US Legal Group Debates Reform As Drug Cases Inundate System

Some want to move most cases from federal court to state jurisdictions

THE war on drugs is tugging hard on the United States legal system and threatens to pull it out of shape. Lawyers and judges, however, are divided over how to respond to recommendations for reform that address the pressure of drug cases on the system.

The American Bar Association (ABA), the nation's largest legal group, is debating narcotics policy at its midwinter meeting here this week. The group may end up taking public stands on the death penalty, mandatory jailing, gun control, and punishment for narcotics possession.

A tough position on these issues would be in line with proposals made by President Bush and drug policy director William Bennett. Both men stress punishment over prevention in their national antidrug strategy.

Some lawyers and judges, however, emphasize that the need for reducing demand for drugs is more important than punitive action against users and sellers. ABA president Stanley Chauvin, for example, says that ``simply stopping the flow of cocaine into the US will not solve the drug problem. We must reduce demand in a way that was done in educating people about alcoholism and drunk driving,'' he says.

The bar association chief calls for the adoption of a national gun-control policy that would ``reduce or eliminate the sale and distribution of semiautomatic weapons.'' He says drug gangs are often better armed than law enforcement officials.

An important debate is developing over moving drug cases out of the federal courts into state jurisdictions. Some say the federal judiciary is becoming the unintended victim of the drug war. It is inundated by drug cases, with an insufficient number of judges to handle the litigation. This group would limit federal drug prosecutions to those that have international or interstate implications.

Mr. Chauvin says this approach might adversely affect the civil justice system and should be cautiously examined. He adds, however, that it takes three to five years to get a verdict in a civil case; this time is extended as judges are diverted to hear criminal drug cases.

Drug problems are key to proposals of the Federal Courts Study Committee, whose final recommendations for restructuring judicial practices will be submitted to Mr. Bush and Congress in April. In a preliminary report, the 15-member panel - appointed by US Chief Justice William Rehnquist - says the ``rapid expansion of the federal criminal caseload due to drug prosecutions threatens to overwhelm the resources of the federal courts.''

This study shows that within the last 10 years criminal case filings have risen 56 percent, and drug filings, 229 percent. Drug cases now account for 44 percent of all criminal trials and 50 percent of criminal appeals.

The study committee calls on Congress to provide more judges and more money to deal with this enlarged criminal caseload at the federal level. It also urges a ``partnership'' between state and federal governments under which drug prosecutions would largely fall to the states.

Some ABA delegates here warn that changes made in the judicial system to accommodate the drug war must fall within constitutional guidelines. For example, they must take into account the protections for defendants, such as Miranda rights. They should also be accompanied by a broader public understanding of the US justice system.

``People must know that the Constitution is not the public's enemy in the war on drugs,'' says Georgetown University law professor Samuel Dash. Professor Dash adds that the public must stop looking solely to police officers and district attorneys to solve the crime problem in the US.

The public ``must ask itself why there is a drug problem ... in terms of standards of ethics in the US,'' he says.

William Slate, director of the Federal Court Study Committee, says the US has 2 percent of the world's population but consumes 60 percent of the world's legal and illegal drug supply.

James Neuhard, past president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, points out that despite public calls for increased punitive measures to attack the drug problem, the US already jails a larger percentage of people convicted for drug and other offenses than any other nation than South Africa.

He explains that US courts issue more mandatory jail sentences and offer fewer alternatives to prison than do those of most nations. The federal court proposals would abolish most mandatory sentencing.

Some lawyers and judges also propose decriminalizing certain kinds of substance abuse, such as smoking marijuana, to curtail drug cases in the courts.

Neal Sonnett, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says the nation will not find an answer to drugs in extremes, such as decriminalization or mandatory death sentences for drug pushers.

Before this meeting adjourns today, the ABA's House of Delegates will debate several drug-related issues, including solutions for jail overcrowding and trial delays. It will also consider the use of private jail facilities to house prisoners convicted of drug charges.

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