02/20/08 - Mark Bennett

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

LEAP speaker Dean Becker interviews Mark Bennett, incoming head of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association regarding the DA scandal, the jail scandal, the decades long and ineffective waging of the drug war.

Audio file

Cultural Baggage, Feb 20, 2008

My name is Dean Becker. I don’t condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the phamaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

This is a special edition of Cultural Baggage in that during our pledge drive they give me an hour and a half for this show around the noon time and today we had as our guest in studio the incoming head of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, Mr. Mark Bennett.

It really seems a shame that we have to whittle that hour and a half show down to fit within the constraints of Cultural Baggage in order to deliver it to the Drug Truth Network, but we do and here we go.

First up, though, I want to share with you a Drug Truth Network editorial. ______________________

The following is a Drug Truth Network editorial.

The District Attorney of the Gulag Filling Station of Planet Earth, Harris County, Houston, Texas, Chuck Rosenthal has just resigned his office because of a constant media barrage regarding his emails which included some sexually explicit and racist content along with affectionate notes to his assistant and political maneuvering using the county’s own email, and it turns out, for one other distraction of sorts.

The following quote from Chuck Rosenthal was in the Houston Chronicle: “Although I have enjoyed excellent medical and pharmacological treatment I have come to learn that the particular combination of drugs prescribed for me in the past has caused some impairment in my judgement.”

For God’s sake, I keep hearing the news out of Great Britain and Canada and many of the other United States that they want to become more like Harris County. They want to ratchet up the fines and the imprisonment. They want to have more regulations and restrictions. They want to really get tough in the war on drugs.

But our fair city has shown that there is no rationale, no embrace of reality, no proportion, no logic to this eternal war. When you look at the bottom of the Harris County criminal justice hole you find the drug war monster dead as a doornail, mouldering and stinking to high heaven.

Houston has for decades led the world in it’s pitched battle for eternal drug war, incarcerating more and more young people of color for residual amounts of drugs, stuffing the jails and the prisons, running a scam on the good citizens of Houston, pretending to stop the flow of drugs.

Meanwhile, Houston has served as a major hub for the nation and drugs flowed into our community like water at prices too good to ignore thus luring our children into live of addiction or crime or both. It’s time to legalize, tax, regulate and control the distribution of these drugs to adults.

The only overdoses will be suicides, the daily shootouts over drug turf will disappear, the cartels will be forced out of business, our children will have less access when the black market in drugs is gone, we’ll have plenty of room in prison for those who would dare sell to our kids and the bonus is we’ll also kill the Talibans’ cash cow, destroy the cartels and eliminate most of the reason for which the violent street gangs exist.

And surprise! We’ll have fifty billion dollars a year to use for education, treatment, roads and bridges, or we can just continue with our impaired judgement and dig the hole a little deeper.

--Dean Becker, DrugTruth.Net.

OK, and with that we begin our discussion. Welcome Mr. Mark Bennett, how are you sir?

Mark Bennett: I’m doing great, thank you, Dean, how are you doing?

Dean Becker: I’m good, Sir. I’m really thrilled that more people in positions of power and with knowledge and experience are beginning to share some of those ideas I just put forward in that Drug Truth Network editorial.

We have, across this nation, wasted, some say, more than a trillion dollars for the waging of this drug war. I know that we have given at least many trillion dollars to criminals worldwide if they’ll just continue this flow. But Houston stands as a, as I said in the editorial, kind of as an example of the drug war in action. Let’s talk about what has happened to our fair city, the impact on our community from that drug war.

Your clients, people you run into in the courtrooms and such, it doesn’t just impact that person, it kind of destroys the family in many cases when it’s the breadwinner.

Mark Bennett: Absolutely. When they’re putting the young man in prison they’re taking away the breadwinner from the family, they’re taking away the father from the children, they’re taking away the husband from the wife and they’re taking away the son from the parents. It’s not just destroying the economics of the family, it’s destroying the fiber of the family.

Dean Becker: It’s so often that the children do follow, because of their economic situation perhaps, follow in the footsteps of those who have been incarcerated, use the black market to pay the rent.

Mark Bennett: I think that’s absolutely true and maybe it’s a separate issue, maybe it isn’t, that they feel the need to do that. I tend to think it’s not a separate issue because of the trillion dollars that we’ve wasted, poured down a hole, poured down a hole to feed a monster that, as you say, is now dead.

But the fact is that the economy in the neighborhoods, the economy in the neighborhoods is not good. And for a lot of the young men and women in the neighborhoods they don’t easily see another way to make that kind of living.

Dean Becker: Right, I’ve heard it said that you can make five dollars an hour at McDonalds or you can make five hundred dollars in a couple of hours standing on a street corner. It’s too much of a lure. We just have to destroy the enticement somehow.

Mark Bennett: And if we were to end the drug war, if we were to legalize, decriminalize drugs that would end the enticement because drugs, if they were legal, they would not be worth more than, say, alcohol or tobacco. There’s no reason to believe that they would be.

There’s nothing inherently valuable about drugs. The only reason that drugs are so expensive and so valuable is because they’re forbidden.

Dean Becker: This drug war is necessary to empower and enrich so many politicians and officials and authorities across this country and around the world. Yesterday I was torn between going to the Barack Obama rally and the Harris County Republican District Attorney’s debate. Of the candidates there the only one I was able to wrangle an interview with was Kelly Siegler. We’ll give a listen to her and we’ll have some comments following that in regards to her stance taken.

Dean Becker: We’re with Kelly Siegler before the beginning of the Republican District Attorney’s debate.

Hello Kelly.

Kelly Siegler: Hi, how are you?

Dean Becker: I’m well, Ma’am. I was wondering if you could clarify for me how you perceive the drug war going forward. Are we going to be so draconian, chasing down people for minor amounts of drugs, minor amounts of marijuana?

Kelly Siegler: Well, we’re going to enforce the laws as they’re currently written, if that’s what you’re asking me.

Dean Becker: Now I know the Texas Legislature and the Governor signed a bill just this last year, House Bill 2391, which would allow Harris County to no longer arrest and incarcerate people for less than four ounces. Will you take advantage of that recommendation from the Legislature?

Kelly Siegler: That’s a lot longer discussion than this short interview, but the problem with that is, it would be very complicated to do in light of our intake system. If you have people running around writing Class C tickets and they don’t go through our DA intake system it’s going to be really confusing.

Dean Becker: OK. Now, it is because of those arrests for minor amounts of drugs that our jails are clogged up, we’re sending people to Louisiana, our prisons are getting over full. Isn’t it time to rethink this situation?

Kelly Siegler: The DA doesn’t write the laws. The DA enforces the laws. The way the laws are written is the way we’re going to enforce the laws.

Dean Becker: In light of the fact that our just-retired District Attorney had his own problems with drugs some, like myself, find this a bit hypocritical that he had sent thousands upon thousands of people to prison who had their own problems with drugs.

Not going to do it? OK.

And there she walked away. I apparently touched a nerve and she just wasn’t going to talk about the hypocrisy involved. Once again we have with us Mr. Mark Bennett, incoming President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. Mark, your thoughts on.…

Mark Bennett: Hypocrisy in the Harris County District Attorney’s office....I am shocked! Shocked!


Mark Bennett: There is something to be said for a District Attorney candidate saying that we’re going to enforce the laws. But there’s more to it than just enforcing the laws. The DA’s office, as it has been for the last eight years, has gone overboard in trying to enforce the laws.

To give an example at the low end, and the less serious offenses, the Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases, there have been lots of possession of marijuana cases that have been taken by the DA’s office that they could not possibly make; they couldn’t possibly prove beyond a reasonable doubt in the face of even moderately determined opposition.

For example, four guys in a car, there’s marijuana in the car, so they arrest the driver for possession of marijuana. There is no way in the world that they can make that case if a lawyer stands up and says “No, prove it.”

Or they arrest somebody else in the car because he’s closer to the marijuana--no way in the world that they can prove that pot in the car case. It’s just impossible. But they take them and they take them and they take them. Because, well, it’s against the law to possess marijuana and if they take a dozen of them, you know maybe three guys are going to really fight but the other nine are going to plead guilty.

Dean Becker: Right. Take the probation or the six months and...

Mark Bennett: Exactly. Take the deferred adjudication probation which the lawyer who doesn’t want to fight might present as a silver bullet, a solution to all problems, and the prosecutor certainly wants the guy to take it and the judge certainly wants the guy to take it and, you know, so the person gets on probation and then shoot!

If the guy really smokes marijuana he’s not going to make it on the probation, he’s going to screw up, he’s going to test positive in a urinalysis, he’s going to get re-arrested, he’s going to wind up in jail and boom! He’s got something that going to stay on his record forever, his public record forever.

And then the next time he gets in trouble the police look him up and say “Hey, this guys been convicted of possession of marijuana. He’s a thug. He’s a bad guy” and they’re going to lay something else on him. And every time it gets more difficult for him to fight.

Dean Becker: And then there’s also the situation whereby if they can’t make bail or, you know, they just don’t have that money, they get a plea bargain, an offer to take this in lieu of waiting some several months for a trial and et cetera. Let’s talk about that.

Mark Bennett: Yeah, that’s exactly the way it works. A guy gets arrested, he doesn’t have the money to make bond, he doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer even, so he’s sitting in jail and he gets a court appointed lawyer and the court appointed lawyer comes back and it’s a diligent guy who says “Look. We can fight this case and I think we can beat this case but you’re going to have to sit in here for a month, six weeks, three months, however long it’s going to take.

Or, I hate to tell you this, but the prosecutor’s offered you a deal that’s going to get you out today if you plead guilty.” Time served, probation, whatever. So the lawyer says “I can’t advise you to take that deal. I don’t think it’s a good deal, I think you should fight it, I’ll go out and ask the judge to reduce your bond, in fact I already have asked the judge to reduce your bond, she’s reduced your bond to a thousand dollars, you’d have to pay a hundred dollars to a bonding company to make the bond...”

The guy says “I don’t have a hundred dollars to pay to a bonding company. I just want to get out, I have to get out, I’ve got to get out and get back to work, I’ve got to take care of my baby girl,“ whatever, whatever the reasons that we all need to be out on the street, and so the guy pleads guilty to something that he probably shouldn’t have pled guilty to. Maybe he’s flat-out factually innocent of it or maybe it’s just that the State can’t prove the case and so people are pressured into doing it.

Dean Becker: And that happens thousands upon thousands of times right here in our home town that marijuana users... or people near marijuana users... are just caught up in this trap.

Mark Bennett: Kelly wasn’t the only one, the only candidate, last night who invoked “the law” in talking about whether drugs should be, well how the DA’s office should treat drug crimes.

Jim Leitner also said “it’s the law”, it’s the law, that he was talking about trace cocaine cases. He said “it’s the law”. The law is that any amount of cocaine, if a person intentionally possesses it, that’s a felony.

And the DA’s office can’t change the law but what they can do is use it rationally and really consider whether they can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. I would say that a trace cocaine case often the government can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt because if it’s just a trace amount of cocaine how do they prove that the person knew it was there?

How do they prove that the person intentionally possessed it? If the person was a cocaine user and possessed this amount of cocaine, if he knew that it was there he would have used it. So it would be no large matter for the DA’s office to implement more rational policies in the war on drugs.

Now the law is the law and the law is irrational and the law really, really stinks but there are things that an elected DA could do to mitigate the effects of the law on our community.

Dean Becker: Six years ago, when we first began this show, it was like an outrage, how dare he say such things? But we are making progress and it’s in part due to your understanding, your education, your willingness to talk about these problems in the public marketplace, if you will, at your workplace or other, at church perhaps--it’s time to talk about this problem. It’s time to change this problem. There are many more rational solutions to what we could be doing but it won’t change until we stand together, until we demand that it change.

You know, Mark, earlier we heard from Kelly Siegler and she said she couldn’t stop arresting people for minor amounts of marijuana because it would mess up their intake system. Now I know there are certain District Attorneys in Texas that no longer, that have decided not to arrest those for four ounces or less, and that have decided that those with the trace amounts of hard drugs, powder drugs, no longer need to be caught up in the system so easily. She does have some discretion in this. And tell us, what is the intake system?

Mark Bennett: The intake system is how cases get from the street to the DA’s office. And there are 30 different law enforcement agencies that call the DA’s office and say, “Hey, we’ve got this charge. Will you take the charge?”

Kelly’s point, which I think in a limited way it’s well taken, it would mess up the system,Kelly’s point is that with 30 different agencies writing tickets for Class B misdemeanors, she says writing Class C misdemeanors, that’s incorrect. What we’re talking about is writing tickets for Class B misdemeanors.

If there were 30 different agencies doing that there would be a chaotic glut of cases coming in that hadn’t been reviewed by the DA’s office. There is a solution to every problem. If it were important enough to her she would find a solution to it. If it were important to her she would be thinking about a solution already.

And I think that the Legislature offered a rational improvement on the way things are done and I think it’s important for the District Attorneys to find some way to implement that rational improvement. The Legislature showed the will of the People in making that decision. Does Kelly Siegler think that she shows the will of the People by ignoring the Legislature? She may think so but I don’t think it’s true.

Dean Becker: Well, this also compounds many other problems we have, which is the crowding of the Harris County jail, people sleeping on the floor next to toilets, they’re so overcrowded we’re shipping them to Louisiana, it’s costing us millions and millions of dollars...

Mark Bennett: I’ve had reports of people in the jail sleeping in the little attorney visitor rooms, little tiny concrete rooms that are supposed to be for people, just for people to meet with their lawyers, but it’s so crowded they’ve got people staying in there.

Dean Becker: ...right, and yet somehow this just doesn’t seem to be a problem with, I don’t know, I haven’t talked to all the candidates, but it doesn’t seem to be something they want to address.

Mark Bennett: I’ve talked with Kelly about this.

Dean Becker: Yes?

Mark Bennett: And Kelly says “it’s not our problem.”

Dean Becker: It’s not our problem?

Mark Bennett: It’s not our problem. She says it’s, jail overcrowding is not, it’s not our business to keep the jail uncrowded. Somebody else had better find the solution to it. This is what she said when she came and spoke to the Board of Directors of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

It’s not the Legislature’s problem, apparently, well maybe it is because they’ve offered a partial solution. It’s not the DA’s offices’ problem. Whose problem is it? And who can do anything about it? I mean, defense lawyers, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it because what we can do is, we can stand up for our clients, and if we’re standing up for our clients who are in jail they’re probably going to sit in there instead of pleading out right away, we can’t get more people to plead guilty to get them out of jail quicker to reduce the overcrowding in the jail. So it seems to be a big case of passing the buck around the government.

Dean Becker: It is, I think, ludicrous--just so bass-ackwards that we continue to say we’re protecting the children or protecting the community by implementing this drug war but it does not do either one of those things.

Mark Bennett: Absolutely doesn’t. Absolutely doesn’t. It makes the world a more dangerous place and, of course, that’s to the government’s benefit because if they can convince the people that the world is a dangerous place then people are going to give them more power.

So it’s not to the government’s...it’s not in the government’s best interest to make the world a safer place. It’s in the government’s best interest to make the people think that they’re making the world a safer place while at the same time making the world more dangerous because then they can ask for more power.

So they’ve come up with a policy that they can claim “Look, we’re making the world safer for you and if you just give us more money, if you give us more power we’ll make it even safer.…” Well, as it turns out the policy doesn’t make the world safer but then they can come back and say “Look, we just need a little more money, we need a little more power, we need to put a few more people in prison and everything’s going to be OK.”

Well, there’s more cocaine on the streets and it’s less expensive than it was 30 years ago when the war on drugs was just getting rolling.

Dean Becker: I saw a report, I guess it’s been two months ago, the ONDCP, John Walter’s came out saying “We’re really making a difference. We’re stopping the flow of cocaine. We’re raising the price” and it was the Houston Chronicle that came out and said “well, that’s just not the case.”

At this point in time I think cocaine can be had for about $40 a pure gram right here in Houston. And the Drug Czar was saying it was $125 to $175 and it’s just a lie and I guess the continuation of the fear in people...you know, the ‘oh my God, they must be doing something, oh keep drugs away from little Johnny’...but, as you said, with every step they take it just seems to get worse.

This is a special edition of the Cultural Baggage Show. We have with us, in studio, Mr. Mark Bennett, incoming President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

I want to kind of get back to our discussion about, and I call it “criminal comma justice system” right here in Harris County...we have people, as I was saying earlier, sleeping on the floors, being shipped to Louisiana, we have a healthcare system that, I hear, in the city that can be good but when it’s overcrowded and someone comes in with a desperate situation, perhaps having swallowed their drugs rather than be caught with them, in the night there could be problems and the jail guards tend to laugh it off or say wait ‘til morning, sometimes too late...we have, Mark, from my perspective, decided that drug users are unconditionally exterminable.

And I say that by interpretation of the fact that if you think there’s drugs in the house you can kick in the door so they don’t flush it, you can go in with guns drawn and put children and wives on the ground, guns to their head, because somehow we’re pretending we’re going to stop the flow of drugs.

Your thoughts, Sir, I mean aren’t we abusing the legal system, aren’t we using the drug war as an excuse for a lot of illegal and, I would say, immoral implementation of law enforcement?

Mark Bennett: Absolutely. Absolutely. But the question is whether we’re doing it deliberately, whether there’s some mind behind it, or whether it’s just the way the government works. And I would contend that’s it’s just the way the government works; when you give government a little bit of power it’s going to seek more power.

And if you give it an excuse to seek even more power, and when I say ‘seek more power’ what I mean is take more freedom away from the people, if you give it a reason to do that, if it finds a reason to do that, if you allow it to it’s going to do it.

You’re going to loose your Fourth Amendment rights to be secure in your home, you’re going to loose your Sixth Amendment rights to a jury trial and to counsel, you’re going to loose your Fifth Amendments rights to a fair trial, and it’s not anybody taking these rights away from us really, it’s us giving up these rights and we’re giving up because we’re scared and we’re scared, well, we’ve been convinced that there’s a war on drugs.

I talked to Buford Terrell on his show the other night and he said “You know, if I were king of the world I would outlaw the use of the metaphor ‘war’.” We shouldn’t be talking about the ‘war on drugs’ because it’s not a war. War is something very specific, it’s an armed conflict between States.

We can go to war with Mexico, we can go to war with Great Britain, we can go to war with Japan and Germany--we can’t go to war with drugs. We can’t go to war on drugs. It’s not a war. But we’ve allowed the government to use this war rhetoric, first in the war on drugs, now in the war on terror, and we get into a war mindset.

Well, it’s not a war. Neither one of them is a war. It’s OK for us to give up our rights in a real war, sometimes that has to be done, sometimes that had to be done, but these are not real wars we’re talking about. And we use ‘war on drugs’ as a shorthand and we know what it really is--it’s a war on brown people, it’s a war on our young people--but that’s power we’ve given up because we’re scared.

We collectively are frightened. We’ve allowed ourselves to be scared by the menace of drugs--keep Johnny off drugs, keep the drugs out of the schools. Well, most people caught with drugs in school zones, they’re not selling to kids and if they are selling to kids then they’re kids selling to kids.

But this drugs in school zones law is used to increase anybody’s punishment whose anywhere near a school at the time they’re possessing drugs and they’re not adults dealing to kids. The people that our kids are buying from in our schools are other kids.

Dean Becker: This kind of is my summary of the drug war.

Place twelve monkeys in a room. Place a ladder in the middle of the room. Hang a bunch of bananas from the ceiling over the ladder. Leave the room and watch through a two-way mirror. When the first monkey starts climbing the ladder seeking bananas, whack the monkey with a broomstick, whack additional monkeys as necessary to prevent them from reaching the bananas.

Continue this effort until the monkeys begin stopping one another from climbing the ladder. Remove one of the original twelve monkeys and replace with a monkey who has never been whacked with a broom. Watch as the original monkeys keep the newbie from climbing the ladder.

Replace the original monkeys one by one. Watch as a roomful of un-whacked monkeys keep one another from the ladder and the bananas even though none of them know the original reason to refrain.

Observe the perfect example of the mechanisms of drug war in action.

Dean Becker: There you have it my friends. These drug laws were written about a century ago. They were designed to send Mexicans back across the border. They used the excuse that you give one of these Mexican beet-workers a few tares from a marijuana cigarette, next thing you know, he thinks he’s been elected President of Mexico and sets out to kill all his enemies.

They said that Blacks on cocaine were impenetrable by .32 caliber bullets so they moved up to .38s so they could kill them, they could take them out. They said that Chinamen on opium would rape White women and you had to make it illegal and it started as racial bigotry and, by God, it continues to this day as a very bigoted enforcement of these laws. Am I right Mark?

Mark Bennett: Absolutely. Absolutely it’s a war on people who aren’t like the ruling powers and it’s a war on the poor people too.

Dean Becker: Well, as he stated in his resignation, Mr. Rosenthal had his own problems with drugs. Impaired judgement!

Mark Bennett: And that brings up an interesting point which is a lot of the drug problems that White people have are with drugs that aren’t illegal. I don’t know if Chuck Rosenthal was telling the truth in his resignation letter, I don’t credit that entirely, but you talk about drugs in schools...a lot of kids in schools are doing, they’re doing bars, they’re doing Xanax, they’re taking hydrocodone, it’s prescription stuff taken without a prescription. And criminalizing marijuana, criminalizing cocaine doesn’t do anything about that aspect of the problem.

Dean Becker: I say that the drug war, the implementation, the largesse, the financial resources involved in taking this thing forward cause impact to every aspect of our society.

As I said in the editorial we’d have $50 billion to spend on roads and bridges, treatment, whatever, but it also short-changes, like the Texas Youth Commission, should have more dollars, should have more qualified people, more oversight rather than, they had a situation wherein they’re accused of abusing children, of keeping them longer than they should or putting them in solitary confinement rather than having the physicians or psychologists on hand to help in a better way.

There is a better way, is there not, to use these moneys and to focus our help to those who need it?

Mark Bennett: There are a thousand better ways to use this money but the problem is, when you let government, and this is not the most progressive view, but I think when you let the government start spending your money for good, government’s totally incompetent to do that.

Molly Ivins is probably rolling over in her grave but, from what I’ve seen, government is not competent to decide how to help people. And so perhaps the best use of it would be to rely on individuals’ charity and return the money to the pockets of the people who it belongs to and let them, instead of relying on the government to try to make things better, except in the very few areas where it’s competent to do so, let the people try to make the world a better place.

And if the government stops pretending that it can solve all of the world’s problems then the people are going to find the solutions to the problems themselves. I think that’s for probably a different discussion though.

Dean Becker: But again, it ties in. As I say it impacts every aspect of our society. The money wasted, the resources...I mean, Good Lord, in Texas there’s probably a million cop man-hours spent looking through ashtrays and under car seats and in trunks for the tiniest little bags of prohibited substances. And yet people complain that we can’t protect the borders, we have murderers and rapists on the loose and we could better redirect those funds and those police man-hours to better protect our society by ending this drug war.

Mark Bennett: Absolutely. No question about that. It’s counterproductive money right now so even if we just stopped spending it on the drug war that would be immensely productive.

Now could we find better places for the government to actually spend the money? Yeah, probably so. This is one of the worst possible uses of, the worst possible uses of our money. So we could, yeah, absolutely we could find better ways to spend the money and just not spending it would be a better way to spend it.

Dean Becker: Well, as I suspected, there really wasn’t a perfect place to cut off this discussion and I have decided that we’re going to do Part II of this discussion on next week’s Century of Lies program.

Once again that was Mr. Mark Bennett, the incoming President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association talking truthfully about our Gulag Filling Station. Change is afoot, not just in Houston or Texas but in the whole of the United States. People realize that drug war is an absolute fiasco.

In closing I remind you once again that because of drug prohibition you don’t know what’s in that bag. Please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Tap dancing on the edge on an abyss.

Transcript provided by Gee-Whiz Transcripts. Email: glenncg@zoominternet.net