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Exploding Prison Industrial Complex Addressed

Comprehensive package of legislation aimed at reforming inequities of drug policy to be introduced soon

By U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA)

Imagine your middle-class, college-aged daughter, niece, cousin or friend's daughter attending a prestigious college. There she meets and falls in love with a man. Unfortunately, this man is physically abusing her. The only child of doting parents, she then learns that she is pregnant, and that her boyfriend is wanted on the FBI's most-wanted list as a major drug dealer. Ashamed and afraid for her life and the lives of her parents, she feels trapped in this violent relationship.

In 1994, after the death of her abusive boyfriend, she is tried in federal court under the 'get-tough' drug laws for attempting to distribute crack cocaine. Although even the government admitted she never sold, used, or distributed the drug, overzealous prosecutors, fueled by mean-spirited drug policies, convicted her under vague conspiracy laws, which resulted in a 24-year mandatory minimum sentence. At 23 years of age, she sits in federal prison with no chance of parole.

Kemba with her son, William
This is Kemba Smith's story. Unfortunately, Kemba is only one of the many young women and men who share a similar situation, victimized by a draconian system that is not solving our drug problem while it destroys families and communities. Kemba, a victim of abuse, was further abused by a harsh criminal justice system that imposed a mandatory sentence on a woman without any prior criminal record. Kemba's story is why I am introducing legislation to repeal all mandatory drug statutes.

Mandatory sentencing was the brainchild of policy makers waging a so-called 'war on drugs.' This war has many victims and few victories. Kemba's story is representative of too many young women caught between the abuse of their partners and the cruelty of the criminal justice system.

  • 80% of female prison inmates are incarcerated as a result of their association with abusive boyfriends.
  • 55% of federal drug defendants are low level dealers. Only 11% are classified as high level traffickers.
  • Mandatory sentencing laws have not reduced sentencing discretion; control has been merely transferred away from judges.
  • Prosecutors, not judges, have the power to decide whether to reduce a charge, whether to accept or deny a plea-bargain, whether to reward or deny a defendant's cooperation in the prosecution of someone else, and ultimately, to determine the final sentence.
  • Since the enactment of mandatory sentencing for drug users, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' budget increased by more than 1,350%; from $220 million in 1986 to $3.16 billion in 1997.

I will soon be introducing a comprehensive package of legislation aimed at addressing the inequities of this nation's drug policies. It's time to change the strategies of this 'war' and get smart about drugs. Let's stop the madness and put an end to mandatory drug sentencing.

Statement of U.S. Representative Maxine Waters for Critical Resistance Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex National Conference and Strategy Session, September 25, 1998

Greetings, I am sorry I cannot attend this important gathering tonight. Unfortunately, I must remain in Washington to cast crucial votes in the House Judiciary Committee. However, the work to improve the lives of our young people who are locked up in the criminal justice system is too important to ignore. I have introduced legislation that would move us away from mandatory minimum sentencing, allow judges the discretion to evaluate cases individually, and allow juveniles to be judged as juveniles, so that their entire lives are not stolen from them by the prison system.
"According to the statistics from the Department of Justice and the Office of the Drug Czar, we have a federal criminal justice system that is out of control."

Rep. Waters with President Bill Clinton

There are more than 1.7 million people in the Nation's jails and prisons. This means that one in every 155 U.S. residents was in jail as of 1997.

  • Currently, it costs $22,000 per year to incarcerate each federal prisoner.
  • Two-thirds of all Federal prison sentences are drug related.
  • African Americans are 88% of all those convicted on crack cocaine charges.

As the statistics show, much of the new federal prison population is comprised of victims of federal mandatory minimum sentencing, casualties of the so-called "War on Drugs." Many of these individual are young, first-time, non-violent offenders who are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or run with the "wrong crowd," and because of mandatory minimums, they have no chance for judicial discretion. Once they are "caught up" in the federal system, they receive no chance for parole. [Kemba's story followed, see front page]. Unfortunately, Kemba is only one of the many young women and men who share a similar situation, victimized by a draconian system that is not solving our drug problem while it destroys families and communities.

Here in California, we see similar numbers:

  • California has a higher incarceration rate per 100,000 people than South Africa, Russia and Singapore.
  • Three out of the top five charges for which Californians enter prison are drug-related.
  • African Americans are 6.8% of the population of the state, and comprise 31.6% of the California prison population.
  • Latinos account for 25.1% of the population and comprise 33.9% of the prison population.

Once in prison, they become part of the huge industry that prisons have become. Prison labor refurbishes computers, builds furniture and builds other light manufactured products. Prisoners receive slave wages, while the California Prison Industry Authority (PIA) is protected from federal workplace safety laws, market rates, and bankruptcy. Due to state law, California government agencies (schools, libraries and hospitals) are required to buy prison made goods which are often poorly made, and cost twice as much as they would on the retail market. According to the California budget committee and State Department of Corrections data, the State of California bought $135 million in prison goods in 1994.

Under my leadership, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is taking steps to end this exploitation of our youth, many of whom have more need of treatment than they do punishment. The CBC took a stand against Barry McCaffrey, the Drug Czar, when he went against science and convinced Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services to deny support for funding of needle exchange programs. We visited Baltimore, MD and met with recovering addicts, and witnessed Baltimore's open air drug market to draw attention to the nearly 56% of the 27.8 million Americans who need drug treatment who do not receive any. The CBC pushed for and won $200 million for drug court programs for non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems. The CBC also pushed for more money for drug rehabilitation in the budget and received the highest appropriation ever. We are also working with the sentencing commission to eliminate the disparity in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine offenses. Currently, it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to get the same prison sentence.

In conclusion, I say to you, even though the battle is tough, we cannot give up. The CBC and I will continue to fight for justice and for fairness for all.

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