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July 2, 2007 - The New York Times

Editorial: A Much-Needed Second Chance

The United States now has more than two million people behind bars, a number that has been rising steadily for decades. But state lawmakers who once would have rushed to build new prisons have begun to see that prison-building is not the best or most cost-effective way to fight crime or protect the public's safety.

Several states have instead begun to focus on developing community-based programs that deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders without locking them up. And they have begun to look at ways to control recidivism with programs that help newly released people find jobs, housing, drug treatment and mental health care - essential services if they are to live viable lives in a society that has historically shunned them.

Texas and Kansas have recently made important strides in this area. But corrections policy nationally would evolve much faster if Washington put its shoulder to the wheel. Congress needs to pass the Second Chance Act, which would provide grants, guidance and assistance to states and localities that are developing programs to reintegrate former inmates into their communities.

The states have made a good start, thanks in part to the efforts of the Council of State Governments and its prison policy arm, the Justice Center. The center's analysis of corrections patterns has led to sweeping changes in Texas, where the Legislature was facing a projected upsurge in the prison population and a projected outlay of more than a billion dollars to build several new prisons.

The surge in Texas was not being driven by crime, which had risen only slightly, but by a breakdown in the parole and probation systems, which were unable to process and supervise the necessary numbers of released prisoners. Mental health and drug treatment services were also lacking. By expanding those services, along with other community-based programs, the Legislature projects that it could potentially avoid the need for any new prisons.

A similar solution was found in Kansas, where about 65 percent of the state's admissions to prison were traced to technical violations of probation or parole, often by people with drug addictions or mental illnesses. The Legislature has expanded drug treatment behind bars and created a grant program that encourages localities to provide more effective supervision and services as a way of keeping recently released people away from crime and out of prison.

The social service networks that are necessary for this kind of work are virtually nonexistent in most communities. To put those networks together, the states need to require that disparate parts of the government apparatus work together in ways that were unheard of in the past.

It is encouraging that state officials are willing to break out of the old patterns. But they need help. The Second Chance Act would bolster the re-entry movement with money, training, technical assistance - and the federal stamp of approval.

HR 261 - A Bill For Nonviolent Offender Relief In 2007

By Glenn H. Early, prisoner of the drug war

On January 5, 2007, U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Houston, Texas presented to the 110th Congress HR 261, the Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2007. HR 261 is a clear and concise bill that will provide immediate relief for federal prisoners who are at least 45 years of age, with no history of violence, and who have served half their sentence.

What percentage of today's 195,000 federal prisoners will HR 261 actually help? That's not yet known, but all federal prisoners and their family members should support and promote this bill and others soon to be presented to the Congress which can bring immediate relief from long sentences to incarcerated people.

More importantly, prisoners can help create conditions for change by writing members of Congress directly, asking them to support HR 261 and any other reentry or release legislation likely to be developed such as "The Second Chance Act" and "The Bill to Revive the System of Parole for Federal Prisoners."

Also, prisoners can draft letters in support of HR 261 or any other future bills for family members to send to their own district's Representative. Family members can also call the Capitol Hill Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and talk to their Representative or leave a message in support of HR 261 and any other bill for prisoner relief that may be filed in coming weeks.

While expecting they'll get little help, prisoners and their families must still do everything possible to change the current system. For the good of the whole, we must unite as individuals and groups to support new laws that create beneficial social change. If we continue to assess common problems in the prison system with only an individual interest or narrow outlook, it's unlikely we'll create much future for the common good.

HR 261 is but one proposed solution to prison overcrowding, and doesn't explore others or criticize political leaders still eager to wage a drug war and incarcerate more nonviolent offenders. I can't wait to see the next legislation to relieve federal prison overcrowding.

Crack vs. Powder: Congress Takes Notice

By Tyson E. Marshek, prisoner

The 110th U.S. Congress has finally noticed something that men and women like me have been familiar with for some time, inequity in sentencing practice for crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. While it only takes five grams of crack cocaine to trigger a mandatory minimum five-year sentence under federal law, it requires 500 grams of powder cocaine to warrant that same sentence.

This inequity has spurred members of Congress into introducing two bills to correct this disparity, but this is only partly good news. H.R. 79 was introduced on January 4, 2007 by Rep. R. Bartlett (MD-6), and while this bill would equalize crack and powder penalties, it would achieve this by making one gram of powder cocaine equal to one gram of crack cocaine. Consequently, this legislation qualifies all cocaine offenders for harsh punishment for a relatively small amount of drugs, while destroying families and communities, and while prisons continue to be built unnecessarily for incarcerating these drug-law violators for ungodly periods of time.

On the other hand, H.R. 460 was presented on January 12, 2007 by Rep C. Rangel (NY-15) and seeks to equalize sentencing laws by making one gram of crack cocaine equal to one gram of powder cocaine, and requiring 500 grams of either substance to trigger any mandatory minimum sentence. This bill makes sense and is a step in the right direction towards correcting unjust sentencing laws.

As of the end of March, H.R. 460 had 10 Co-Sponsors while H.R. 79 had none.

We must show our support for H.R. 460 by contacting our federal representatives. Ask yours to support this important legislation by signing on as a co-sponsor. Let's also put time and energy into campaigning against H.R. 79 as a nonsensical solution to the inequity in cocaine laws and show our members of Congress how this would only continue to perpetuate injustices across the country.

I cannot minimize the importance of being vocal on these matters by contacting your elected representatives or by speaking about these matters in your community through letters to the editor and other media outlets. Regardless of how good or promising H.R. 460 may sound, members of Congress are unlikely to take any positive action to pass this bill into law unless they know they have the support of their community and voter base.

Sen. Biden Wants To Completely Eliminate Crack Disparity

When Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, it included language that meted out a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for dealing 5 grams of crack cocaine, yet the same 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for dealing 100 times that amount, or 500 grams, of powder cocaine. Thus, the bill codified a racially unjust divide.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that in 2000 some 84.7 percent of federal crack offenders were black, while only 5.6 percent were white, and has made four recommendations to curb the sentencing inequity. Congress has repeatedly ignored the recommendations.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., wants to change the status quo. In June, Biden made the brave leap of proposing a bill to eliminate the sentencing disparity completely, instead of making the law unfair, but less so.

Biden's "Drug Sentencing Reform & Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007" would raise the amount of crack cocaine so that 500 grams of either crack or powder cocaine would trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence.

According to a Sentencing Commission fact table on 2006 federal cocaine cases, the median crack offense involved 51 grams of crack - or 100 to 500 doses. The median powder cocaine offender weight was 6,000 grams, about the amount of cocaine that would fill a briefcase. Not only do these weights suggest that most federal offenders were not kingpins, but worse, the statistics also show that more than half of federal cocaine cases were crack cases - dealing as little as 2.3 grams. One-third of crack cases involved 25 grams or less. - Source: St. Petersburg Times

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