State Roundup

What you didn't hear on the nightly news: Cause of Cincinnati unrest defined

What caused a major outbreak of rioting in the historic Riverfront City of Cincinnati, the worst such eruption in the United States in nearly a decade? Author Daniel Lazare in the Columbia Journalism Review recently answered that question in the May/June 2001 issue. Lazare's article, Cincinnati and the X-Factor, delves into the answers.

The April 7th killing of an unarmed black teenager named Timothy Thomas by a 27-year- old cop who, police officials claim, thought Thomas was reaching for a gun was the spark that ignited a simmering pool of racial unrest in the Cincinnati community called Over-the-Rhine. No gun was found on the teenaged victim.

The uprising began soon after Timothy was shot. Following the killing, the major media blamed rioting on "racial tension." Only one paper, the Dayton Daily News, printed a story about the initial spark for the rioting, and no other news sources picked it up.

In Cincinnati and the X-Factor, Lazare condemns the lack of investigative journalism. "Useful as such reporting may be, what was most notable about Cincinnati riot coverage was the way it steered determinedly clear of a development that is new, important, and about as hard to miss as an elephant perched on a Chippendale chair. This is the War on Drugs and the increasingly aggressive policing it brings," Lazare wrote.

The Dayton Daily News reported in April, following the death of Timothy Thomas, that for three years the city has been enforcing a bizarre law that could get anyone arrested for drugs, even suspicion of drug involvement, and banned from the neighborhood for 90 days. Over-the-Rhine had been declared by city officials to be a "drug exclusion zone." For three years the community was under literal siege by the police, until January 2000 when a federal judge struck it down following a suit filed by the ACLU of Ohio.

Called aggressive policing by officials, citizens complained they were harassed incessantly by police. One citizen was stopped and handcuffed some thirty times by police checking to see if he had a "right" to be in the community. Mothers could not see children, homeless people could not find shelter. Making matters lethal, the police have shot and killed 15 black citizens since 1994, and four have taken place since November 2000. Some residents insist the police don't leave their cars without pulling a gun.

"We got police video cameras on the corner watching people; we got drug laws excluding them, and yet they have no effect in fighting crime," said the Rev. Damon Lynch III. A Baptist minister who heads the Cincinnati Black United Front, Lynch told Lazare, "All these laws do is take away people's civil liberties."

Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the Ohio ACLU, maintains that measures like the drug exclusion law are part of a tapestry of abuses that's led to a culture of hostility between the African-American community and the police. It's one more way that over-policing has brought the community to the explosive brink.

Lazare concluded, "Cincinnati's drug and policing policies are not an anomaly; they reflect the drug and policing policies of the nation. If the War on Drugs is seen as a racially biased and destructive invasion of Over-the-Rhine, then the United States - not just Cincinnati - is moving backward, not forward. The poorest and most vulnerable people are under constant pressure. Since this is a good deal more disturbing than we care to admit, conventional journalists look for all the ways that Cincinnati is behind the times - and fail to notice the various ways in which it may be leading. What's that about the dead canaries in the mine? These journalists' conventional stories may be reassuring to middle-class readers who never tire of being reminded how enlightened and up-to-date they are. That is far from the truth, however."

Daniel Lazare is the author, most recently, of America's Undeclared War: What's Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It.

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Hard Feelings: Fatal Shootout in Marijuana Raid
Reverberates in an Idaho County

On January 3, Jerome County Sheriff Jim Weaver got a tip that Eden, Idaho resident George Timothy Williams (known as Tim to his friends) was a major marijuana dealer. Wasting no time, Weaver that evening led a raid on Williams' residence. Within minutes, Williams and two Jerome County sheriff's deputies, James Moulson and Phillip Anderson, were dead, killed in a brief but furious firefight.

After the smoke cleared, police found four grams of marijuana in the home of what they continue to describe as a "suspected drug dealer."

"Tim was no drug dealer," Connie Chugg told DRCNet. "He liked to smoke a joint and he would keep himself supplied, but as for being a major drug dealer, that's absurd." Chugg and her husband Curtis, who describe themselves as Williams' "best friends," are still, six months after the event, deeply disturbed by their friend's death at the hands of local police.

They have reason to be disturbed. Williams was fingered by a new girlfriend, Mary Ann Taylor, according to press reports, but area residents familiar with Taylor, Williams and local law enforcement draw a darker and more detailed picture. "Mary Ann was a vulnerable woman," said one local resident who declined to be named. "She had a history of mental problems and drug problems and had already lost two children to the state. When the sheriff's people talked to her, they threatened to take away a third child if she did not provide information on drug deals," the source told DRCNet. According to press accounts, Taylor finally told sheriff's deputies she had observed a large quantity of marijuana at Williams' residence the previous evening. That was the basis for the fatal raid.

But other factors, also involving Mary Ann Taylor, were at play as well. According to press accounts confirmed by local sources, Taylor's former boyfriend had recently assaulted Williams in an incident recorded by police, and Williams, fearing for his physical safety, had armed himself. Friends of Williams also say he was hearing impaired.

"I'm sure Tim didn't even know who was breaking down his door," said Eden resident and Williams' friend Cindy Kopp. "He didn't deserve to die that way, and neither did the two young police officers who lost their lives."

The families of all three men killed in the raid have now filed wrongful death claims naming the county, Sheriff Weaver and informant Mary Ann Taylor, who has since vanished. The Williams family has filed a $10 million claim, the family of Deputy Anderson is asking for $5 million, and the family of Deputy Moulson seeks $2.4 million.

In the Anderson family claim against the county and the sheriff, attorneys wrote that Weaver acted on information from an informant of "questionable reliability" to get the search warrant, then added: "At the time the search warrant was obtained, Sheriff Weaver and Jerome County officers/agents knew that Mr. Williams had recently acquired several guns and armed himself because of past acts of violence involving Mr. Douglas Norgard, the ex-boyfriend of Ms. Taylor. Sheriff Weaver and Jerome County officials also knew (or should have known) that Mr. Williams was in fear for his life and was armed and dangerous." The claim also asserts that Weaver sent his "youngest and most inexperienced deputies" into Williams' home and that "by knowing and intentionally ordering Phillip Anderson to enter a dangerous and life-threatening situation, the Sheriff's office is responsible for his death.

Supreme Court rules Arkansas drug sentence unconstitutional

An Arkansas state prison sentence has proven to be too much for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On July 9th, the appeals court threw out a life sentence given to a 54-year-old first offender caught in possession of $20 worth of cocaine.

Grover Henderson was sentenced in Lafayette County in 1994 for possession of about a quarter-gram of cocaine. He had no prior criminal record. Although he appealed, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the sentence. The 8th Circuit disagreed. "This is one of those rare cases in which the sentence imposed is so harsh in comparison to the crime for which it was imposed that is unconstitutional," wrote the court, vacating the sentence and giving the state of Arkansas 90 days in which to re-sentence Henderson or free him.

Although Henderson has already served seven years for his quarter-gram, Lafayette County Prosecutor Brent Haltom told the Associated Press he would recommend another sentencing offer. Haltom said Henderson had previously rejected an 18-year sentence in return for a guilty plea.

Referring to Henderson's choice to appeal his sentence, Haltom generously commented, "We're not going to hold it against him that he went through the legal system."

Texas Prisoners Can't Call Home

By Roger Hummel

Most people know jail and prison inmates have access to telephones must make collect calls to talk with their loved ones on the outside, or use a pre-paid calling system-except in Texas. The 163,000+ state prisoners in Texas are not now and never have been allowed access to public telephones for outgoing calls, collect or otherwise. Prison officials enforce 19th century rules which forbid Texas prisoners to use public telephones.

In a rare flash of progressive thinking back in 1991, the State Comptroller, John Sharp proposed installing public telephones in Texas prisons. Sharp's plan would have allowed prisoners to make overpriced collect-only calls with the excess revenue being divided between the state and the communications company which installed and operated the telephone system.

Sharp's plan was vetoed by prison administrators who felt that allowing prisoners to make frequent calls, regardless of the fact that doing so might generate income for the state, would give prisoners more of an opportunity to plan crimes.

Currently, those Texas prisoners with trusty status who are classified as "minimum custody" and who have a virtually spotless disciplinary record are allowed to make one 5-minute collect telephone call to one individual on his or her state-approved Visitor List once every 90 days.

After submitting a written request to make a telephone cal and receiving approval from prison officials, a prisoner is summoned to the administration building during evening hours. After waiting for an hour or more, the prisoner is ushered into a small room occupied by a prison guard and two telephones. The guard dials the number, ensures that the called party accepts the charges, and then motions for the prisoner to pick up the second telephone. The guard starts a 5-minute timer and listens to both sides of the conversation with his finger on the receiver button to cut off the call if he doesn't approve of what he hears. After 5 minutes, the guard terminates the call, often in mid-sentence.

In a March 2000 interview, Larry Todd, a Texas prison system spokesman, said the system's current telephone practices are not likely to change any time soon. "Presently, inmates get a telephone call every 90 days," he said, adding that prison officials would oppose a for-profit contract system. "We are very satisfied with the current system."

As far as the concept of allowing prisoners to make direct calls using a prepaid debit card system similar to those used in other states, Todd said it is not likely. "The bookkeeping on that is enormous," he said. "Right now we don't have the staff to even implement such a program."

Constrained by a plantation-era mentality, Todd is surely unaware of computers and their application to routine bookkeeping chores. And, as with most other overpriced prison telephone systems, the communication company's staff handles the implementation and operation of such a program.

Todd also seems unaware that Texas is now spending millions of taxpayers' dollars pursuing American Correctional Association accreditation of its 100+ prisons and that ACA standards 3-4259 and 3-4439 require that prisoners be allowed access to public telephones.

About the same time that Larry Todd granted his interview, Gary Johnson, Director of the Institutional Division of the Texas prison system, was a guest speaker at the 5000+ member Texas Inmate Families Association meeting in Austin. When asked about installing telephones for prisoners' use, Johnson answered, "We are not ever considering adding this privilege." He noted that "prison is not a good place to be and never will be."

Consequently, the prisoners confined to the largest prison system in the United States have no access to public telephones and the free world can rest easy because Texas prisoners won't have more of an opportunity to plan crimes.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Indiana Sentencing

The recently adjourned Indiana General Assembly showed increasing signs of drug war fatigue this year as it passed into law measures that will get nonviolent drug offenders out of prison faster and make them ineligible for enhanced sentences under the state's habitual offender law (known as "the bitch"). But in the same session, it succumbed to the spreading methamphetamine hysteria, passing a law that will heighten meth penalties to bring them in line with those for cocaine and "narcotics."

Under Indiana law, trafficking in those drugs can bring a 20-year prison sentence. For the first time, some persons convicted of drug dealing offenses will be able to avoid prison by serving home detention or work release sentences instead. Other drug offenders will be eligible for earlier release under the state's newly implemented Community Transition Program.

Rep. B. Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) was a prime mover in the sentencing reforms. Bauer wrote the community release and habitual offender language and then inserted it into the state budget bill, which became law earlier this month. In an interview with the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette last week he sounded two themes: the cost of incarceration and the need to consider drug treatment.

"Many of these prisoners are drug offenders who are not dangerous to society. They are only dangerous to themselves," Bauer said. "We put them in prisons, which are known as schools of crime, they come out hardened and two out of three go back. We're trying to stem the tide of building prisons," he said. "It's a tax savings, but also perhaps we need to focus more on rehabilitation," Bauer added.

More than 3,600 of Indiana's 20,000 prisoners are doing time solely on drug charges, according to the Indiana Department of Corrections. Each costs the state between $25,000 and $30,000 annually to imprison. Indiana also holds 73 prisoners convicted only of drug offenses who have seen their sentences doubled under the state's habitual offender laws. Under the old laws, a person arrested for a felony charge could be charged as a habitual offender if he had two prior unrelated felony convictions.

Possession of illegal drugs other than marijuana is a felony in Indiana. The new habitual offender law, however, does not allow prosecutors to bring the charge if the new offense is a drug offense, if the previous felonies were drug offenses, and no more than one of them was a drug distribution offense.

Allen County (Fort Wayne) Prosecutor Robert Gevers II told the Journal Gazette his office used "the bitch" as a bargaining tactic by promising defendants not to use it in return for a guilty plea. He bemoaned the loss of leverage.

"We may end up filing fewer habitual offender charges, and you won't see sentences as long as they could be," a glum Gevers told the Fort Wayne newspaper before going on a brief rant about a real drug war. "If in fact the country determined that we were truly going to wage a war on drugs-as defined by a dictionary and not this piecemeal, half-hearted approach-we would not be having this conversation. It would be over," Gevers declaimed.

Allen County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Scheibenberger provided the Journal Gazette with one example of the law's impact. He sentenced Fort Wayne resident Alvin White to 20 years in prison last year, and added another 20 under the habitual offender law. White's prior convictions were for cocaine possession. Under the new law, White would not have been eligible for the doubled sentence.

Scheibenberger also hailed the new provision allowing persons convicted of drug distribution to qualify for home detention or work release. He told the newspaper the law would allow him to make a distinction in sentencing between entrepreneurs and addicts.

Not all legislators were in accord. "I don't agree that someone should be able to bypass prison altogether dealing narcotics at this level," Sen. David Long (R-Fort Wayne) told the Indianapolis Star.

The legislature also provided for earlier release dates for drug offenders. Under the state's Community Transition Program, nonviolent offenders can be released into a supervised setting as the end of their sentence draws near. Previously, prisoners had to be within 60 or 120 days of completing their sentences; now drug offenders need be only within six months. But the impact of this move will be limited. Release is not automatic, and according to the Journal Gazette, Allen County, in which judges have granted early release to only 15% of those eligible, has one of the state's highest participation rates.

Indiana lawmakers also took a step backward with the passage of a new methamphetamine law. Under siege from law enforcement and a sensation-seeking mass media-the Indianapolis Star editorialized in April about "bracing for a methamphetamine epidemic"-the solons voted to heighten meth possession, manufacture, and distribution penalties to make them as tough as the state's penalties for heroin and cocaine. The bill also makes it a crime to transport or store the precursor chemicals used in meth's manufacture, and increases criminal penalties for the theft of anhydrous ammonia, widely used by farmers in fertilizers, but also widely used by amateur meth cooks.

Indiana's schizophrenic approach to drug policy this year was exemplified by the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, which lobbies lawmakers on crime issues. The group could not arrive at a consensus on the drug bills, Executive Director Steve Johnson told the Journal Gazette. The group had "a slew of opinions" but could not reach agreement, he said.

"There's a lot of consideration about the effectiveness of the laws. Everyone is trying to figure out the best way to handle this," Johnson said. "We are not waving the white flag. States all over the country are just examining the war on drugs."