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A Truce in the War on Drugs? Part I.

by Mary C. Piemonte 

U.S. Se. Dick Durbin from Illinois speaks at a recent conference on reforming the War on Drugs. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

Editor’s Note: The article below was produced as part of the Social Justice News Nexus, a program launched this year by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications with a two-year grant from the McCormick Foundation.

Now that American prisons are swollen to capacity with thousands of non-violent, low-level drug offenders, public officials – like powerhouse U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), the majority whip, and even some judges – are shifting their attitudes about the War on Drugs.

Many of the inmates have addictions and many have been given harsh punitive sentences, including life without parole, after being charged with possession of small amounts of crack or powder cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine under laws established decades ago.

This growing number of officials are currently meeting around the country to rethink the drug war while modifying policies and revising procedures for charging and sentencing offenders under old drug laws.

All this is done in a drastic attempt to reduce the enormous costs to taxpayers of the criminal justice and prison systems while trying to rectify the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos locked behind cold steel bars.

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Wrongfully Convicted Man Files New Petition for Justice

by Mary C. Piemonte 

David Bates was wrongly convicted in 1983 on charges of murder, attempted murder and armed robbery and sentenced to serve 20 years. He was released in December 1995 after being acquitted of all charges at a new trial. The court ruled that a statement made by Bates after he was tortured by Chicago Police detectives under the direction of former Chicago Police Commander John Burge should never have been presented at trial. With the help of Cook County Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, Bates filed a petition for a “Certificate of Innocence,” a new legal process with the Clerk’s Office that allows people to “receive justice more swiftly along with the financial assistance they need to help start their lives anew,” according to a press release from Brown’s office.

Under the new Illinois law passed on Sept. 22, 2008, individuals may file petitions for a Certificate of Innocence, if they had been wrongly convicted, had their convictions overturned and were acquitted before Sept. 22, 2008. To qualify, these individuals must file their petitions by Sept. 22, 2010. A judge decides whether to grant the order, and also decides the amount of money the wrongly accused person can receive. “If an individual was imprisoned for five years or less, not more than $85,350 in compensation; for imprisonment of 14 years or less but over five years, not more than $170,000; for imprisonment of more than 14 years, not more than $199,150. Once the judge grants the certificate, an order is entered for the Clerk of the Circuit Court to send the certificate to the Illinois Court of Claims,” according to the data provided by Brown’s office.
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