Pubdate: Sun, 20 Apr 2003
Source: Shorthorn, The (TX Edu Arlington)
Address: UTA Student Publications, Box 19038, Arlington, TX 76019
Fax: (817)272-5009
Copyright: 2003 The Shorthorn.
Author: Demond Reid


As long as the government is allowed to enforce unconstitutional conspiracy 
laws and unjust sentencing practices, the country's drug problem cannot be 

We are in the throes of a brutal and divisive war.

There are people who are strongly for this war and those who believe we can 
accomplish the same goal through other means.

Those who wage this costly war are tucked away safely in their ivory towers 
or underground bunkers. It is the civilian population and those simply 
following orders who are this war's casualties.

Because Saddam Hussein is nowhere to be found and an Iraqi regime change is 
imminent, that is not the war I am speaking of. I am speaking rather of the 
war we have been engulfed in (with very little to show for it) for 
four-plus decades: the United States' war on drugs.

Even though the number of flaws in the United States drug policy is roughly 
equal to the number of the country's drug users, this column will only 
point out two elements of our drug policy: conspiracy laws and mandatory 
minimum sentencing.

Unlike most criminal cases, where proof is needed to establish "an act to 
affect the object of conspiracy," the simple act of talking about breaking 
a drug law is enough to have a person convicted of conspiracy to sell 
and/or distribute illegal drugs.

In essence, a person can be sent to federal prison on drug charges without 
ever touching drugs or drug money.

These laws, by their very nature, do not prosecute people for what they do 
but for what they know, who they know and, in some cases, for what they did 
not know but should have. Isn't this the type of governmental abuse the 
Bill of Rights was designed to protect us from? This type of blatant 
disregard for the Constitution should be reserved for America's enemies and 
not used against her citizens.

As if these conspiracy laws were not enough of an infringement on our 
guaranteed civil liberties, our government also employs a system of 
mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

The best way to think of mandatory minimum sentencing is as "zero 
tolerance." The best way to think of "zero tolerance" is "zero thought."

This means that if a person is in possession of a certain amount of drugs, 
no matter the reason, a judge is forced to impose a minimum sentence, 
without giving thoughts to any mitigating circumstances. For example, 
whether a person is caught in possession of five grams of crack or 500 
grams of cocaine, he or she is sentenced to five years in federal prison 
with no chance of parole. That is truly absurd.

With mandatory minimum sentences such as these, the average length of jail 
time for a first-time drug offender (84.2 months) is almost one year more 
than the average length of jail time for a first-time child molester (76.4 

What makes this inhumane sentencing practice more despicable is that our 
government figured out in the late '60s that mandatory sentencing did not work.

Congress saw drug use and the prison population both increasing, so by 
1970, nearly all mandatory sentencing laws were repealed. But in 1986, our 
elected officials saw that drugs were a hot-button issue. So Congress 
passed a new set of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, even though it had 
been proven these laws did not work, so they could say, "See, we are tough 
on drugs and crime."

And the political pandering of those politicians has caused a 
disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos to be caught up in our 
federal prison system, the number of female inmates to triple since 1986 
and about 60 percent (almost 66,000 people) of our federal inmates to be 
drug offenders, most of whom are non-violent, first-time offenders.

No one knows what will work to solve this country's drug problem. But 
analysis of our drug war will show what does not work to solve this 
problem. As long as we allow our government to enforce unconstitutional 
conspiracy laws and unjust sentencing practices along with countless other 
atrocities, we will never be able to explore other alternatives.

- - Demond Reid is a journalism senior and a regular columnist for The Shorthorn.
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