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Amnesty is the answer

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director of The November Coalition

You may have seen previous issues of The Razor Wire and if so, you read our cries for amnesty for drug law violators. We aren't the only publication to do so, and now cries for the release of nonviolent prisoners are being heralded from "mainstream" media by a variety of prominent American citizens.

On April 6th the Associated Press reported that Robert Presley, California Governor Gray Davis' new Cabinet secretary for prisons said, "April 2001; by then we will have exhausted every cranny and nook." He went on to state, "This is a time to take a critical look at all facets of the correctional system. This is a good time to consider alternatives." His commission recommended diverting low-level and nonviolent inmates to non-prison programs.

On March 12, as published in the Wall Street Journal, John J. DiIulio Jr., a professor of public policy at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote in part: "Repeal mandatory minimum drug laws; release drug only offenders. . . Continued increases in drug incarceration will yield little or no public safety value. Reinvent and reinvest in probation and parole. Zero prison growth is possible. In the end, whether or not we achieve this goal will be a profound measure not merely of how nimble we are when it comes to managing public safety cost effectively but also of how decent we are despite our many differences when it came to loving all God's children unconditionally, including all those in criminal custody."

On April 14, in the Massachusetts Standard-Times, Marc Mauer, the assistant director of The Sentencing Project, was published stating, "Divert drug offenders to treatment. Nearly a quarter of all prison and jail inmates in this country are locked up for drug offenses, about 400,000 people. Many of them-more than a third of the drug offenders in federal prison and presumably at least as many in state facilities-were low-level players in the drug trade and were not involved in any violent activity. Locking them up achieves little in terms of crime control."

Today (April 14th) I received the April 19 issue of Newsweek. Rufus King, a Washington lawyer with a lifelong interest in criminal justice, authored a compelling piece entitled, "It's Time To Open The Doors Of Our Prisons." The article begins with the words, "Freeing first-time offenders is the compassionate answer. It also makes good economic sense."

The article ends explaining, "Every system for administering justice has, since ancient times, included some provision for tempering punishment, usually a power to pardon and commute sentences, vested in the executive. Royal pardons were well known to most of our European forebears. American presidents draw the power directly from the Constitution, and every state governor enjoys some such prerogative. Historically, the power has been freely, often liberally used, sometimes to grant amnesty to entire classes of offenders.

"So I urge an immediate review of all sentences now being served in order to identify nonviolent first offenders held for disproportionately long terms, to release those who have paid their debts to society and are good risks, and to make room for menacing recidivists and other serious offenders . . . "

"The president could initiate such a program simply by directive, or Congress could set up a new authority for it. And any governor or state legislature could give it a try. I only need to convince enough economy-minded people that some of the nation's prison-budget billions could be better spent elsewhere. Perhaps I've convinced you."

On February 28 & 29 the NY Times ran a scathing assessment of the war on drugs. Within this front page article, Jeri Bledsoe, general manager of the California Faculty Association was quoted as saying, "Most of our buildings are literally falling apart and we've lost 1,500 full-time faculty members. You bet there's been a price to pay for our prison boom."

I wonder if Ms. Bledsoe, a teacher, could be convinced by the words of Rufus King? If she knew and heard the truth about drug war prosecution, she might join the chorus of "Amnesty is the answer." She already knows that prisons are not the answer.

If you are a prisoner, pick up your pen and write everyone you know. We aren't "alone out here" anymore, if you love a prisoner, call our office and ask how you can get involved. Time will tell, but we could be on the downhill slide of the fight to reform our drug laws: public opinion is shifting. It is time for the people to lead their leaders. Amnesty is the answer.

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