SABRE Rattling vs. Sensible Drug Policy

By Lennice Werth, Director, Virginians Against Drug Violence

For your information, good friends, the essence of Virginia Governor Gilmore's SABRE plan (Substance Abuse Reduction Effort) is:

1) Greatly reduce the thresholds for 'kingpin' status and threaten severe mandatory-minimum sentences for drug "kingpins."
2) Offer $10K rewards to informants and snitches.
3) Hire 160 new state police just for drug enforcement.
4) Legislate mandatory sentences for simple possession!

Response to Gilmore's proposal was mixed. Most interestingly, why does the tough US Drug Czar, General Barry McCaffrey, oppose Governor Gilmore's SABRE plan, calling it "ill conceived and hastily developed?"

Maybe it's because of Amy Pofahl. This striking blond recently appeared in Glamour Magazine, not because of her beauty, but because she is a federal prisoner serving 24-years for drug crimes committed by her estranged husband.

Maybe it's because of Richmond native, Kemba Smith, trapped in the web of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing that entraps these unlikely "kingpins." Women are the fastest growing segment of America's enormous drug war prison population.

Mandatory sentencing laws have a history of passage during frenzied election-year campaigns. Congress passed them, with little deliberation, in the critical election years of 1984, 1986, and 1988. The committee meetings resembled poker games with ever-higher penalties offered, like so many chips, by legislators wishing to appear tough on crime and drugs.

When Nelson Rockefeller ran for Governor, he pushed through now- infamous drug laws which have been a burden to New York taxpayers ever since. In the 1950s the Boggs Act instituted mandatory sentences for drugs. That law was repealed within 20 years. The fact that it didn't stop drugs - but filled prisons with nonviolent defendants while forcing judges to be mere clerks with little judicial discretion - seems lost on politicians of the 1990s.

When a criminal indictment carries a mandatory sentencing penalty upon conviction, the judge can't consider anything outside of what the specific guidelines demand. A slight change in the offence cited can mean an arbitrary difference of five or ten years in jail. Prosecutors use this to force anyone with even the slightest knowledge of a crime to turn "rat."

Mothers and daughters who 'should have known' are fair game for conspiracy charges which carry the same penalty as actually committing the crime. Slick drug dealers get much lighter sentencing by using those under them in the pyramid of distribution as bargaining chips. That's why so many girlfriends and wives like Amy and Kemba are behind bars.

Nowadays, many judges often do protest 'from the bench' when they are forced to condemn seemingly innocent family members or acquaintances to long prison terms. Yet, when sentence is pronounced, all we get for our money is a rubber stamp, not the mature wisdom aggressive prosecutors with political ambitions often lack. Many senior federal judges have refused to handle drug cases in an effort to wash their hands of the obvious injustices.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rhenquist has called mandatory minimum sentencing the "law of unintended consequence." Having failed to reduce the flow of drugs or succeeded in locking away major or even midlevel dealers, implementing these laws has only filled prisons with the least culpable and most vulnerable in the chain of drug-distribution. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons publication "Quick Facts," the average drug convict is serving an 82.2-month sentence while a manslaughter con is getting 26.8 months.

Do we here in The Old Dominion want to repeat the mistakes made by other states and the federal government in the recent past, even as lawmakers try to correct them? Should marijuana growers spend more time in prison than those guilty of murder, armed robbery or rape, as Gilmore is proposing?

It will be hard to find enough time to ask these questions, much less examine the answers with any degree of care before the election or during the next whirlwind legislative session of the Virginia General Assembly. To rattle his SABRE, Gilmore wants $60 million for prisons and snitches.

That Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey sounds the warning against a Governor's legislative proposal is evidence of the extreme nature of Governor Gilmore's SABRE rattling.

Virginians Against Drug Violence
Route 3 Box 692
Crewe, VA 23930
Phone: 804-645-7838