Pubdate: Mon, 22 Oct 2007
Source: America (US)
Copyright: 2007 America Press, Inc
Note: The National Catholic Weekly; LTE link at bottom of each article
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


The war on drugs is driving the U.S. prison system's enormous growth.

Over the past quarter century drug arrests have tripled, and almost 
half a million men and women are behind bars for drug-related offenses.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which in many cases focus on drug 
offenses, have had a devastating effect on communities of color.

When these laws were enacted, their target was drug kingpins.

But research shows that over 60 percent of crack cocaine offenders 
are nonviolent, low-level street dealers.

Recent studies based on government data point to racially skewed 
sentences like those for possession or sale of crack cocaine and 
powder cocaine.

For example, the Sentencing Project's recent report, A 25-Year 
Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society, notes 
that while both crack cocaine and powder cocaine have the same 
chemical composition, sentences for crack offenses are far heavier.

A person convicted of selling five grams of crack, equivalent to the 
weight of two pennies, receives the same mandatory minimum sentence 
as someone who sells 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Crack sentences fall most heavily on African-Americans, who are more 
likely to use this form of cocaine than whites.

And because it is frequently sold in inner-city areas on street 
corners, police can more easily engage in "buy and bust" procedures. 
Powder cocaine, on the other hand, is usually more accessible in 
higher-income areas, where detection and arrest are less likely. The 
issue is thus also one of class.

The drug war has led to the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of 
young black men and women.

Women are more likely than men to be found guilty of drug offenses, 
and in some ways they are more deeply affected.

Two-thirds of the women in state and federal prisons are mothers of 
children under 18 years of age. Imprisonment means the removal of 
their offspring to foster care or the homes of relatives, who may 
already be overburdened with children of their own. After release, 
both men and women convicted of drug felonies are hampered in efforts 
to make a successful re-entry into society. Federal legislation in 
1996 placed a lifetime ban on receiving food stamps and allows public 
housing authorities to bar those with drug convictions.

Lack of adequate drug treatment while incarcerated also compounds 
re-entry problems. Instead of rising, the rate of in-prison drug 
therapy has actually fallen since 1991, despite the fact that almost 
one in five people in state prisons on drug charges cite the need to 
pay for their drug habit as the reason for their offense.

The U.S. bishops pointed out in their 2000 statement Responsibility, 
Rehabilitation and Restoration that "locking up addicts without 
proper treatment and then returning them to the streets perpetuates a 
cycle of behavior that benefits neither the offender, nor society." 
Similarly, a RAND study argues that drug treatment, within as well as 
outside incarcerational settings, is more effective in controlling 
drug abuse and crime than expansion of the prison system.

Initiatives to reform drug laws are emerging.

This year both Delaware and Rhode Island considered the repeal of 
mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes.

Rhode Island's House and Senate passed legislation of this kind; and 
although the governor vetoed the measure, the fact that the state's 
legislature backed it shows movement toward more sensible drug laws. 
At the federal level, too, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has 
recommended that sentencing guidelines be lowered for crack offenses 
because of implicit racial inequities. Its recommendations take 
effect Nov. 1 unless disapproved by Congress. This change, however, 
will not affect federal mandatory minimum sentencing policies, which 
only Congress can alter and which cry out for change because they 
bind the hands of magistrates seeking to administer justice fairly.

But Congress can and should pass the pending bipartisan legislation 
aimed at removing the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court is also addressing the disparity, 
though indirectly, by considering whether a federal judge has the 
right to impose a sentence for a crack offense that is less than what 
the guidelines call for.

With 80 percent of crack sentences imposed on African-Americans, 
racial disparities have reached glaring levels and point to the need 
for a changed policy. On the wider societal level, as the bishops 
note in their 2000 statement, it is the deep, underlying problems 
that need attention: lack of employment, poor housing, inadequate 
education and family disintegration in poor communities. Instead of 
unfairly harsh sentences for drug offenses, supportive initiatives 
for low-income communities and greater use of alternatives to 
incarceration should be the basis of an enlightened approach to 
criminal justice. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake