Pubdate: Mon, 12 Dec 2016
Source: Reporter, The (Lansdale, PA)
Copyright: 2016 The Reporter
Authors: Riley Yates and Steve Esack
Page: A1


Officials, former inmate contrast the emphasis on treatment vs.

When Leola Bivins was first sent away for dealing drugs, she was a
22-year-old high school dropout with a 2-year-old daughter at home.

Addiction was the center of the life she knew in East Stroudsburg,
where she was born and raised, she recalled recently. Bivins' mother
was a heroin addict - she eventually died of an overdose - and
seemingly everyone around her was either selling drugs or abusing
them, Bivins said.

That was nearly 20 years ago and a drug scare was sweeping
Pennsylvania and the nation, prompting pledges by lawmakers to beat
back the scourge. But if today's heroin epidemic has brought calls for
better treatment and more compassion, the mid-1980s to late-1990s'
crack cocaine epidemic prompted a very different response: Lock them
up and throw away the key.

Bivins experienced that firsthand, spending nine and a half years in
state and federal prisons for selling cocaine and crack. Now 41, she
has turned her life around. She holds a bachelor's degree and hopes to
get her master's, and she works as a counselor for at-risk girls at
the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center in Easton.

"I don't think I was treated fairly in the beginning," Bivins said. "I
was young. I didn't have an education. I needed treatment."

To backers, the war on drugs of the '80s and '90s was needed medicine
at a time when society's ills - violent crime, the rise of gangs -
required quarantine. But to a growing number of critics, the effort
was at best misguided and at worst devastating to the communities it
affected, which were disproportionately inner city and black and Hispanic.

Today, even some of its most vocal supporters have abandoned the
get-tough measures as ineffective and draconian. But taxpayers
continue to grapple with the effects, under which Pennsylvania built
and renovated 20 state prisons since the mid-1980s, as its inmate
population more than tripled to 49,561 and its corrections budget more
than doubled to $2.2 billion, state Corrections Department records

The same is true at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where the number of
inmates has grown more than fourfold since 1986, to 191,024 - nearly
half of whom are in for drug offenses. This year, taxpayers will spend
$7.5 billion for it, more than 12 times higher than the cost three
decades ago.

"We did a lot of damage to the African-American community with that
approach," said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, the
longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee who was once one of the
champions of the state's tough-on-crime laws.

"We thought they were good policies," Greenleaf said. "To some degree
they were, but we never calculated the unintended consequences."

At the state level, many of those laws are now vestiges of the past.
Almost all of Pennsylvania's mandatory minimum sentences for drugs -
which tie judges' hands by forcing them to impose strict prison terms
- - have been thrown out by the courts under a string of rulings that
found them unconstitutional, and the Legislature, so far, has been
unwilling to reinstate them.

At the federal level, sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking have
been scaled back, and the Justice Department under Democratic
President Barack Obama less aggressively sought harsh punishments for
drug dealing.

At the same time, Obama used his clemency powers on behalf of drug
offenders serving lengthy sentences, releasing more federal prisoners
than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

Obama has given commutations to 1,023 inmates, most of whom were
serving decades, and in many cases life, for selling drugs. Among them
were 26 prisoners from Pennsylvania, including 13 from Philadelphia
and one from Reading.

But while those initiatives have enjoyed bipartisan support, how they
will fare under the Republican administration of President-elect
Donald Trump is an open question.

During the campaign, Trump pledged to be the "law and order" candidate
and complained that violent crime is "out of control," though he
offered few specific policy proposals. His choice for attorney
general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been a vocal backer of harsh
sentences for drug offenses, with the Drug Policy Alliance, a reform
group, labeling him a "drug war dinosaur."

"States don't want to spend money on prisons," Sessions acknowledged
last year in opposing changes in national drug policy. "But the truth
is that people who tend to be criminals tend to continue to be
criminals and commit crimes. And we ignore too often the pain, the
destruction, the damage it does to innocent people who are afraid to
have their children out and who suffer through the turmoil of being a
crime victim."

Despite Sessions' recent statements, former Republican Gov. Tom
Corbett doesn't believe he will seek to turn back the clock on drug
enforcement. Corbett got to know Sessions while both served as U.S.
attorneys and state attorneys general in the 1980s and 1990s.

"Lock 'em up and throw away the key, that was in the '90s," said
Corbett, who soon will be working on a National Governors Association
grant-funded project to develop nationwide justice reform guidelines.

Trump's and Sessions' comments also do not bother state Corrections
Secretary John Wetzel, hired by Corbett in 2011 and retained by
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. There are enough conservative lawmakers
embracing criminal justice reform due to cost overruns and the impact
on families to offset possible plans by the incoming administration to
spend more on prisons, Wetzel said.

"It's easy when you are outside of this system to make these broad,
sweeping statements," he said. "But Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are
going to inherit a federal system that's bloated (and) that
over-incarcerates non-violent individuals."

Catching too many fish

The crack cocaine epidemic started in the mid1980s and was fueled in
part by a "media frenzy" that overstated the scope of the drug use and
violence that was occurring in inner cities, said Steven Belenko, a
Temple University criminal justice professor who has written a book on
the era's response.

"It was a mutual frenzy - media and politicians," Belenko

Starting in 1986, Congress instituted tougher laws for drug
violations, but especially for crack cocaine, which was legislatively
determined to be more dangerous than powder cocaine. States then followed.

In 1987, an estimated 5 percent of the nation's 17,963 homicides were
drugrelated, according to FBI crime data cited in a 2008 U.S. Justice
Department report. The homicide-drug link had risen to nearly 7
percent of 20,273 deaths by 1990.

With opinion polls showing the topic foremost in voters' minds,
Republican Gov. Tom Ridge campaigned in 1994 on a promise to crack
down on crime.

"No single factor imperils the character of our society - our
commonwealth - as much as crime," Ridge said in his Jan. 17, 1995,
inaugural. Pennsylvania would launch a prison construction boom during
Ridge's tenure.

The public demanded action, said Corbett, who oversaw a special
legislative session Ridge called to address crime. There was real
fear, Corbett said, due to the gang violence festering in cities and
spreading elsewhere.

The raft of mandatory minimum sentences that followed over the next
decade were aimed at taking those offenders off the streets. Someone
who sold drugs near a school would face a sentence of at least two
years in prison. A dealer caught with a gun in his home during a
police drug raid would risk five years at minimum.

With the collapse of those mandatories today, those same defendants
could easily see far different outcomes. Sentencing guidelines might
recommend as little as probation to a three-month stint in jail - a
sea change in their fates.

The tougher laws succeeded in reducing crime at first, Wetzel said.
Then lawmakers kept adding more, which reduced their effectiveness by
sending too many non-violent offenders to prisons, he said.

"The legislation sought to catch a bunch of big fish and it caught a
bunch of little fish too," Wetzel said. "When we bring low-risk
individuals into the state prison system or the federal prison system,
they come out worse."

Crack gives way to heroin

By the mid-to-late-1990s the crack epidemic was fizzling out. At the
same time, opioid addictions were picking up, with cheaper heroin and
the rise of prescription narcotics.

As heroin and opioid abuse began skyrocketing across Pennsylvania,
state prisons continued to bulge with inmates - though more of them
were white.

In 1996, whites were 17 percent of the 5,218 inmates incarcerated for
drug offenses in state prisons, Department of Corrections records
show. In 2012, whites accounted for 24 percent of the 8,044 inmates
imprisoned for drug crimes.

Faced with rising populations and costs, Corbett and Wetzel
implemented plans to reduce inmate numbers. Wolf has continued that
approach. The state's prison population is down 3 percent from 2012
and it saved $51 million, though Wetzel said 40 percent of new inmates
are still non-violent offenders.

Many of those non-violent offenders were addicts, though the heroin
epidemic was still building to today's crisis.

On the streets and in emergency rooms, first responders and doctors
are rushing to stop overdose deaths in cities and suburbs, poor and
affluent neighborhoods. More than 265,000 people nationwide died of
opioid-related overdoses between 1999 and 2014. In Pennsylvania, the
death toll rose to 3,383 between 2014 and 2015 alone.

Objectively, said Temple professor Belenko, the public health problem
caused by the heroin-opioid crisis is far greater than the crack
epidemic, which centered mostly in inner cities.

"It's not even close," he said.

In the Legislature, steam has picked up on bills focusing on treatment
and prevention, rather than incarceration. Wolf and lawmakers have
held numerous community forums on heroin, and the new state budget
includes $34 million for new treatment centers.

In September, Wolf gave a rare speech before a joint session of the
House and Senate, calling on them to pass more legislation.

"We must act now," he said. "Many Pennsylvania families are counting
on us."

Lawmakers responded by passing bills to limit doctors' abilities to
write opioid prescriptions in emergency rooms and to prescribe opioids
to minors, to have medical school students learn when to properly
prescribe opiates, and to require medical practitioners to check the
state's prescription drug monitoring database more frequently than
they had in the past.

"What we have seen over time is that too often our jails are being
filled with people who actually need medical treatment to deal with
severe addictions," Wolf said in a statement. "The result is
over-crowded prisons and high rates of recidivism. The commonwealth
will continue working collaboratively to push policies that expand
treatment options, cut down on recidivism, and crack down on criminals
who are supplying the drugs that are tearing our communities apart."

Such a stance echos the 1970s, said Gary Asteak, an Easton defense
attorney who started practicing law in that decade.

"I used to be able to go in and argue, 'He had a bad childhood. He
needs treatment,' and the judges would listen," Asteak said.
"Rehabilitation was a buzz word that meant something back then."

Only with heroin's creep into the suburbs and into more affluent,
white neighborhoods has drug addiction again begun to be treated like
a medical problem, Asteak said.

"Before, we wanted to get them off the street and out of sight and out
of mind," he said.

The differing approach hasn't been lost on local black leaders. Nor is
the fact that blacks made up 88 percent of the crack offenders in
federal prisons in 2012, according to a Justice Department report.

"Heroin now, you can get help," said Lance Wheeler, Easton NAACP
president. "Crack cocaine, you got put in jail."

Esther Lee, who heads the Bethlehem NAACP, said that during the crack
epidemic, treatment wasn't a priority.

"They didn't try that. There was no talk when it was African-Americans
in the forefront," Lee said.

There is no mistaking the war on drugs had a greater impact on
minorities, but that doesn't mean it was racially motivated, said
Democratic state Sen. Anthony "Hardy" Williams of Philadelphia, one of
five U.S. cities that a Harvard University study found had the highest
levels of crack use.

The crack epidemic was confronted by the "American machismo - get the
bad guy - mentality," said Williams, who is black. "That's all we
knew. I don't know if that is racism as much as it is benign neglect."

The prison cost being born by taxpayers, he added, is not a price of
failure but a price for learning. Still, Williams said, policymakers
could be heading for another costly lesson by overly focusing on
heroin and not having a greater discussion on addiction as a whole.

"America has a drug problem and we've had it for a long time,"
Williams said.

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin has attended several recent
Lehigh Valley community forums on the heroin epidemic, where he tells
the audience that despite the best efforts of law enforcement, the
problem can't be prosecuted away.

"Most prosecutors would agree with me that we have not won the war on
drugs," Martin said. "I think most cops would agree with that."

Other prosecutors worry the pendulum has swung too far against

Northampton County Assistant District Attorney Patricia Mulqueen, the
county's chief of drug prosecutions, said that while some defendants
may need help, others deserve to be locked away.

Some drug dealers aren't addicts but are simply making

money off the heartache of others, she said.

"So many of the violent crimes that occur have some connection to
drugs," Mulqueen said. "It matters not to the person who has a gun
pointed at them that that person has a drug problem."

A dark place

Bivins was twice busted for selling cocaine and she admits she was a
"big dealer."

"Just hustling in the street, hustling," she recalled. "That was my
lifestyle every day. Everything else just came second."

While free, she said, she smoked marijuana constantly but took pride
in not being a "crackhead," even as drugs dominated her milieu since
she was a young teen.

"I didn't have people to say, 'That is not the life you should live,'"
said Bivins, who remains in East Stroudsburg. "When you're surrounded
by people who use and deal drugs, you don't know any other way."

When Bivins was arrested in 1997, she was caught in Delaware Water Gap
with 104 grams of cocaine, according to Monroe County Court records -
roughly $4,000 to $5,000 worth in today's prices. She went to trial,
was convicted and was hit with a mandatory minimum sentence of
four-to-eight years in state prison because of the amount of drugs she

Bivins recalled the day she was delivered by deputy sheriffs to Muncy
State Prison, 105 miles from her home and her toddler, who was cared
for by family in her absence. It was only as she arrived, she said,
that she was struck by the gravity of what was in store for her.

"I knew I was going into a dark place," Bivins said. "You could feel
it instantly, and I hadn't even stepped out of the car yet. And that
right there was scary. It was scary to be so young."

Bivins was paroled in 2001, having served four years of her sentence,
prison records show. But she returned to her old life and less than
three years later was arrested again - this time by the FBI, for
running cocaine and crack from Trenton, N.J., to Monroe County.

Bivins pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to distribute
crack and received a five-year sentence. She was incarcerated in
Alderson, W.V., and again left behind a baby daughter - her second,
who was only a few months old.

It was during that second stint in prison that Bivins said she
realized she needed to change. Her children were suffering without
their mother - her eldest daughter, now 22, is in rehab today for
heroin addiction - and she worried her lifestyle would be repeated by

Something clicked that it had to stop, she said. That she had to make
changes. That when she got home, she was going to do all she could to
be a better person.

Bivins has been out of prison since Jan. 24, 2010. This year, she
earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from DeSales
University. She counsels girls at the juvenile justice center in
Easton twice a week, and has a cleaning business to help make ends

One day, she dreams of opening a group home for troubled juveniles.
She'd like to give them the help that her generation was often denied.

"For some reason," Bivins said, "the system kind of let us slip
through the cracks."
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