Please, look this way
By G. Patrick Callahan, prisoner of the drug war
was listening to National Public Radio early November, and the
topic under discussion was the United States Constitution and
its relevancy to the rights of those individuals being detained
for investigation of terrorism. Two members of the panel were
Ronald Collins of the Freedom Forum and Lucas Gutentag of the
Immigration Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
These fellows went on at length about how wonderful the Constitution
is (as if constitutional rights such as the Fourth Amendment
really exist anymore), and how vigilantly it must be applied
to those under investigation for terrorism. The longer I listened,
the more irked I became.
Is it typical of the ACLU to choose obscurer issues to square
off on? I'm reminded of the time they battled for a fourth grader's
right to wear a Chicago Bulls T-shirt to school. While this right
may have merit, as far as I know they have never said a peep
about the United States Sentencing Guidelines and the myriad
constitutional problems these sentencing schemes have spawned.
The Apprendi case has dragged many of these constitutional
issues to light, issues that affect tens of thousands of defendants
and prisoners. We all realize that the appellate courts are doing
their best to stuff the Apprendi genie back into its bottle,
but would it be so easy to do with argument from the ACLU?
From insufficient notice of the charges against a person (called
sentencing enhancements), to rampant use of hearsay testimony
and the "preponderance of the evidence standard," drug
defendants are hammered with decades of prison time, in lieu
of findings "beyond a reasonable doubt." The Apprendi
case illuminates the seriousness of these constitutional deficiencies
in the criminal justice system.
These infirmities in our justice system have gone virtually unchecked
since the federal guidelines were imposed in 1986. This is not
to mention the salient and conceded fact that, in federal drug
cases especially, the sentences are extreme, with 20 to life
sentences far too commonly meted out. One federal judge recently
bragged that he wanted to have handed out 500,000 months of imprisonment
before he retired.
I have been imprisoned for more than a decade, and I cannot recall
an instance where the ACLU has ever meaningfully attacked the
federal sentencing guidelines, or the drug laws that prescribe
ever more punitive measures. The so-called drug war has done
more to destroy civil liberties in this country than any other
policy, and from where I stand it looks like the ACLU has completely
looked the other way.
My fellow prisoners, mostly U.S. citizens, have been thoroughly
erased as human beings by misguided policy and opportunistic
politics. Perhaps the ACLU and alleged Freedom Forum could concentrate
on the issue of mass imprisonment and less upon issues that affect,
in the final analysis, fewer people with smaller consequences
than decades of imprisonment has upon so many.