Cost Concerns Drive States To Ease Tough Sentences For Some Drug Offenders

Lawmakers shed 'soft on crime' label by citing fiscal prudence and crowded prisons.

Susan Stonner is still stunned by what happened to her husband. A real estate developer in upstate New York, he's now serving a mandatory minimum 10-year prison sentence for growing marijuana.

She acknowledges he broke the law and should be punished. "But 10 years is a little excessive," says Ms. Stonner. "It was his first offense. He had no prior record. ... Now we have two children that miss their father terribly."

With courts and prisons overflowing with nonviolent drug offenders, and a growing acknowledgment that America's "war on drugs" has fallen short, a rebellion is brewing against the kind of mandatory drug-sentencing law that put Bill Stonner away.

From Connecticut to Michigan, from North Carolina to Oklahoma, legislators who have long shunned any action that could label them "soft" on crime are now building flexibility into strict sentencing requirements, or so-called mandatory minimum laws.

"This isn't about being 'tough' or 'soft,' " says New York state Sen. Catherine Abate (D). "This is about being smart about how we use our limited resources." She is sponsoring a bill to give judges more discretion in sentencing drug offenders in New York.

But many politicians remain firmly opposed to any legislation that lightens drug penalties. "I am deeply concerned that during this time of still-rising teenage drug use [that] we not send the wrong message to drug pushers," says Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan.

What states have done

North Carolina and Oklahoma have eased sentences for less-serious drug offenses, but toughened the penalties for violent crimes. Arizona voters opted to give first- and second-time drug offenders treatment instead of prison.

In these states, as in those considering similar changes, concern about the bottom line is the driving force. Incarceration is one of the most expensive sentencing options, and cells crowded with nonviolent drug offenders are a major reason that prison populations have tripled in the past 15 years. Back in 1980, for example, 9 percent of New York's felons were serving time on drug-related offenses. Today, 34 percent are drug felons, according to the state Department of Correctional Services.

Moreover, experts say, overcrowded conditions have led to genuinely violent offenders being released early or plea-bargaining shorter sentences.

"In Michigan, a second-degree murderer gets a significantly shorter sentence than a low-level drug courier," says state Sen. William Regenmorter, the Republican chairman of Michigan's Senate Judiciary Committee.

Michigan's top drug penalty is known as the "650 Lifer" law, which requires a mandatory life sentence for anyone caught with more than 650 grams, about 1-1/4 pounds, of cocaine or heroin. It was designed to punish drug king pins, but instead has snagged low-level drug couriers.

Senator Regenmorter's committee is currently weighing a bill to allow judges some discretion in sentencing. It has backing from police, prosecutors, and judges.

Because crime remains a politically charged issue, many lawmakers have turned to independent commissions for ways to deal with criminal-justice problems.

"It has to come from the outside because legislators themselves just can't face up to that campaign brochure that says, 'My opponent is soft on crime,' no matter how much untruth there is to it," says Thomas Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Crime Commission.

This spring, with the backing of two top judges, the commission recommended that Illinois treat less-serious drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. So far, the Illinois legislature has balked at the proposal.

But it is now considering an independent study of the issue, similar to one done for Connecticut lawmakers. That study concluded that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses failed to deter drug use. The Connecticut legislature is now considering a package of reforms that would require mandatory drug treatment and alternative sentencing for most nonviolent drug offenders.

"Ordinary citizens are definitely way ahead of the politicians on this - they make the distinction between really violent criminals and everything else," says Connecticut state Rep. Mike Lawlor, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

A catalyst for change

A national grass-roots movement aimed at changing the drug laws - Families Against Mandatory Minimums - is the catalyst for many of the changes. In 1991, FAMM had a handful of members; today it has 33,000 nationwide.

"When you show the public who is actually ending up in jail, then it sinks in that maybe this isn't such a good idea," says Julie Stewart of FAMM. "It's the families that get hurt the most." The group heads to Capitol Hill today with spouses and kids of jailed nonviolent drug offenders, hoping to move sentencing reform on the national level.

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