Pubdate: Fri, 11 Jun 1999
Source: Wall Street Journal (NY)
Copyright: 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Jamie Fellner 


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 warranted. 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 felony. 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
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake