Pubdate: Mon, 30 Apr 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Raspberry


President Bush, if the reports are to be believed, has picked John P. 
Walters to replace Barry McCaffrey as head of the Office of National Drug 
Control Policy.

At one level, the nomination would be no surprise. It fits the pattern that 
has the president turning to retreads from his father's administration to 
fill key positions. Walters was deputy to drug "czar" William Bennett under 
the previous Bush administration.

At another level, though, it is a peculiar choice. Walters, almost alone 
among those who have spent serious professional time on drug abuse in 
America, harbors no misgivings over the fact that we've been crowding our 
prisons almost to the bursting point with nonviolent drug offenders.

Indeed, he thinks we'd be better off if we jailed more drug offenders. And 
while we're at it, he wrote in the March 5 issue of the Weekly Standard, 
we'd do well to abandon three of "the great urban myths of our time":

 That we are locking up too many people for possession.

 That we are locking up drug offenders for excessive sentences.

 That "the system is unjustly punishing young black men."

These are myths? Officials across the country are rethinking the mandatory 
minimum sentences that have fed the prison population explosion. Listen to 
President Bush himself in a January interview on CNN:

"I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe long 
minimum sentences for the first-time users may not be the best way to 
occupy jail space and-or heal people from their disease."

In that interview, Bush also said we ought to be moving to eliminate the 
disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. Not Walters, who is 
on record against reexamining the sentencing disparities and for mandatory 
minimums. As for the peculiar impact of drug enforcement on young black men 
(and increasingly on young black women as well):

"Crime, after all, is not evenly distributed throughout the society. It is 
common knowledge that the suburbs are safer than the inner city, though we 
are not supposed to mention it."

That, of course, is sleight of hand. The relative unsafety of the inner 
cities might reasonably account for higher incarceration rates for violence.

But it was drug arrests that were being discussed, and most of the experts 
on these matters say the drug-use rates are roughly equal for blacks and 
whites. But according to Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center, blacks 
are arrested for drug offenses at six times the rate for whites, which may 
explain why they are disproportionately subject to mandatory minimums -- 
and disproportionately behind bars.

Perhaps Walters is doing a similar bit of legerdemain when he denies that 
get-tough drug laws are needlessly crowding prisons. "Throughout the 1980s 
and 1990s," he wrote in the Weekly Standard, "violent crimes vastly 
outpaced drug offenses as the cause of the prison population's rapid growth."

Jason Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute cites numbers from the 
Bureau of Justice Statistics that lead to a different conclusion. "Every 
year since 1989," he says, "the number of people sent to state prisons for 
drug offenses has exceeded the number sent to state prisons for violent 
offenses. In 1980 about 10,000 people went to state prisons for drug 
offenses. By 1988-89 the number was up to about 60,000." The rates have 
come closer in recent years, he said, with about 100,000 prisoners a year 
in each category.

Ziedenberg adds that in 1970, the majority of inmates were serving time for 
violent offenses. By 2000 most of those in all prisons and jails were 
nonviolent offenders.

But the statistics are almost a distraction. The real issue is policy, not 
numbers. Walters seems to believe that we can incarcerate our way out of 
our drug problem -- even while many other equally hard-nosed observers are 
coming to believe that it might make more sense to treat drug abuse as a 
public health problem.

"I started in this area in the Education Department, writing prevention 
stuff on drugs with Bill Bennett," he told a session of the Senate 
Judiciary Committee four years ago. "But the more I look at this, even 
since I left government, this is a supply problem. . . . Drugs are so 
attractive to people that some people will give up everything in their life 
to consume them."

If that's the problem, how can anyone believe that the threat of jail time 
is the solution?
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D