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The crime of mandatory minimums

July 2, 2004 | Page 3

"SOCIETY OUGHT to ask itself how it's allocating its resources. The phrase 'tough on crime' should not be a substitute for moral reflection." Believe it or not, those are the words of Anthony Kennedy, the conservative Supreme Court justice appointed by Ronald Reagan.

Kennedy spoke last week after the publication of a report on mandatory minimum prison sentences by an American Bar Association commission that proposed "a return to more discretion in criminal sentencing and for alternatives to long prison sentences for people convicted of less serious crimes," the New York Times reported. Kennedy's concern shows how unjust the criminal justice system has become under the weight of mandatory minimums and the so-called "war on drugs."

The U.S. has 2.1 million people behind bars today--accounting for one-fourth of the world's prison population. More than half of those incarcerated are serving time for nonviolent offenses. And most of them are in jail for low-level drug offenses--some of which are legal in other industrialized countries.

During the decades-long hysterics about drugs, politicians introduced "mandatory minimum" sentences to look as though they had a solution to the "crisis." Instead, countless lives have been wasted, families torn apart and jails filled to the bursting point because judges aren't allowed to use discretion in sentencing.

The outcomes would be laughable if they weren't so tragic. James Geddes got a 75-year sentence for growing marijuana--and another 75 years for possession. When he won an appeal, the combined sentences were 90 years. By way of comparison, the standard sentence for manslaughter in some states is eight years.

Minorities have borne the brunt of mandatory minimums. For example, mandatory minimums helped produce the infamous 100-to-1 rule--where it takes possession of 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to get a mandatory minimum sentence.

Why the disparity? Crack cocaine is cheaper than powder cocaine and is sold more often to poor Blacks. Statistics show that more whites use crack cocaine than Blacks, yet 88 percent of prison sentences for crack offenses go to African Americans.

One primary motivation of Kennedy and Co. is financial--they believe that prison overcrowding is draining government revenue. But the real cost of mandatory minimums is the human toll. Abolishing these draconian laws is long overdue.

"I now know that justice is a sham, like so many other things in life," wrote Jacquie Fogel, who served 10 years in prison on a first-time drug offense, in a book called Shattered Lives. "I know that accused people have very little hope in the courtroom..."

"After being warehoused and allowed to vegetate while the rest of the world passes us by, we will be released. After spending so many years locked up, we are almost destined to fail because we will be so far behind the times...They may as well have given us a life sentence because the odds grow against us each year we're here."

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