Rolling back stiff drug sentences

Twenty-five years after the first law mandating tough prison terms, states look for new ways to punish drug offenders.

A quarter century after New York ushered in the nation's first mandatory drug-sentencing laws, some states are showing signs of rolling back the mandates - a trend with far-reaching ramifications for the American criminal-justice system.

Worried about burgeoning prison populations, New York and several other states are beginning to look at ways of punishing nonviolent first-time drug offenders that don't require substantial jail time. At the same time, however, states are enacting even stricter sentencing laws and abolishing parole for dangerous felons, particularly violent sex offenders.

The twin moves underscore a truism of American criminal justice in the late 1990s: At a time when much of the public still wants tough treatment of criminals, states have to deal with the implications of those sentiments by erecting more buildings with bars and concertina wire.

To be sure, many politicians and much of the public don't want any retreat from mandatory minimum sentences - including for drug offenders. They believe it is the best way to tackle America's entrenched drug problem.

But critics counter that the laws create an inequitable system of justice that often punishes marijuana dealers more harshly than it does violent felons. Largely because of these laws, they say, the prison population has tripled since 1980. They also argue it makes the system inflexible, taking away too much discretion from judges.

"States are clearly trying to be thoughtful about sentencing and make sure the laws passed are resource sensitive," says Donna Lyons, director of the criminal justice program of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

This summer, Michigan - which had some of the toughest drug laws in the country - set up new guidelines and rolled back its mandatory-minimum life sentence for drug dealing. Connecticut, Oklahoma, Arizona, and almost a dozen other states have either passed legislation or set up commissions to revamp their criminal codes - including minimum sentences.

And in New York, the legislature is expected to at least modify the Rockefeller drug laws this session.

"There would certainly be symbolism in the undoing of the Rockefeller drug laws, but it's also a practical policy decision," says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington-based advocacy group made up of families of prisoners.

The challenges created by the Rockefeller drug laws in New York reflect those facing other states. Initially aimed at high-level drug dealers, they've often ended up netting low-level dealers and "mules" - those who carry the drugs for the dealers.

Story of Thomas Eddy

Thomas Eddy was among the first to be sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws. Arrested in 1979 for selling two ounces of cocaine, he expected to get a couple of years in jail, and then maybe probation.

Instead, the sophomore at State University of New York, Binghamton, a National Merit Scholar who had his future ahead of him, got 15 years to life.

"Even the judge said she wouldn't have given me that sentence if she had discretion, but she didn't," says Mr. Eddy, who was granted clemency after 13-1/2 years.

A chief concern with mandatory sentencing is that it is often missing its intended target: big-time drug dealers.

This has occurred as discretion has shifted from judges, who are required to mete out certain sentences regardless of circumstances, to prosecutors, who determine whether to bring charges that carry a mandatory-minimum sentence, experts say. Often, the higher-level drug dealers have more information to trade and, thus, can cut better deals with prosecutors.

"The principal problem with current mandatory minimums is that they aren't targeted sufficiently toward the high-level dealers," says Jonathan Caulkins, author of a Rand Corp. study on mandatory sentences.

But the numbers of low-level dealers imprisoned have increased dramatically. In 1980, only 11 percent of the people committed to state prisons in New York were there for drug offenses. By 1997, 47 percent were committed for drug offenses. That increase is reflected nationwide - and the costs associated with it are enormous.

A new study by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found that since 1988 New York has increased the amount it spends on prisons by $761 million, a 76 percent jump. At the same time, spending for higher education dropped by $615 million, or 29 percent.

"That's a major portent for the future," says Vincent Schiraldi, JPI director.

That trend is also national. In 1980, states spent 6-1/2 times more for higher education than for corrections. Today, that's been narrowed to just twice the level.

But supporters of mandatory-minimum drug laws argue such analogies are misleading. The Manhattan Institute's William Stern says it would be just as easy to compare corrections costs with food or energy costs, as to education spending.

"It's unpleasant for society to spend money on prisons ... but it is clearly the way historically that societies have protected themselves and punished the lawless," says Mr. Stern, former chairman of the New York Urban Development Corp.

Stern and other supporters also credit the increase in the prison population, at least in part, for the steady drop in the crime rate over the past six years.

Link to crime rate

But critics counter that during the first 20 years that mandatory minimums were in effect, the crime rate continued to climb. They attribute the recent crime-rate drop to community policing and demographic changes. They also point out that the drug problems in the inner cities have not improved, even though the drug laws disproportionately affect inner-city minorities.

The JPI study found that in 1980 283 whites, 260 Hispanics, and 333 blacks were incarcerated in New York prisons for drug offenses. By 1997, the number of whites had almost doubled to 545, but the number of imprisoned Latinos had jumped over 1,600 percent to 4,459. And the number of blacks increased more than 1,300 percent to 4,727.

"For young people of color from the inner cities, we are cutting back funds for programs that would help them gain access to the mainstream of society, and at the same time we continue to pour resources into prisons," says Bob Gangi of the New York Correctional Association, a corrections think tank.

That frustration is shared by many in the law-enforcement community. A study last year by the Police Foundation found that 85 percent of police chiefs said major changes in drug policy are needed, and 60 percent said the war on drugs has failed.

"There's a great deal of frustration among the police chiefs that the problems they deal with in the inner cities are not lessening as much as they should because poor addicts don't get treatment," says Patrick Murphy, former New York City police commissioner. "It's not only wrong that we don't treat addicts, ... but it's dumb."

The Rand Corp. found that mandatory minimums were the least cost-effective way to reduce drug use and drug-related crime, when compared with conventional sentencing and treatment.

Other studies have also questioned the effectiveness of mandatory minimums. But Mr. Caulkins cautions that such analysis often does not affect value judgments.

"There are people who believe that a person who sold five ounces of crack deserves this long sentence, and they don't care whether it's an efficient way to spend taxpayers' dollars. To them, it's matter of justice," says Caulkins.

For Eddy, it is a matter of injustice. He's about to earn his law degree and is determined to fight the mandatory-minimum drug laws. "What destroyed me was not drugs, it was a mandatory-minimum sentence," he says.

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