Pubdate: Fri, 11 Jun 1999
Date: 06/11/1999
Source: Wall Street Journal (NY)
Author: Jamie Fellner
Note: Mr. McNamara, former police chief of San Jose, Calif., is a research

fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Contrary to your implication, most of the 22,386 men and women in New
York prisons for drug offenses are low-level nonviolent offenders,
guilty at most of possessing or peddling minute amounts of drugs.

Few are the dangerous, violent individuals for whom incarceration is

Nearly one in three of drug offenders sent to New York prisons have no
prior convictions for any felony.

Three-quarters had never been convicted of a violent

One in four were convicted of illegal possession. But of those
convicted of sales-related conduct, few were the serious traffickers
for whom the laws' long sentences were intended.

The preponderance were mere minions in the drug trade, selling small
quantities, addicts trying to support their habit, couriers trying to
earn extra cash. On the street, the line between possession and sales
is fluid: many who possess drugs sell some of what they have in order
to be able to buy more for their own use.

Depending on where they were in the drug cycle when arrested, they can
be charged with sales or possession. But regardless of the legal label
affixed to their conduct, they are still nonviolent, low-level
offenders for whom years in prison is a disproportionately harsh sentence.

Jamie Fellner
Human Rights Watch
New York