Pubdate: 1 Mar 1999
Source: International Herald-Tribune
Copyright: International Herald Tribune 1999
Page: 2
Author: Timothy Egan


VICTORVILLE, California---Every 20 seconds, someone in the United States is
arrested for a drug violation. Every week, on average, a new jail or
prison-is built to lock up more people in the world's largest peual system.

It was not always so. Ten years ago, half as many people were arrested for
drug crimes, and the nation's incarceration rate was closer to those of
other democracies. But in the 1980s, crack cocaine scared the country, and
the criminal justice system has never been the same. For all the havoc
wreaked by crack, however, authorities' worst fears were not realized.

Now the violence of the crack trade has burned out, and murder rates have
plunged. Yet crack left its mark, in ways that few people anticipated.
Crack prompted the nation to rewrite its drug laws, lock up a record number
of people and shift money from schools to prisons. It transforrned police
work, hospitals, parental rights, courts.

Crack also changed the makeup of U.S. prisons. More whites than blacks use
crack, surveys say, but as the war on drugs focused on poor city
neighborhoods, blacks went to prison at a far higher rate. In California,
five times as many black men are behind bars as are attending a state
university. But the harsh laws responding to crack have not reduced overall
drug use. And the ceaseless march of new drug offenders and the mounting
costs of prisons are moving some of the people charged with enforcing the
punitive laws to question the assumptions behind them.

Since l985 the nation's jail and prison population has grown 130 percent,
and it will soon pass 2 million, even as crime rates continue a six-year
decline. No country has more people behind bars, and only one, Russia, has
a higher incarceration rate, according to the Sentencing Project, which
tracks prison rates.

Behind the increase is a national gettough mood that has produced longer
sentences for all criminals and the end of parole in many states. Polls
show that most Americans favor lengthy terms for violent criminals.

Crack's legacy can be seen in nearly every corner of the land, even in the
Mojave Desert, where the newest federal prison is rising at the dusty edge
of Victorville. In an age of government downsizing, the federal corrections
budget has grown more than tenfold in a decade, to nearly $4 billion, yet
prisons are so stuffed with drug offenders that this one will be at
capacity almost from the day it opens.

In New York, the police and prosecutors say locking up thousands of drug
offenders was a major factor in the city's turning the corner on crime.
"What plays havoc with a neighborhood are the low-level dealers," said
Bridget Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor for New York. "When they
take over a street or a stoop, everyone else is terrified. When you put
those people in jail, it gives the community a sense that order has been

What the prison boom has not done however, is reduce illicit drug use,
national surveys show. Far fewer Americans use illegal drugs now than in
the peak years of the 1970s. But almost all of the drop occurred before
crack cocaine or the laws passed in response to it.

"Crack probably had more impact on the entire criminaljustice system than
it had on the communities and the drug users," said Franklin Zimring,
director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California
School of Law, in Berkeley. "This secondary impact, on police and prisons,
may end up being more negative than anything associated with the drug."

Throughout America, there is vigorous debate over how the drug laws enacted
during the crack panic have transformed the nation---except in Congress,
which enacted the laws without a single hearing. For crack has left one
other major legacy: The policy discussion in Washington on prisons and
drugs has been frozen for more than a decade. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Mike Gogulski