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by Dr. John Bersford

Thank you for many kind words received before and after the hip replacement surgery I went through six weeks ago. It's great to be able to walk without looking like someone who's just come out of a car crash. Dr. Smason, the chief of orthopedic surgery at the Kaiser Permanente Hospital here in Los Angeles, snuck a look at the follow-up X-rays this morning and said in his usual modest fashion, "I don't like to brag, but it does look like a perfect job."

On the way back from the hospital I stopped by the vending machines that sell the L.A. Times and foreign-language newspapers in this part of town, and looked through the glass to check the headlines. Usually there's nothing in the Times worth putting in a quarter for. Today, though, a story half way down the page caught my eye. It began: "South Korean Leader Pardons 5.5 million."

Million? That was definitely worth a quarter.

The story turned out to be less than a total bombshell, but interesting all the same. It wasn't as if 5.5 million people were released from prison. That would be absurd. If South Korea had 5.5 million people in prison, its prison rate per 100,000 population would be higher than that in the US. Which it is not.

What the story told of was the release of 74 "political prisoners," the crime apparently being soft Communism, and 2300 "drunken drivers, people convicted of issuing false promissory notes and other minor offenders." Significantly, the amnesty extended to "minor offenders" who may have done time in prison but were not in prison now. It meant wiping out their criminal records and restoring lost civil rights.

It made me think. Suppose the sentence read: " release from prison and restoration of lost rights to drug law violators, people convicted of conspiracy to distribute drugs, and other minor offenders." Hey! What does South Korea have over us? It's doubtful they have an edge on political prisoners. But what about this mass exoneration of the small fry?

President Kim Dae Jung, the Times explained, set free some political prisoners and granted amnesty to the 5.5 million others "to achieve national reconciliation, to overcome the economic crisis and to open up to the 21st century."

One problem I have with the November Coalition (and it's no fault of the Coalition's; I'm in the dark myself about the practical side of opening the doors of prisons) is this: it's one thing to point to reasons for emptying the prisons of drug law violators and proclaim: "No Prison for Drugs!" But there are half a million or more people sweating or freezing in prison for slipping up on some drug regulation, and they've got there by a thoroughly well worked-out policy of entrapment by informants, plea-bargaining to "save the court's time" and save others from loss of home or freedom, and the rubber-stamp procedure of a court routine. How can this elaborate machine be put in reverse gear " sentences quashed, convictions canceled, and so forth? It can't.

It can't, because judges will fight to preserve their opinions, prosecutors won't give up on persuading people to "narc-out," informants won't give up on informing and risk loss of immunity or a paycheck. In practice, release from prison of America's suffering drug law violators won't come from piecemeal referendums or initiatives. It will come when the people stand up and cry "Enough!"

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