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Red Light Cameras Banned in Texas

Many drivers don’t like red light cameras that lead to fines for violating traffic signals. Texas Governor Greg Abbott doesn’t like the cameras, either, as he recently signed legislation to ban their use in the state.


Under the bill signed by Gov. Abbott, local governments in Texas cannot sign contracts to operate red light cameras after September 1. Private companies operate these cameras, and they split any revenue generated with the government. Contracts that are already in effect could be continued, but not renewed. The state would also be prohibited from refusing to register a vehicle on the basis of that vehicle’s unpaid camera fines.


Cameras that enforce traffic signals and speed limits are controversial. Critics of them contend that they are a violation of constitutional provisions that require someone accused of a crime to be able to confront his or her accuser. They also say that the cameras are primarily aimed at gaining revenue, not public safety. Supporters of the cameras counter that they are indeed about safety, since people adjust their behaviors when they know cameras are present. They also say that these cameras allow law enforcement officers to concentrate on more serious crime.


Do you think that governments should be operating cameras to enforce traffic laws? Or should red light and speed cameras be banned?

Illinois Set to Legalizing Marijuana

Legislators in Illinois are rushing to finish their work before adjournment on Friday. One piece of business that appears headed to the governor’s desk is a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.


Under this bill, Illinois residents could possess 30 grams of marijuana. Sales of marijuana would become legal in 2020, but people could only grow their own marijuana for medicinal purposes. The state would impose either a 10% of a 25% tax, depending on potency. The state would tax edible products at a 20% rate. Anyone who has a conviction for a marijuana offense involving 30 grams or fewer would receive a gubernatorial pardon, while those with offenses relating to larger amounts of marijuana could petition for an expungement.


Ten other states permit people to use marijuana recreationally. The federal government still lists marijuana as a prohibited drug, but most marijuana arrests for possession are at the state level. There are efforts in Congress to adjust federal law to recognize marijuana businesses in states where they are permitted. President Trump has indicated support for such legislation.


Do you think that states should legalize marijuana for recreational use? Should people be allowed to grow marijuana at home? What should the federal government do regarding marijuana?

Oregon Cops Can’t Search Trash without Warrant

If the police want to search your trash in Oregon, they are going to need a warrant.


The State Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the state constitution protects individuals’ expectation of privacy, and that individuals expect their garbage to remain private. It was a 6-1 decision.


The case concerned a couple from Lebanon, Oregon, who were convicted of drug crimes resulting from police searching their trash. The police had worked with the couple’s trash collector to divert the trash and search it, where they found evidence of drug activity.

Oregonians may be free from the fear of warrantless trash searches, but this decision does not extend nationwide. The state court ruled that the state constitution has this level of privacy protection. The U.S. Supreme Court has found differently for the U.S. Constitution. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s ban on warrantless search and seizure does not apply to trash left outside the home. In that decision, California v. Greenwood, a 6-2 majority ruled that if someone leaves garbage outside to be picked up for removal, then that person has relinquished all expectations of privacy for the contents of the trash.


Do you think that the police should be able to search someone’s garbage without a warrant?

Executions Halted in California

Governor Gavin Newsom of California has issued an executive order granting a reprieve to death row inmates and closing the state’s execution chamber. While the death penalty is still the law of the land in California, no executions will happen under this governor.


Although no executions have taken place in California since 2006, there was the possibility that Gov. Newsom would be asked to approve a new capital punishment protocol soon. This would then allow executions to resume.


In 2016, California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have abolished capital punishment in that state while also approving a ballot measure to expedite the execution process. Governors do not have the power to alter state law, but they can refuse to sign execution warrants and can commute death sentences to life in prison without parole.


There are 737 people on death row in California.


Do you support capital punishment?

Booker Pushes for Marijuana Legalization

Cory Booker is running for president. He’s also a senator, and in that role he is pushing for a major overhaul of federal drug laws. He is introducing legislation that would legalize marijuana, and he’s being joined by four of his fellow senators who are running for president.


Under Sen. Booker’s bill, not only would marijuana be removed from the federal Controlled Substances List, effectively legalizing it, but those convicted of federal marijuana possession crimes would have their convictions expunged.


Sen. Booker introduced similar legislation in 2017, but it never received consideration by the Senate. This year’s bill is also being co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, and Sen. Kamala Harris. All of these senators are running for the Democratic nomination for president.


Do you support legalizing marijuana at the federal level?

Senate Confirms Trump Attorney General Pick

President Trump has a new attorney general.


By a vote of 54 to 45, senators confirmed Bill Barr as attorney general on Thursday. Barr, a former attorney general under George H. W. Bush from 1991 to 1991, is the second attorney general to serve under President Trump.


His first, Jeff Sessions, resigned last year. President Trump had criticized Sessions numerous times for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation into possible illegal activities undertaken by the Trump campaign. Some Senate Democrats had voiced concern that Barr will not allow this investigation to continue.


Every Senate Republican supported Barr’s nomination except one, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. He expressed concerns about Barr’s support of warrantless wiretapping and opposition to criminal justice reform. Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Kristyn Sinema of Arizona broke with Senate Democrats by voting “yes” on the Barr nomination.


Do you support Senate confirmation of Bill Barr to be attorney general?

Felon Voting Rights Proposal Dies in Virginia

Virginia is just three states permanently bar felons from voting. Thanks to a recent vote in a legislative committee, it won’t be restoring felons’ voting rights any time soon.


On Wednesday, a Senate committee voted down a proposed change to the state constitution that would have removed the ban on felon voting. Currently, the Virginia constitution bars felons from being able to vote unless their rights have been restored by the governor.


This issue has been an area of contention for Virginia in recent years. The state’s former governor, Terry McAuliffe, attempted to use an executive order to restore the rights of felons who had completed their sentences. That effort was stymied by the legislature and the state’s Supreme Court. He then undertook efforts to restore these voting rights on an expedited case-by-case basis. 


Critics of the ban on felons voting note that nearly every other state allows some form of voting rights for felons. Some states even allow those in jail to vote. They say that this van is an impediment to rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. Supporters of the ban note that it is proper to punish those who commit serious crimes by imposing serious penalties.


In the 2018 election, Florida voters overturned their state’s ban on felon voting. Beginning this month, felons in that state have begun to register to vote.


Do you think that felons who have completed their sentences should see their voting rights restored?

Senate Passes Criminal Justice Reform

Something rare happened in the U.S. Senate last night – major legislation advances with overwhelming bipartisan support. While Democrats and Republicans disagree on many things, it appears that overhauling the federal criminal justice system is not one of them.


The First Step Act passed by a vote of 87-12. It had broad support across the political spectrum, with liberal groups focused on justice reform allying themselves with libertarians like the Koch brothers and conservative religious groups to support it. President Donald Trump also urged Congress to pass it.


Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) led the opposition to the bill. He said that it would release potentially violent criminals from federal custody. He argued that it was a return to the “soft on crime” policies of the past. Sen. Cotton and other senators who shared his concerns offered a series of amendments that would made the bill tougher on federal inmates, but these amendments failed to pass.


Among other things, this bill would:

  • Prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates while giving birth
  • Apply changes that removed the disparities between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine retroactively
  • Require that prisoners be incarcerated within 500 miles of their families
  • Provide incentives for prisoners to undertake job training and rehabilitation programs
  • Reduce the “three strikes and you’re out” penalty for drug trafficking to 25 years (instead of life)


The House of Representatives passed a different version of this legislation earlier this year by a vote of 360-59. However, that body is expected to endorse the Senate’s version and pass it later this week. If it does so, the bill will head to President Trump for his signature.


Do you support reform of the federal criminal justice system? Should pregnant prisoners be shackled during birth? Should inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families? Do you agree with inmates being released from prison early if they complete job training programs?

Kasich, Legislators Clash over Gun Self-Defense Bill

Gun control is once again proving to be a divisive issue between Ohio Governor John Kasich and his fellow Republicans in the legislature.


Lawmakers recently passed a bill that would change a key aspect of the state’s self-defense law. Under this legislation, a prosecutor in a case where a shooter is claiming self-defense would have the burden of proving that the shooter did not act in self-defense. Under current law, this burden is on the shooter.


Governor Kasich has said that he is not comfortable with this legislation, though he has not yet decided whether to sign the bill or veto it. The governor had also pushed for this measure to include a provision that would have allowed the government to seize the guns of people who are accused of being a danger to themselves or others. Other states have passed similar “red flag” bills, but Ohio legislators did not include such language in their bill.


While Gov. Kasich wanted a “red flag” provision but did not get it, legislators did follow his lead in opposing language that would have allowed someone to use deadly force in public to defend himself. Also known as a “stand your ground” law, many states have such measures, although they are controversial. Some legislators pushed for such a law in Ohio, but the governor’s opposition helped doom these efforts this year.


This self-defense legislation passed last week. Governor Kasich has 10 days to decide whether to sign it or veto the bill.


Do you think that Ohio should make it easier for people to use self-defense as a justification in shootings? Should the state adopt a “stand your ground” law that allows people to use deadly force if threatened in public?

Supreme Court May Curb Property Grabs by the Government

If someone commits a crime, the government may be able to seize any property connected to that crime – regardless of the crime’s severity or the value of the property. Today the Supreme Court is considering a case that may rein in a practice that people across the political spectrum argue is being abused.


The case involves Tyson Timbs, convicted of selling $225 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. His sentence for that crime was a year of home detention and five years of probation. The state of Indiana also seized his Land Rover, worth $42,000.


Lawyers for Timbs are not disputing that he sold the drugs. Instead, they are arguing that the seizure of the Land Rover violates the Constitutional prohibition on excessive fines. While the Eighth Amendment was originally written to apply only to the federal government, courts have held that the Fourteenth Amendment applies some of the Bill of Right’s protections to state governments. The prohibition on excessive fines, however, has not been one of those protections.


The practice of asset seizure and forfeiture is widely practiced by both states and the federal government. This is when the government confiscating property that is connected with crime, generally involving drugs, and keeping the property to use or sell. This can occur upon conviction of a crime or even upon the mere suspicion of criminal activity.


Timbs’ lawyers contend that the seizure of his $42,000 vehicle amounts to a fine. As such, they say, it is excessive to fine someone $42,000 for a crime that did not even involve jail time. They say that the Constitution forbids states from doing this. The lawyers for Indiana counter that this is not a fine, but is instead the seizure of property connected to drug trafficking. They say that states have broad authority to pass laws to combat such crimes.


Asset forfeiture has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years from groups on both the conservative and liberal side of the ideological spectrum. They argue that this practice gives governments an incentive to “police for profit,” using their power to look for lucrative assets to seize rather than focusing on other crime. They also contend that asset forfeiture disproportionately targets minorities and individuals in other disadvantaged groups. Timbs is represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, and groups as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce and the American Civil Liberties Union are supporting him.


Justice Clarence Thomas has signaled in past decisions that the Supreme Court should look into asset forfeiture, noting that there have been many abuses of this practice.


Do you think that the government should be able to take the property of people convicted – or even suspected – of crimes, regardless of the value of the property or the level of crime?

Criminal Justice Reform May Pass During Lame Duck

Congress is meeting in a “lame duck” session this week, completing work on some unfinished work. While there are partisan differences on many proposals being considered, there is one area where members of both parties agree: criminal justice reform. The bipartisan support for reform legislation may produce the most significant change in federal criminal law in years.


The bill being considered is called the First Step Act, which passed 360 to 59 in the House of Representatives on May 22. Here is how Votespotter described that legislation:


To give some federal prisoners time out of prison if they participate in vocational or rehabilitation programs, increase the amount of credits that can be used to get out of prison early for federal prisoners who have no disciplinary problems, prohibit the use of shackles for federal prisoners giving childbirth, and authorize more federal funding for prison rehabilitation programs.

While this bill passed by a large margin in the House, it has stalled in the Senate. There is bipartisan support for it in the Senate, but there is also strong opposition.


The lead senator who is working to defeat the First Step Act is Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas. However, the bill has the backing of President Trump, the national Fraternal Order of Police, the Koch brothers’ network, and many other conservative groups. The legislation also has the backing of many groups that are on the liberal side of the spectrum.


Senator Cotton has stated he thinks this legislation is dangerous because it would put more criminals on the streets. He argues that tough sentences reduced crime rates, so weakening these sentences will endanger the public. Those supporting this bill counter that many people are locked up for non-violent crimes, so it makes no sense to spend money on expensive incarceration. They argue that it is more humane and cost-effective to focus on less restrictive punishment as well as incarceration for these non-violent offenders.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has given some indications that despite Sen. Cotton’s opposition, the First Step Act may be presented to the Senate in modified form.


Should the Senate pass federal criminal justice reform? Do you support wider access to rehabilitation programs for federal prisoners? Should sentences be lightened for prisoners with no disciplinary problems?

Marijuana Scores Some Big Wins on Election Day

The federal government may still label marijuana as a prohibited drug, but state prohibitions continue to fall.


Voters in four states decided on ballot measures concerning marijuana. In three of those states, pro-pot advocates came out victorious.


The biggest win for marijuana backers was in Michigan. Voters in that state approved the recreational use of marijuana. With the passage of this measure, Michiganders who are over 21 can possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and cultivate up to 12 plants for their own consumption. The sale of marijuana is also permitted. Michigan joins 9 other states and the District of Columbia in permitting recreational marijuana use.


Voters in Missouri and Utah approved medical marijuana measures. In Missouri, voters chose from three competing proposals to legalize and tax the medicinal use of marijuana. They approved the one that had the lowest tax rate and that would fund veteran services. In Utah, the governor and legislators had agreed to convene a special session to deal with medical marijuana legislation regardless of what voters decided.


North Dakota voters bucked the trend by rejecting that state’s ballot initiative that would have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. That measure garnered the support of only 41% of voters.


Earlier this year, Oklahoma voters approved a medical marijuana initiative.


Do you support legalizing marijuana for recreational use?

Washington Court Prohibits Use of the Death Penalty

Today the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state’s death penalty violated the Washington constitution.


In a unanimous ruling the justices held that the death penalty is arbitrarily and disproportionately applied. The court concluded that the way in which the state used the death penalty violated the state constitutional guarantees.


There were eight people on Washington’s death row who were affected by this ruling. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison without parole. The case was brought by one of these inmates, Allen Gregory, who was sentenced to death for robbing and killing a woman in 1996.


Governor Jay Inslee had imposed a moratorium on the death penalty’s use in 2014, saying he would never permit an execution while he was governor. He hailed the decision as important for the fair application of justice. There have been legislative attempts to abolish capital punishment, but they have never made it all the way through both houses of the legislature.


The court did not say that capital punishment itself was unconstitutional, but did hold how it was currently applied in the state was unlawful. The legislature could reform the state’s laws in an attempt to meet the objections made by the court’s justices. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would ask the legislature to rewrite the state’s law governing capital punishment.


With this ruling, Washington joins 19 other states in prohibiting the death penalty.

Do you think the death penalty should be abolished?

Ohio Voters Could Reduce Drug Penalties

The purchase and possession of illegal drugs in Ohio may soon be a misdemeanor in Ohio if Issue 1 becomes law. Its passage would reduce drug crime penalties and take other steps that would shrink the state’s prison population.


Under Issue 1, the uses, possession, or obtainment of any illegal drug could not be classified as a felony. Sentences for a first or second offense could not be anything harsher than probation. It would not change the penalties for the sale or distribution of drugs, however. The measure would also prohibit the revocation of probation for non-violent offenses. In addition, Issue 1 would require that inmates in work, rehabilitation, or educational programs receive a half-day reduction in their sentence for every day they participate.


Supporters of this ballot measure say that non-violent offenders should not be in prison. They argue that it will save the state millions of dollars if these offenders are not put in jail and would lead to better outcomes for those caught up in the criminal justice system. Law enforcement groups have come out strongly against Issue 1, saying it undercuts the authority of police and prosecutors to punish crime. They argue that not only will Issue 1 make the public less safe, it will send the wrong message about drug use to children.


The Democratic candidate for governor, Richard Cordray, supports Issue 1, while his Republican opponent, Mike DeWine, opposes it.


Do you think that the possession and use of drugs should be a felony? Or should states relax punishments for drug possession?

New York City Makes Jail Calls Free


When inmates call family or friends from jail, it can be costly. In New York City, however, inmates may soon be able to do something unprecedented – make jailhouse calls for free.


Prior to legislation recently passed by the city council, in-state calls from New York City jails cost 5 cents a minute, while out-of-state calls cost 21 cents a minute. The company that provided phone services only allowed prisoners to put $50 on an account at one time, with a $3 fee every time that account received more money.


With many people in jail because they cannot find money to pay bail, these fees and charges added up. This led to a movement by prisoners and their families to either reduce the amount being charged or make the calls free.


New York City Council members initially supported a bill that would end the city’s ability to profit off of the telecommunication services. Advocates pressed them to end charges completely for the calls, which is what the city council eventually passed in mid-summer.


Those who support this measure say that high charges and fees for calls are unfair for struggling families. They contend that the private companies running these services are making huge profits off of a population that has no choice but to pay their extremely high charges. Opponents of the measure counter that these services come with a cost, and it is only right for prisoners and their families to pay for them.


With an end to charges on jail calls in New York, there are now efforts in other cities to do the same.


Do you think that it is fair to charge prisoners high fees for jailhouse calls? Should jailhouse calls be free?


Colorado Voters Set to Vote on Banning Prison Slavery


The constitutions of both Colorado and the United States ban slavery and involuntary servitude, but they contain one exception – those who are being punished for a crime can still be forced to work without pay. This year, Colorado voters will face a ballot amendment that would end this practice in that state.


Under Colorado’s constitution, if someone has been convicted of a crime it is legal for the state to put that person to work without paying him or her. Half the states allow such unpaid labor for convicts, while the other half ban it.


Legislators voted to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would, if passed, ban slavery and involuntary servitude completely in Colorado. They placed an identical amendment on the ballot in 2016, but voters narrowly defeated it.


Supporters of this amendment say that the current language allowing prisoners to be forced to do unpaid work is a relic from another time when the dignity of all people was not recognized. They say it will be a positive symbolic change for Colorado to ban slavery in all cases. Opponents of changing the language note that prisons offer a variety of work programs that are aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. They say that amending the constitution may affect the legal status of these programs.


Do you think that prisoners should be forced to work without pay? Or do prison laborers deserve to be paid for their labor?


Illinois Governor Wants to Revive Death Penalty


It has been 18 years since Illinois stopped executing prisoners on death row. If Governor Bruce Rauner gets his way, however, the death penalty will once again become part of the state’s criminal justice system.


Under a proposal floated by Gov. Rauner, prosecutors could seek a death sentence for someone who commits mass murder or murders a police office. He said imposing this ultimate penalty is necessary to protect public safety.


Illinois formally repealed the death penalty in 2011. This followed a moratorium put in place in 2000 by then-Governor George Ryan. This moratorium lasted for ten years and was established in response to a series of questionable prosecutions and the exoneration a death row prisoner.


Gov. Rauner says that there will be safeguards put in place to guard against wrongful convictions and inconsistent application of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment say that regardless of the precautions taken by the state, there is always that chance that an innocent person could be convicted and executed.


Reinstatement of the death penalty must be approved by the legislature. With Democrats in charge of both houses of the legislative branch, it is unlikely that the governor’s idea will be enacted.


Do you think that Illinois should bring back the death penalty for someone who murders a police officer or commits mass murder?


Michigan Making it More Difficult for Government to Seize Assets


In Michigan, as in many other states, if police think you are involved in a drug crime, they can take your money and your property. They do not have to prove that you are dealing or even using drugs; the mere suspicion of involvement is all that it is required to seize your assets. Legislators are on the verge of ending law enforcement’s power to do this.


Under civil asset forfeiture, police agencies have broad power to seize and keep property from suspected criminals. Even if there is no conviction for a crime, this property can still be legally kept by the state. Individuals who owned that property can fight to get it back, but the legal barriers are high and such a fight is costly and time-consuming.


The Michigan House of Representatives voted to reform this practice in mid-May. Under legislation that passed that chamber, any property valued at $50,000 or less could only be forfeited to the state if there is a criminal conviction, a plea agreement, or if the owner relinquishes the property to the state.


Law enforcement groups testified against this legislation during its consideration. They said that civil asset forfeiture is necessary to combat drug trafficking, depriving dealers of the proceeds of their crime. They also said that the money from forfeiture helps fund law enforcement, so limiting the practice will deprive them of money that they need.


Opponents of civil asset forfeiture point out that if drug dealers are convicted of crimes, then their property can still be seized. They say that there are many instances where law enforcement takes someone’s property, but never charges or convicts that person of a crime. Those who pushed for reform say that the government should not be able to confiscate someone’s property without convicting that person of a crime, and then force the person to go through a lengthy and costly process to get the property back.


This bill will now be considered by the state Senate.


Do you think that the government should be able to take someone’s property if they are only suspected of a crime but never convicted or even charged with one?


California May Restrict Police Use of Deadly Force


The issue of police shootings has been a topic of heated debate in recent years. From 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri to the shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento last month, many are questioning the standard under which police officers can legally kill someone. In response to these incidents, a handful of California legislators want to make it more difficult for law enforcement to use lethal force.


Currently, police operate under the standard of “reasonable use” of deadly force. That is, prosecutors ask whether police acted reasonably when they killed someone whom they perceived to be threatening them. Critics of this standard contend that it gives police broad discretion to use lethal force, with few officers found to be acting “unreasonably.”


California legislators have introduced a bill that would change this standard. If this bill becomes law, it would allow police to use deadly force only when necessary and there is no other way to prevent injury. Under this standard, police would have to use de-escalation tactics prior to shooting at someone.


This proposal is not the only bill that would reform the way law enforcement operates in California. Other bills would allow more public access to police personnel records. Under the state’s Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, these records are tightly sealed. Under a bill that is being considered, the public would have access to records involving use-of-force, sexual assault, and lying on duty.


Police unions in the state have been successful in convincing legislators to defeat bills that would have changed the laws governing their activities in the past. They argue that such bills would hamper their ability to protect the public.  


Given that past bills to change law enforcement procedures have not been successful in California, many are predicting that this legislation will fail in the legislature, too. However, there is increasing public scrutiny over police shootings in the state in the wake of the killing of Clark, who was unarmed and whom family say was shot in the back. Governor Jerry Brown has not indicated his support of or opposition to these bills.


Do you think that it should be more difficult for police to use deadly force on a suspect? Or would new restrictions on police use-of-force hurt efforts to fight crime?



New Hampshire Governor, Legislators Differ on Parole


New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu does not issue many vetoes. In fact, until this month, he only used his veto authority one time. But the governor’s opposition to a bill that would loosen the state’s parole rules has resulted in the second veto of his term.


Current New Hampshire law requires that parolees who violate their terms must return to prison for 90 days if they were convicted of a sex crime, a violent crime, or if their violation was related to the crime for which they were convicted. Any parolees who violate parole more than once are automatically returned to prison for 90 days.


Legislators passed a bill that would give the state parole board discretion to waive this penalty if a parole violator completes a substance abuse program. Law enforcement groups testified against it, contending that parole violators could use drug abuse as an excuse to get out of returning to prison. Supporters of the bill said that it would help provide people with the help they need so they would not re-offend once they were let out of prison.


Governor Sununu said that he supports efforts to keep people from returning to prison, but that this bill went too far. He also pointed out that there are drug treatment programs in prison for those who need them.

Legislators were unable to muster enough votes to override the governor’s first veto last year. It is unclear if they will have the support to do so this time. The legislation was approved by a voice vote in each chamber this year, so it is difficult to determine how strong support for it is in the legislature.


Do you think that parole violators should be automatically returned to prison for 90 days? Or should the parole board have discretion to reduce the punishment for parole violators who complete drug treatment?



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