Please, look this way

By G. Patrick Callahan, prisoner of the drug war

I 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.