Tuesday, April 17, 2012

UC Hastings Students & Human Rights Commission Highlight Human Impact of “War on Drugs"

More than 100 people attended a public hearing April 12, 2012, on the human impact of the “War on Drugs,” organized with help from UC Hastings College of the Law students Noah Frigault and Azadeh Zohrabi and San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission.

Frigault and Zohrabi spent several months working with the Human Rights Commission as part of an externship with the Social Change Lawyering: Community Group Advocacy Clinic, run by Professor Ascanio Piomelli.

The hearing was designed to put a human face on the community impact of the War on Drugs. Frigault and Zohrabi met with various stakeholders, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and members from the San Francisco Police Department, as well as communities heavily affected by local and national drug enforcement policies.

The Human Rights Commission used the 40th anniversary of the War on Drugs to highlight the impact on those arrested or convicted of minor drug crimes and their communities. The commission has been conducting education and outreach on the discrimination against those with criminal records and the disproportionate impact on the African American and Latino communities.

“People with arrest records or low-level criminal drug convictions are subject to legalized discrimination,” Frigault said. “There are so many disincentives to them re-entering the community, including things that seem cruel, like denial of food stamps, denial of federal education loans, and a one-strike policy for public housing. A whole family can be evicted even they are around someone with a felony conviction.”

Frigault noted that we tend to think of San Francisco as “this progressive colorblind place,” but that “makes it that much easier to these things to happen under the radar.”

The hearing included speakers from various public policy groups and nonprofits, including the NAACP and ACLU of Northern California. Additionally some 25 members of the community spoke during the public comment period. One possible remedy would be to include those with arrest or convictions records as a protected class. That would require approval by the city’s Board of Supervisors.

“This was one of the best experiences I’ve had at UC Hastings,” said Zohrabi. “I was able to go out and work as a lawyer, and talk to the community about their concerns about the war on drugs. It helped me learn how to deal with different stakeholders.”

Zohrabi said she was surprised to learn how complicated various policy issues and public safety concerns were. “It was the first time I was able to talk to law enforcement and get their perspective on it,” she said.

Zohrabi has been working on issues of mass incarceration, and has also worked on ways to minimize solitary confinement.

Piomelli said this is the first time his clinic has partnered with a governmental body. “Usually we work with nonprofits,” he said. “I was attracted to working with the Human Rights Commission, because this class is focused on introducing students to different approaches to social change lawyering.”

The students were supervised by Zoe Polk, a staff attorney with the Human Rights Commission. “I have been quite impressed with her attention to student learning needs, while putting together a first-rate public hearing,” Piomelli said. “It was a wonderful first experience.”

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