Pubdate: Sun, 08 Aug 2004
Source: Dominion Post, The (Morgantown, WV)
Copyright: 2004 The Dominion Post
Author: Walter Cronkite
Note: Walter Cronkite is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at 
888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Higher Education Act)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Women)


In the midst of the soaring rhetoric of last week's Democratic Convention, 
more than one speaker quoted Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, 
invoking "the better angels of our nature." Well, there is an especially 
appropriate task awaiting those heavenly creatures -- a long-overdue reform 
of our disastrous "war on drugs."

We should begin by recognizing its costly and inhumane dimensions. Much of 
the nation, in one way or another, is victimized by this failure -- 
including, most notably, the innocents, whose exposure to drugs is greater 
than ever.

This despite the fact that there are housed in federal and state prisons 
and local jails, on drug offenses, more than 500,000 persons -- half a 
million people! Clearly, no punishment could be too severe for that portion 
of them who were kingpins of the drug trade and who ruined so many lives. 
But by far the majority of these prisoners are guilty of only minor 
offenses, such as possessing small amounts of marijuana. That includes 
people who used it only for medicinal purposes.

The cost to maintain this great horde of prisoners is more than $10 billion 
annually. And that's just part of the cost of this war on drugs: The 
federal, state and local drug-control budgets last year added up to almost 
$40 billion.

These figures were amassed by the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the foremost 
national organizations seeking to bring reason to the war on drugs and 
reduce substantially those caught in the terrible web of addiction.

There are awful tales of tragedy and shocking injustice hidden in those 
figures -- the product of an almost mindlessly draconian system called 
"mandatory sentencing" in which even small offenses can draw years in prison.

Thousands of women, many of them mothers of young children, are included 
among those minor offenders. Those children left without motherly care are 
the most innocent victims of the drug war and the reason some call it a 
"war on families" as well as on drugs.

Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, with 
almost 80 percent of them incarcerated for drug offenses. The deep 
perversity of the system lies in the fact that women with the least 
culpability often get the harshest sentences. Unlike the guilty drug 
dealer, they often have no information to trade for a better deal from 
prosecutors and might end up with a harsher sentence than the dealer gets.

Then there are women like Kimba Smith, in California, who probably knew a 
few things but was so terrified of her abusive boyfriend that she refused 
to testify against him. (Those who agree to testify, by the way, frequently 
are murdered before they have a chance to do so.) Smith paid for her 
terrified silence with a 24-year sentence!

Nonviolent first offenders, male and female, caught with only small amounts 
of a controlled substance frequently are given prison sentences of five to 
10 years or more. As a result, the number of nonviolent offenders in the 
nation's prisons is filling them to overflowing, literally. The resulting 
overcrowding is forcing violent felons onto the streets with early releases.

The Drug Policy Alliance also points out other important areas of injustice 
in the present enforcement system. For instance, people of color -- 
African-Americans and Latino-Americans -- are far more likely to be jailed 
for drug offenses than others. And college students caught in possession of 
very small amounts of illegal substances are denied student loans and even 
food stamps.

The Alliance and other organizations are working to reform and reframe the 
war on drugs. And they are finding many judges on their side, who are 
rebelling against this cruel system. We can expect no federal action during 
the congressional hiatus in activity ahead of the November elections, but 
it would be of considerable help if, across the country, campaigning 
politicians put this high on their promises of legislative action, much 
sooner than later.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager