Pubdate: Thu, 11 Mar 1999
Source: Orange County Register (CA)
Copyright: 1999 The Orange County Register
Section: Editorial
Contact:  http://www.ocregister.com/
Note: The Effective National Drug Control Strategy, discussed in this
editorial, is on line at: 
http://www.csdp.org/edcs/ 

IMPRISONED IN A DRUG WAR

With crime rates down and prison populations soaring, it's easy to conclude
that the latter has much to do with the former. America's long-term efforts
to lock up more violent criminals has indeed reduced street crime. But the
current prison boom has more to do with the nation's War on Drugs than on
its battle against violent crime.

"No matter how much crime plummets, the United States will have to add the
equivalent of a new 1,000-bed jail or prison every week  for perhaps
another decade," according to a New York Times article published in the
Register last Sunday. That follows a decade in which the U.S. prison
population has nearly doubled, to almost 2 million inmates.

Mandatory sentencing laws, enacted during the 1980s anti-drug frenzy, have
led to the current situation, in which 400,000 people are serving time
nationwide for drug crimes. About 60 percent of federal prisoners are
incarcerated for drug offenses  three times the rate 15 years ago,
according to the article.

To put things in perspective, the United States Sentencing Commission
reports that the average time served in federal prisons for drug
trafficking is 82.3 months. That compares to 73.3 months for sexual abuse,
38.8 months for assault, 34.2 months for manslaughter and 22.9 months for
bribery. Federal sentencing priorities appear to be out of order.

"We went through a period in the mid-1980s where we were just ratcheting up
drug sentences," Kevin B. Zeese told us; he's president of Common Sense for
Drug Policy, a drug-law reform organization in Falls Church, Va. "We put in
place a system with more and more people going to jail for longer and
longer time periods."

The nation, he said, has embraced "this mandatory approach to things" in
which judges no longer have the authority to see if an individual really is
"a danger to society." People caught buying, selling or using even small
amounts of illegal drugs are hit with stiff automatic sentences, which
means that nonviolent drug users end up serving time with hardened felons.

What should be done? In the short term, Mr. Zeese urges lawmakers to move
away from mandatory sentencing and toward a more traditional judicial
approach that looks at individual circumstances. He also calls for shorter
prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses. In the long term, he said
Americans must decide "Which is better to control drugs? An illegal market
enforced by police or a legal market enforced by administrative law?"

We agree. As politically dangerous as these proposals may be, they offer a
realistic alternative to an ever-expanding and costly prison-building
campaign that continues to fill the prisons with drug offenders, and not
just those who are menaces to society.

A new study coauthored by Mr. Zeese, "The Effective National Drug Control
Strategy 1999," is available on the Internet, at www.csdp.org

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