As marijuana prohibition is rolled back across the country, many states are grappling with how to bring justice to the thousands of people who have convictions for simple possession. Some states have done blanket expungements of prior criminal records, while others have just released all people currently incarcerated for possession.
However, for most Americans convicted of minor marijuana possession, no relief has been granted, often because the state has failed to pass any legislation to address the injustice, because governors are hesitant to pardon cannabis convict or because the state still refuses to reform their marijuana laws. This injustice is all the more galling when others receive pardons for crimes far more insidious than possession of marijuana.
We're talking about people like Joe Arpaio - the former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona.
America’s Toughest Sheriff, American’s Greatest Contempt
On August 25th, 2017, President Trump pardoned Sheriff Arpaio of his conviction for criminal contempt of court. Mr. Trump’s statement indicated that he viewed the former sheriff as a symbol of law and order. But Arpaio rose to notoriety through his flagrant abuses of power, horrendous mismanagement of taxpayer money and despicable acts of racial profiling.
Sheriff Arpaio was convicted in federal court of criminal contempt for refusing to abide by a judge's order to stop his unconstitutional use of racial profiling to harass Latinos. Prior to that conviction, his Sheriff's Office had been brought to court in civil suits that established a pervasive pattern of ignoring sex crimes against illegal immigrants and Latino Americans.
The sheriff was also notorious for his questionable management of the Maricopa County Jail - like expanding the jail with an outdoor tent city and subjecting inmates to temperatures in excess of 125 degrees. Sheriff Arpaio also insisted that all of his inmates wear pink underwear for some terribly important reason. The jail became subject to numerous civil and constitutional challenges by inmates regarding the deplorable conditions there. Those challenges resulted in multiple federal orders, and civil settlements at the expense of the Maricopa County taxpayer.
Sheriff Arpaio’s propensity for truthfulness is also questionable. He became a pioneer of fake news after supporting and disseminating false claims about President Obama’s place of birth. And he once staged a fake assassination attempt against himself to obtain political support and sympathy.
Sheriff Arpaio also violated Arizona State election laws to smear political opponents in the county DA’s office. Under Sheriff Arpaio’s management over $100 million was misspent from county funds his jail controlled. Arpaio’s Sheriff’s office also had its own management issues, with federal investigations opened into the departments willful and intentional criminal actions including the destruction of evidence, tampering with witnesses, and obstructing justice.
Yet despite this rap sheet of contempt, lawlessness, deceitfulness, negligence, cruelty and maliciousness, President Trump considered Sheriff Arpaio “worthy of a pardon”. The pardon has since been met by widespread condemnation by both Republicans and Democrats.
Who is Worthy?
While hundreds of thousands of Americans sit in jails across the country for no other crime besides possession of marijuana, Sheriff Joe Arpaio walks free. People across the political spectrum have largely come to the consensus that marijuana is not a dangerous drug worthy of confinement, yet people remain in jails, and prisons across the county.
The question I have for my fellow Republicans is simple: Who is worthy of the pardon? Who deserves to have their crimes forgiven? The hundreds of thousands of Americans who sit in jail for possession of marijuana, or a sheriff who flagrantly and pervasively disregarded law and order for malicious and petty reasons? What does Justice demand?
I know the answer justice demands, and I hope my fellow Republicans do as well.
Hunter J. White is the Communications Director of the national Republican political organization, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, or RAMP, a Non-Profit 501-c3 organization dedicated to the complete repeal of marijuana prohibition in all its forms. In this series of articles, Hunter shares the challenges, experiences, and insights that he has gained from years of working to bring marijuana policy reform to the Republican Party.