises that threaten our national and international interests. And we must acknowledge that none among us can fight this battle on our own, or by implementing a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach.” 
“As President Obama and I have discussed many times over the years – and as I have repeatedly made clear – the path we are currently on is far from sustainable. As we speak, roughly one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars. Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. While few would dispute the fact that incarceration has a role to play in any comprehensive public safety strategy, it’s become evident that such widespread incarceration is both inadvisable and unsustainable.” 
“While my colleagues and I recognize that the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes will always be necessary, the reality is that we will never prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. No country can succeed with such an approach.”
While it’s not a full endorsement of decriminalization or legalization, as many drug policy reform advocates would like, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. These remarks indicate that the Obama administration’s criticism of mandatory minimum sentencing is not solely for domestic consumption. Holder’s use of the forum to focus on prison overcrowding and alternative security policies suggests the U.S. is open to promoting similar reforms abroad.

If this is the case, the administration would be hard-pressed to find a better target than Mexico, which -- like the U.S. -- is seeing its prison population rise due to an influx of low-level drug offenders.  The proportion of Mexicans in prison has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s, growing from 103 inmates per 100,000 citizens in 1996 to 204 in 2012. According to a 2011 study by Catalina Perez Correa of the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE), 74 percent of investigations initiated by Mexican public prosecutors for drug trafficking-related crimes that year involved charges of possession and consumption (23 percent were exclusively for consumption). The vast majority of these were non-violent cases, with no other crimes implicated.

If the Obama administration is serious about encouraging targeted law enforcement and smart incarceration in the region, Mexico would be a great place to start.

News Briefs
  • Also on Holder’s visit to Colombia, news site La Silla Vacia notes that a Wednesday meeting between the attorney general and President Juan Manuel Santos could have important consequences for the next round of peace talks in Havana, which will focus on the illicit drug trade.
  • Cooperativa reports leading Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet appeared in public with student leaders-turned-congresswomen-elect Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola yesterday, in a press conference in which both former activists expressed support for Bachelet and the center-left New Majority coalition. The AP notes that Vallejo stated she is optimistic about the potential for meaningful education reform following the December 15 runoff elections.
  • Opponents of Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill have once again raised objections about its constitutionality. Weeks after erroneously reporting that the measure violated a constitutional ban on creating new state offices one year before a general election, this morning Uruguay’s conservative leading daily El Pais is claiming that its provisions mandating drug awareness education in schools infringe upon the autonomy of the National Public Education Administration (ANEP). According to the paper, leading lawmakers of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition “recognize its unconstitutionality,” but plan to pass the measure in the Senate before the end of the year anyway to avoid another tough battle in the lower house.
  • Ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras, La Prensa notes that each of the main candidates has shifted their campaign discourse to focus on insecurity, which could ultimately be the deciding factor in the race. Meanwhile, RNS of Honduras Culture and Politics profiles an OAS report on the Honduran vote counting system. While local press has focused on the report’s praise of the system, the author points out that it identified significant flaws as well, which the regional body said needed to be addressed in order to properly ensure the validity of results.
  • A report published by the Brazilian Forum of Public Security earlier this month, which found evidence that some 1,890 people died at the hands of police in 2012 (an average of five people a day) generated controversy and a fueled the country’s conversation on police abuse. InSight Crime’s Miriam Wells has an outstanding overview of the report’s main findings, complemented by remarks from Brazil experts on the contributing factors behind extrajudicial killings, which include a lack of oversight and unequal access to justice for the poor.
  •  As expected, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro put his decree powers to use yesterday, passing a law capping private companies’ profit margins to 15-30 percent, and another which charges a new agency with allocating dollars at the official rate.
  • At a press conference in Guayaquil on Tuesday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa promised to resign if Chevron could prove that his government interfered in the suit against the oil giant for environmental damages. “Let Chevron prove that the government interfered in the judgment and I will resign my post,” Correa said. By this author’s count, the remark is the second time that Correa has threatened to resign in the past two months, following a similar threat he made in early October if lawmakers passed an abortion decriminalization measure.
  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), in collaboration with investigative journalist Tracey Eaton, has produced a short two-part documentary on the shortcomings of USAID’s democracy promotion programs on the island. Eaton interviewed a wide range of academics, policy experts and democracy activists for the series, including opposition figure Reinaldo Escobar, who claims: “The main mistake that the United States has committed regarding Cuba is to stubbornly refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the government of Cuba.  That’s everything.” In the second part, CDA Director Sarah Stephens argues that shifting immediate U.S. priorities away from regime change and towards transparent engagement is ultimately more in line with its national interests.
  • The AP takes a look at the Mexican city of Oaxaca’s experimental police force, a group of some 20 deaf and mute individuals who have been hired to monitor the country’s surveillance cameras. Dubbed “The Angels of Silence,” the individuals were hired due to their unique abilities to read lips and interpret threatening body language.
  • David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights have published the third installment in a series of posts on public attitudes towards citizen security policy in the country. The two added questions relating to the government’s security and police reforms to pollster Datanalisis’ August-September survey, which revealed that general attitudes towards the security policies are divided along political lines. Interestingly, however, Smilde and Hanson find that support for PSUV-backed efforts to promote less “mano dura” policing is greater among the opposition than among supporters, which is likely due to class differences. This, they argue, illustrates the difficult “tightrope” that security reformers face as a result of the country’s polarized political climate.

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