Pubdate: Mon, 07 May 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Author: William J. Bennett
Note: The writer, co-director of Empower America, was in charge of drug 
policy for President George Bush in 1989-90.


William Raspberry devoted his April 30 column to President Bush's 
reportedly imminent nomination of a new federal "drug czar," the position I 
held in his father's administration. Raspberry has a long and distinguished 
record of well-written and thoughtful columns on a variety of public policy 
issues. His column of last Monday therefore was out of character: 
incautious in its choice of "experts" on whom to rely for evidence about 
the drug war status quo and doubly incautious -- bordering on irresponsible 
- -- in its use of such distorted testimony to tar the reputation of an 
unusually conscientious public servant.

John P. Walters, the president's apparent choice to lead the White House 
drug-policy office, has been a friend and colleague for 20 years. He is not 
the man Raspberry imagines.

Raspberry has persuaded himself that Walters is a Torquemada on the 
question of drug addiction, someone who believes "we can incarcerate our 
way out" of the problem -- indeed, someone who is "on record" asserting 
that "we'd be better off" if the nation sent a still greater number of 
"nonviolent drug offenders" to prison automatically, even on first 
convictions for simple possession.

Every bit of this is ridiculous, and Walters believes none of it. He is "on 
record" that not just first-but second-time arrestees carrying small 
quantities of drugs should be routinely diverted from the criminal justice 
system to treatment and prevention programs.

Which, despite popular mythology and Hollywood's pseudo-docu-drama 
"Traffic," is pretty much what happens already. In the federal system and 
nearly every state, the law now generally refuses to imprison defendants 
for simple small-time possession violations. In 1999, for example, the 
federal law enforcement programs that John Walters would supervise as the 
drug czar secured roughly 23,000 courtroom drug convictions, fewer than 700 
on simple possession charges. And it is only a subset of this already small 
group of arrestees who are even theoretically subject to a mandatory prison 
sentence. Nonviolent first offenders, in particular, face mandatory federal 
prison terms for possession only if they have been arrested with crack 
cocaine and then only when the quantities involved are those associated 
with retail, street-level drug dealing.

This, then, is the crux of the matter: Should street-level drug dealers go 
to prison? John Walters says yes. I would have expected William Raspberry 
to agree with him. But Raspberry listened instead to people who advocate a 
sweeping relaxation of penalties against drug offenders -- up to and 
including the proprietors of open-air crack markets. Raspberry has naively 
accepted the word of one such fringe advocate, Ethan Nadelmann, that rates 
of drug abuse in America "are roughly equal for blacks and whites." And 
that racial disparities in drug-crime arrest rates must reflect 
institutional bias in the nation's justice system. And that Walters's 
reluctance to abandon the federal minimum mandatory sentence for crack 
possession represents an extremist's endorsement of such bias.

It does African Americans no favor to twist the numbers this way. It is 
beyond serious dispute that cocaine and crack addiction disproportionately 
plague black people. It is similarly beyond serious dispute that retail 
cocaine distribution is disproportionately concentrated in inner-city black 
neighborhoods -- which is why the protection of those neighborhoods remains 
an object of special effort for federal and state law enforcement agencies 
and why the resulting pool of criminal defendants looks the way it does.

Yes, there is a racial skew in the statistics. But I cannot see the "bias." 
What I can see is the disaster that would befall our urban centers were the 
Nadelmanns of this world to get their way. In 1995 John Walters opposed a 
proposal by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to raise the threshold quantity 
of crack necessary to trigger a mandatory federal prison term. Had this 
"reform" been adopted, as Nadelmann wishes, drug dealers arrested with 50 
grams of crack -- enough for 1,500 sales -- would be escaping prison 
entirely. Fortunately, the idea was rejected by bipartisan majorities in 
Congress and by President Clinton. It pleases Nadelmann to discern racial 
insensitivity in this decision. I would have thought it beneath Raspberry 
to imply that he is right.

As a senior drug policy official during and after my tenure as drug czar, 
Walters did as much as anyone to ensure enactment of five consecutive 
federal budgets in which spending on direct drug treatment services nearly 
tripled, spending on drug treatment research more than tripled and general 
funding priorities were redirected to those effective "demand reduction" 
efforts Raspberry properly endorses. It is an unprecedented record; eight 
succeeding Clinton administration drug budgets haven't come close to 
matching it. And it should more than confirm Walters's commitment to a 
humane, sensible and comprehensive federal drug policy.

John Walters would make a superb drug czar. Neither President Bush nor the 
country could hope to do better.

The writer, co-director of Empower America, was in charge of drug policy 
for President George Bush in 1989-90.
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