Show and Tell
Legislators on Notice
By Nora Callahan
One of our members wrote Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley regarding her concerns about our current drug policies. In her letter she wrote:
"I, as well as my family and may others I have spoken with, feel the time has come to rethink the current policies of locking up such a huge number of non-violent drug offenders and sentencing them to such disproportionately long prison terms...
Please be aware that I, as well as many people I am associated with, intend to vote for the person who opposes the current policies and speaks out against them and will work for reform."
We thought that our members might be interested in the response that Joan received.
September 7, 1997
Thank you for writing me. I want to tell you up-front that I am currently co-sponsoring legislation to keep tough sentencing guidelines for crack, while moving toward greater parity with power cocaine sentencing. Both the characteristics of the drug and its effects on the user are different for crack and cocaine, which is why there are different guidelines.
I understand your concern about racial disparity in sentencing for crimes. Yet I do not believe that sentences for crack cocaine are now, nor have they ever been, motivated by racism. The current sentencing guidelines were developed to punish criminals, whatever the color of their skin. And when someone breaks the law, they should be punished. Reducing the sentence of a criminal is not going to help him, his community, or his city if it is done for no other reason than the color of his skin.
Its [sic] important to remember why the present guidelines were first passed in the Crime Bill of 1986. It was at that time that crack first began to hit our streets in a big way. The effects were devastating. As addiction soared, violence soared along with it. Crack houses mushroomed across the landscape. The public became alarmed at the results. The effects of crack, however, were not spread evenly across every jurisdiction in the country. It fell heaviest on our inner cities, on predominantly black neighborhoods.
Many of the most affected communities called on police departments and city governments to go after crack dealers and open-air drug markets on inner city streets. The result was the 1986 Crime Bill and heightened steps by law enforcement to go after crack dealers and street markets. The intent was to rescue inner-city neighborhoods from the drug-users that made streets and homes unsafe for the overwhelming numbers of decent people who have become victims in their own backyards. And to a large degree, this has been successful.
Even so, the focus for arrests at both Federal and state levels was not on individual users of crack, who constitute a vanishingly small percentage of inmates, but on dealers. Even here, small-time dealers were not the primary target. The overwhelming number of prisoners in jail for drug crimes are also there for violent crimes or repeat offenses, and the vast majority of individuals incarcerated for drug crimes are in custody for trafficking in drugs, in many cases to kids.
As a member of Congress, one of our primary responsibilities is to protect American citizens, not only from outside threats but also from domestic threats. Drug use and drug trafficking are serious concerns. Prison is intended to be a civilized method of punishing those who have broken society's laws, especially in cases where the criminal actions endanger the public.
I understand your feelings about the alleged discrepancy in mandatory minimums between powder and crack cocaine. But decreasing the mandatory minimums would not be the right thing to do. For this reason I support a measure introduced by Senator Abraham to bring crack and powder cocaine sentencing into line with each other by increasing the penalties for powder cocaine. This has the advantage of maintaining the stigma about drug use rather than the message that reducing crack sentences would send.
Granted, tougher sentences for drug dealers is not the only solution. The Congress has also supported numerous prevention, education, interdiction, and source country efforts designed to decrease the supply of and the demand for illegal drugs coming into this country. And part of this strategy must be the incarceration of those who are selling drugs -- any illegal drugs. I also enclose two opinion pieces you may find interesting.
In closing, I want to relay to you my strong feelings about representative government. For democracy to function, there has to be two-way communication between Americans and their elected representatives. By sharing your views with me, Iowans play a vital role in this process. Hearing from you enables me to be a better U.S. Senator, and I very much appreciate the time you took to inform me of your concerns. Thanks again for keeping in touch.
Charles E. Grassley
United State Senator
I find myself compelled to comment on Senator Grassley's response to Joan. I am not sure why he felt it necessary to tell her that he feels strongly about representative government and two-way communication, because he obviously has his own opinion about drug policy and he said nothing about considering hers. Simply amazing isn't it?
Is Senator Grassley aware that the majority of crack use is in white neighborhoods? Would he be willing to explain why it is that blacks are being shuttled into prisons for a predominately white drug law violation?
The portion of Grassley's letter that utterly amazed me was this:
"The intent was to rescue inner-city neighborhoods from the drug-users that made streets and homes unsafe for the overwhelming numbers of decent people who have become victims in their own backyards. And to a large degree, this has been successful."
It has? I was not aware that there had been any reduction of crack use. You would think that this victory would have been heralded on the front pages of newspapers across this nation especially if it were largely successful. I have not read of any small degree of success much less a large one. I always resent a lie, no matter who is doing the telling of it.
Another comment made me raise my eyebrows. Could it be that the Senator does not have an understanding of the laws that he supports?
"Even so, the focus for arrests at both Federal and state levels was not on individual users of crack, who constitute a vanishingly small percentage of inmates, but on dealers."
Our federal sentencing laws regarding crack-cocaine are the only mandatory sentencing laws in which simple possession brings an automatic 5 years! You don't have to be a dealer, just a user of it. How could a Senator be unaware of that? Scary isn't it? And how about Michigan where it brings an automatic life sentence? Or New York, or Montana?
I also was not aware that arrests were constituting a "vanishing small percentage of inmates, but on dealers." I would consider myself enlightened by this reading, if it were true. If I were a prisoner of the war, especially if I were serving a sentence for possession of crack cocaine - I'd rush off a letter to Senator Grassley at 135 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington D.C. 20510-1501 and tell him that it is time to get his facts straight. We aren't going to tolerate lies anymore.
The following comment made me sick to my stomach:
"The overwhelming number of prisoners in jail for drug crimes are also there for violent crimes..."
By the Bureau of Prisons own admission only 2.6% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for violent crime. Senator Grassley - I kid you not. If Grassley is going to speak to the issue, he better get educated. He is doing far more than speaking, however, this man is a Law Maker.
And I could do as Grassley and go on and on, but enough said.
It is time for us to stand united, expose and oppose the people who make our laws without an understanding of them. We are tired of receiving these form letters in our mail boxes, too - weary of a representative government who will not listen.
By the way - Joan hadn't mentioned crack cocaine legislation in her letter to Grassley - isn't that ghastly? A mail reader must push a button for a particular response - I think that they do, the evidence mounts in our office.
Iowa members, feel free to reprint this article and send it to all the people you know within your state. You've a loose cannon "representing" you - one who does not tell the truth, is ill-informed and turns a deaf ear - a most dangerous combination. Let your fellow Iowans be aware of this.
Send us your form letters from legislators and we'll share them with our readers.