November 10, 2008
Majority agrees that some users unduly punished
The district attorney and the head of the group that pushed Massachusetts voters to overwhelmingly back a huge reduction in the penalty for marijuana possession don’t agree on a lot of things.
One thing on which they do agree: Voters bought the argument that kids and adults caught with marijuana are unfairly burdened under the present law, which can saddle them with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.
Norfolk County District Attorney William Keating said that perception is, in fact, a myth, no matter what voters believed. Most first-time offenders, he said, have their cases dismissed before arraignment.
Whitney Taylor is chairwoman of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, the group largely responsible for passage this past week of the ballot question that will reduce the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to a ticket and a $100 fine. Taylor argued the punishments under the existing law have prevented respectable people from getting jobs, school loans or custody of their children.
“The current law does more harm than good,” she said in a post-election interview.
Statewide, 64 percent — nearly 2 million people — voted Tuesday to change the marijuana law, a
level that exceeded even President-elect Barack Obama’s support in the state. The measure won the support of a majority of voters in every South Shore town except Braintree, where 52 percent voted against reducing the penalty.
The new law takes effect 30 days after being reported to the Governor’s Council in November or December. It makes possession of under an ounce of marijuana punishable by a $100 civil fine. Those caught will no longer be reported to the state’s Criminal History Board.
Proponents said the broad support proves there is widespread belief – not only among marijuana smokers – that criminal penalties for personally using the drug are too harsh, and that people caught with small amounts of marijuana are unfairly haunted later. The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, with
about 500 volunteers, alone spent $1 million to persuade voters. [Mark Godsey]
Citing Workload, Public Lawyers Reject New Cases
MIAMI — Public defenders’ offices in at least seven states are refusing to take on new cases or have sued to limit them, citing overwhelming workloads that they say undermine the constitutional right to counsel for the poor.
Public defenders are notoriously overworked, and their turnover is high and their pay low. But now, in the most open revolt by public defenders in memory, many of the government-appointed lawyers say that state budget cuts and rising caseloads have pushed them to the breaking point.
In September, a Florida judge ruled that the public defenders’ office in Miami-Dade County could refuse to represent many of those arrested on lesser felony charges so its lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients. Over the last three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer in a year has climbed to close to 500, from 367, officials said, and caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases have risen to 2,225, from 1,380.
“Right now a lot of public defenders are starting to stand up and say, ‘No more: We can’t ethically handle this many cases,’ ” said David J. Carroll, director of research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
The Miami-Dade case, which is being closely watched across the country, was appealed by the state, which says that defender offices must share the burden of falling revenues. On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court sent the case to an appellate court for a ruling. If the judge’s decision is upheld, it will force courts here to draw lawyers from a smaller state office and contract with private lawyers to represent defendants, at greater expense. [Mark Godsey]
November 9, 2008
Charles Ogletree Harvard Criminal Law Professor
Charles Ogletree is the Harvard Law School Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Institute. In addition, Professor Ogletree serves Harvard Law School as the Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice as well as Director of the Trial Advocacy Workshop and Saturday School Program. Professor Ogletree is a prominent legal theorist who has made an international reputation by taking a hard look at complex issues of law and by working to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution for everyone equally under the law. Professor Ogletree has examined these issues not only in the classroom, on the Internet and in the pages of prestigious law journals, but also in the everyday world of the public defender in the courtroom and in public television forums where these issues can be dramatically revealed. Armed with an arsenal of facts, Charles Ogletree presents and discusses the challenges that face our justice system and its attempt to deliver equal treatment to all our citizens. He furthers dialogue by insisting that the justice system protect rights guaranteed to those citizens by law.