Grand juror

If you are depressed about the state of our government, it actually helps to be called to a jury.

I’m on a grand jury this time. A few years back I was on a regular jury. Not only did we get to try a suspect (guilty on one charge, not guilty on another), it was all over in a day.

Grand jurors aren’t so lucky. We don’t convict anyone. Instead, we indict. Unlike trial jurors, we don’t get excused after one case. We’re in the system for a while.

Fortunately, my particular county doesn’t make it too burdensome. I’m summoned on Thursdays unless there is no one to consider indicting. So far it’s been every other Thursday, though that should change in August. Our term is for three months. While cases could roll over into the next day, it’s very unusual. So far we’ve been out by lunch time, which is 1 PM at this courthouse.

It’s too bad I can’t be a professional juror. Being largely retired, I don’t find it much of a burden. So far the cases have been interesting. Also, the grand jury process is a lot different. There are twenty three of us on this grand jury, but only 12 of us are needed to indict. The standard is a lot looser too. On a grand jury you only have to find probable cause. On a trial jury, you have to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here in Massachusetts, most juries have six people on them, but a few require twelve. Certain specialized juries can convict on five out of 6.

Also, there is no defense attorney on a grand jury. Instead you interact with a prosecutor, who may have an assistant, and whatever witnesses he or she calls. The charges are fully explained along with any nuances you must be aware of. And you can ask questions of the prosecutor or the witnesses, something that’s not allowed in trial juries.

You may have heard it said that grand juries will indict a ham sandwich. This is true. In most cases a grand jury is just a rubber stamp but a tedious process a prosecutor must follow. With twenty three jurors, a low probable cause standard, and only 12 jurors needed to indict it would take an egregiously bad charge and a poor prosecutor to not get all the indictments wanted.

So from my perspective, being a grand juror is more educational than empowering. Both cases we’ve looked at so far involve drug trafficking. The evidence presented is overwhelming and in most cases the drugs have actually been tested in a lab. Basically you ask yourself: does this charge look likely? If so, you can indict because it’s probable. We’ll leave it to a judge or a trial jury to decide actual guilt or innocence.

It’s probably coincidence, but both sets of indictments occurred at largely the same time and at the same place. I-91 is a major drug corridor and funnels drugs (principally heroin and cocaine) packaged in New York City, usually the Bronx. I-91 runs right through our county and Holyoke, Massachusetts, where a lot of drug trafficking seems to occur. Police either in marked or unmarked cars seem to know when the best time is to find couriers. It seems to be around 3 AM. I’m guessing most of them are pulled over before they get into our county, but if they pull them over in our county, it becomes a case for our county court.

It’s clear that a lot of these suspects aren’t playing with a full deck. It may be that they are high on the drugs they are selling, as a lot of low level dealers are also addicts. Today we heard a case where after a pat down a twice-convicted drug trafficker admitted to a cop that he had more drugs in the car. He had spent years in state prison. These courier vehicles aren’t too hard to find either. They are being driven weird. A tale light is out. Or the windows are too tinted, which is against state law. So here’s a tip: if you are going to carry drugs by car, don’t do it at 3 AM. I’m betting 9 AM is a much better time and it’s likely you’ll be more awake.

I had no idea that branding was a thing. I thought addicts would take anything they can get, but many are picky. Escobar, for example, is a popular brand name for heroin and can be seen on the plastic wrapping. Often other additives are added to these drugs, such as gabapentin, to make the high predictable and with certain proprietary after effects. Also, a brand may have a reputation for being of a certain quality.

I also thought that illegal drugs were likely very expensive. It depends on where you live. As these drugs move further north they get pricier because fewer addicts want to make the commute to a metropolitan area to get them cheaply. But it’s quite possible to get a dose of heroin for $1 or $2 a packet. Carrying around a ten pack, usually branded and wrapped in a rubber band, is not considered a major offense. But trafficking in it is. If you have been convicted more than twice with a penalty of three plus years, you can also be charged as a habitual trafficker, and face even steeper penalties. That happened today with a suspect we indicted.

I can’t help but wonder though why we are bothering. Fifty years into our drug war, we’ve obviously not stopped it or put much of a dent in it. Massachusetts now allows the sale, possession and use of marijuana. It’s been critical in my wife’s pain management. In fact, it’s hard to drive a few miles in any direction without hitting a pot shop.

Our drug war though seems pretty pointless. If consenting adults want to get high, I think they should have the right to do so. There are places in our state where addicts can shoot up using clean needles provided at taxpayer expense. Why not legalize it, put this stuff in the many pot stores and charge addicts to buy it? I would think all the money raised would more than pay for rehabilitation centers for those who want to beat their addiction.

We grand jurors though aren’t asked to opine on the law, just to help enforce it. So while I want to hold my nose sometimes, it’s not hard to raise my hand to indict when the evidence is so overwhelming and the probable cause standard is so easily met. I feel better at least acting as a check on our law enforcement system. While I sometimes feel like citizens aren’t in control of those who go to prison, in fact we are. We’re still in control. I’m hoping as we slide toward authoritarianism we’ll continue to do so. It’s clear our Supreme Court has been corrupted. But thankfully I’m not seeing it in our jury system.

The real solution to the child refugee crisis

Approximately 60,000 children so far have traveled alone across our southern border recently to find safety and sanctuary in the United States, with doubtless many more on the way. Just the very idea of doing something like these parents have done – sending their children away alone on their own on a long and dangerous trip to get into the United States — leaves us American parents reeling. How could any parent do this?

If you take the time though to read articles like this one, the only question is why these parents waited so long to do something so desperate. Countries like Honduras are impoverished but that’s hardly new. What’s new are the drug lords, the intense competition between them, and the lawlessness it has caused, which is much worse than anything the Taliban has inflicted. In much of Honduras there is no functioning government and those that function as government are in cahoots with the drug lords. In attempts to gain dominance among rival lords and cartels, children are being forcibly recruited. Failure to say yes could lead to death, rape or many other atrocities. When recruited you may be required not just to peddle drugs and extort people, but maybe kill them as well. Getting to the United States is of course highly dangerous, not to mention expensive to their parents, but it is a rational decision for these parents. It is not just the United States that is getting an influx of child refugees, but other Central American countries as well. These children are fleeing toward safety, not opportunity. They are simply refugees.

The drug trade in Central America is hardly new, but what is new in the increased drug trade in this corridor. This is largely due to success by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the Caribbean at bottling up more traditional ways of transferring illegal drugs via small aircraft and boat. This is not an option in autonomous and landlocked countries in Central America. You know what happens when supply goes down and demand remains the same. Prices go up, which makes it easier to accept risk. Right now that route is through Central America.

The crisis in Honduras has become our crisis on our southern border. It is happening largely due to our country’s addiction to illegal narcotics. When you need a fix, you don’t think about how the drug will get to you, just that you must get high. But money for your fix is being funneled through the fingers of the worst kind of scum, including beasts masquerading as human beings in Honduras who will kill and rape kids, and maybe hack them to death in the street.

It’s reasonable to ask why our country is addicted to these drugs. All countries have this problem to some extent, but our addiction is very high compared to the rest of the world. Some of it is due to the fact that we are relatively prosperous, so we can afford to get high. Of course many of our drug addicts are very poor, and these are typically the ones looking for cheap highs. Heroin seems to be their drug of choice right now.

I believe that much of our addiction to drugs is because so many of us live really painful lives. Our lives are quite stressful, not as stressful as those of children in Honduras obviously, but one constant stress after another. This was made worse of course by the Great Recession when so much of our safety net disappeared. We live in a society that doesn’t cut us much slack. We are expected to do it all. Many of us simply don’t have the skills, education and other talents it takes to fend off this much adversity, if it’s possible at all. The stress becomes oppressive and unrelenting. Aside from the many people who were unemployed from the Great Recession, other traumatic pains are making us reach for a high: feelings of worthlessness, abuse from our spouse, screaming kids and bad neighborhoods. And so we look for escape. Drugs along with other addictions like food, booze, cigarettes and dangerous sex provide a temporary escape from crushing pain. To really feel better many of us need a living wage job, a decent place to call home in a decent neighborhood, and a little TLC from society at large. These are in short supply, in part because our collective wealth has moved toward the wealthy, who don’t feel inclined to spend it on charitable causes like us.

While many Republicans continue to tell us that we must somehow all by ourselves through grit and gumption solve our personal problems, this child refugee crisis proves just the opposite: that we are all related. Worse, because the actions of one affect others, it goes both ways. Our relationships can channel hurt or healing. When our inner pain causes us to visit illicit pushers to get a high, the chain of our pain extends down to the lives of terrorized children and their parents in Honduras, among other places. The relationship is not something symbolic. It is quite tangible. It is the dollar bill.

This refugee crisis is thus best understood as a crisis of failed relationships on many levels. On the national level, it demonstrates our political failure to do the pragmatic thing, which is to legalize drugs. This will not remove the pain of our drug addiction, but it will make addicts get cheaper and probably safer highs. It will squeeze the profit motive out of the drug trade, probably ending it overnight. It’s reasonable to assume that if drugs were decriminalized and regulated within the United States there wouldn’t be a flood of children from Honduras desperately trying to get across our border. And that’s because there would be no drug trade in Honduras, at least not one that would funnel high profit margin drugs into the United States.

I believe decriminalization and hopefully the legalization of these narcotics is the permanent way to end this refugee crisis, not to mention the pointless drug war. Our drug war has always been one where we simply refuse to face the reality of our human nature. As states like Washington State are discovering, legalizing marijuana can be a substantial revenue source, and that money can be used to do lots of good things: like build roads, bridges and schools. That sure beats making miserable the lives of traumatized children in Central America!

Our other option is to send in our army to occupy Honduras. This is at best a temporary solution but it should at least dramatically slow this refugee crisis. It’s the underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Drug decriminalization won’t stop everyone from trying to get across our borders, but it will act as a fire extinguisher and solve the root of this problem.

I wish President Obama had the nerve to tell us Americans the truth and advocated for drug decriminalization and legalization. I am confident that he understands this too but is unnerved by the political incorrectness to say so. If he wanted to be remembered as a true leader, this would be the time to tell us the truth.