Solvable Problems: Marijuana, Cash Bail, Homelessness

Finding the fix for three concentric concerns facing Americans

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Marijuana, and its active element THC, have long been a part of America. Hemp — the plant from which marijuana comes — was a popular crop for colonists. THC was a frequent element in their over-the-counter remedies. For centuries, the drug was accepted. The demonization of marijuana as an illicit drug has its roots in the pushback against Mexican immigrants during the early 20th century. Its full criminalization occurred during Pres. Richard Nixon’s 1970s War on Drugs when his administration designated marijuana as a Schedule I drug.

Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman, later admitted that the criminalization of marijuana was a political choice: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Today, a different picture is emerging. Marijuana has been fully legalized in 11 U.S. states. In most other states, marijuana has either been decriminalized or medical use is authorized. There are only 2 states — Idaho and South Dakota — where the drug is utterly outlawed. Joe Biden, if elected, says that he plans to federally decriminalize marijuana. By every indication, the trend is towards legalization.

The ACLU delivered a 2020 report on marijuana that underscored the hypocrisy of America’s seemingly progressive stance. In 2018 alone, there were nearly 700,000 marijuana arrests. Those arrests comprised 43% of all drug arrests during the year. These arrests were overwhelmingly made without any implication of drug trafficking or selling: 89.6% of arrests were simply for possession.

Marijuana enforcement reflects the deep racial inequity of America’s justice system. There is no evidence that minorities are more likely than white people to use marijuana. Yet, a Black person is 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. Even as marijuana inches towards acceptance, it still contributes to the disproportionate incarceration of Black people.

The racial injustices connected to marijuana should be disappearing. Instead, the gains are simply funneling to those who always enjoy power. Large companies, like Canadian-based Aphria, are seeing market values in the hundreds of million dollars. Colorado collected $300 M in revenue from marijuana taxes. Sales continue to grow. Meanwhile, 81% of marijuana business owners are white. Black people, who suffered most from marijuana’s criminalization, aren’t seeing the benefits of its acceptance.

Cash Bail is an unnecessary vestige of the criminal justice system. It does little to protect the public. Instead, it punishes those who need the most help. It perpetuates and amplifies the racist practices of imprisonment in the United States. Alternatives to cash bail are being developed and implemented in cities around the country, including Washington D.C.

Bail was originally created as a guarantee that a defendant would return for trial. It isn’t meant to keep the streets safe. For the vast majority of crimes, it’s not reasonable to completely remove the offender from society. Before a verdict is rendered, certainly, it is unjust to imprison all offenders.

Instead, a person is charged with a crime and given the opportunity to pay for their release. They may pay the Court directly and have their money returned to them at trial. Alternatively, they can pay a bondsman 10–15% of the bond value and gain their freedom. That money will not be returned.

It’s easy to understand why this system is unfair. Rich criminals can simply walk free and await trial in the comfort of their homes. Poor people, who are without the resources and community infrastructure that discourages crime, are often left to wait in jail without having been proven guilty.

It’s no surprise that cash bail disproportionately affects Black people. Black people are more likely to be targeted by policing and to end up in the criminal justice system. The injustice does not end their. Black defendants are more likely to be assigned bail, to be assigned a higher bail amount, and to be unable to pay.

It isn’t just the detainees who bear the burden of the system. Bail increases the likelihood that a detainee will return to jail. The cost of pretrial incarceration, paid by taxpayers, is $14 Billion annually.

CA Gov. Jerry Brown called cash bail a “tax on poor people” before signing Senate Bill 10 in 2018. That bill, passed successfully by the California legislature, removed cash bail entirely in the state. The system is to be replaced by algorithmic risk assessment. In the event that a detainee poses a legitimate risk to their community, they will detained until their trial. Otherwise, they will be released. Those decisions will be made based on a number of factors including prior arrests, age, failures to appear, prior sentences, and the offense itself.

Political organizations, funded by bail bondsmen, gathered 400,000 signatures and pushed the bill to a referendum vote in 2020. Californians will decide on whether cash bail ends when they vote on November 3rd.

The proposed system — algorithmic assessment — is far from perfect. Algorithms are designed by people with biases and shortcomings. Their formulas reflect how creators view the significance of factors such as race, age, and location. Algorithms do not eliminate the racist tendencies of our justice system. In some cases, they can solidify and exacerbate those issues. SB-10 is not supported by the ACLU in California for this reason. However, I believe that it’s a valuable first step in breaking down the racism and classism inherent in the U.S. justice system. It isn’t the end of the road, but it is a strong alternative to cash bail.

Homelessness is an epidemic in Los Angeles. The city has faced a crisis of unhousing for many years. Especially during COVID-19, the homeless population is at frequent risk of sickness, violence, and death. Los Angeles is a wealthy, large city. It does not need to accept the devastating reality of homelessness.

Solving homelessness in Los Angeles is only a question of willingness. The solutions are not complex. Creating affordable housing units and dedicating city resources to bring homeless people back to their feet through jobs and health programs is the obvious fix. The only question remaining: Is the city is willing to divert those resources from other areas? Homelessness isn’t an easy political platform. Most voters don’t feel the pain of their unhoused brothers and sisters. It’s more attractive to talk about low taxes, new jobs, or a parks project than it is to explain that the city will spend money on its under served population.

The LA City Council is slowly pushing for a vacancy tax that incentivizes developers and real estate owners to offer affordable, temporary housing. It’s essential to have strong advocates for the homeless community in local politics. Nithya Raman is one such leader. She is a progressive running for District 4 against the incumbent David Ryu. She has experience leading non-profits for the homeless and has comprehensive solutions.

The People’s Budget LA is also continuing their groundbreaking work. They have spent years advocating for a redistribution of LA City funds to the programs that can help citizens most efficiently. They presented to the Council in June and Mayor Garcetti has committed to moving ~$150 M in funds. That’s just a drop in the bucket.

Homelessness is an economic problem that requires economic solutions. We have to support organizations that care and politicians that act. Homelessness must end in Los Angeles.

man!!! boy!!! / @winshelalec on twitter

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