Pubdate: Sun, 11 Nov 2007
Source: Michigan Citizen (Detroit, MI)
Copyright: 2007 Michigan Citizen
Author: David Salisbury, Capital News Service
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


LANSING - Drug abuse can lead to criminal activity, but are the 
state's current drug laws too uncompromising?

Many convicted drug violators are non-violent, but they are lumped in 
with other criminals who harm people, critics of the present 
sentencing rules say.

But Rep. Paul Condino, D-Southfield, chair of the House Judiciary 
Committee, wants to revamp the punishment for possessing small 
amounts of marijuana.

Condino is working on legislation to divert marijuana offenders from 
prison into drug courts and programs where rehabilitation and 
court-mandated screenings attempt to treat drug users.

"These aren't people who are murderers or rapists," he said. "These 
are non-violent people who need treatment."

Patricia Caruso, director of the Department of Corrections, said that 
prison sentences for drug violations are "extremely lengthy" in 
Michigan compared to other states.

For example, a person convicted of dealing or possessing more than 
1.75 ounces of cocaine faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years 
in prison.

Michigan houses 50,000 convicts, among whom many were found guilty of 
drug-related charges.

Caruso told of one woman given a long sentence for possessing a 
relatively small amount of cocaine.

"It will be 25 years before she's eligible for parole," Caruso said.

That's longer than second-degree criminal sexual conduct, which has a 
15-year maximum, or negligent homicide, with a two-year maximum.

Caruso said about 75 percent of inmates have had a substance abuse 
problem like the woman who received the lengthy prison term.

"It's people in cases such as these that need to be given 
rehabilitation rather than taking up valuable space in our 
overcrowded jails," she said.

Michigan has the sixth-largest prison population in the U.S. The 
corrections department receives 25 percent of the state's annual 
budget-approximately $2 billion a year.

Although Michigan ranks 30 among states in crime rates, it has the 
ninth-highest incarceration rate. Drug sentences are a significant 
part of the reason, Caruso said.

Victor Fitz, prosecuting attorney for Cass County, estimates that 80 
percent of the cases he sees a year have some drug aspect.

"Often it's some guy on drugs or trying to get drugs that commits a 
crime under the influence," said the 25-year prosecuting veteran. The 
main substance abuse problems in his county include meth amphetamine, 
cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.

Rarely do people charged with drug possession go to jail, he said. 
"We go after the dealers."

Delivery of marijuana carries a four-year maximum. Delivery of 
hallucinogenics and other controlled substances carries a seven-year maximum.

Fitz said that unless a person convicted of drug possession has a 
lengthy criminal record, he or she is usually doesn't receive prison time.

"We save prison for the most violent offenders."

But "delivery" charges can include providing marijuana to a friend at 
a party, or a person caught driving with drugs.

Caruso said that although some lawmakers favor less severe drug laws 
geared more toward rehabilitation, few do so publicly because they 
don't want to appear "soft on crime."

"Often a law is enacted in a knee-jerk reaction to one, extraordinary 
thing," she said. "And once a standard is established, it's hard to 
change it to anything else."

Caruso said a cocaine epidemic in the 1980s led to stricter drug 
laws. Most of the laws have remained in effect. 
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