PROVIDENCE -- Residents, civil-rights advocates and community leaders held a news conference at the State House yesterday to announce widespread support for legislation that would eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences and allow judges more discretion in doling out punishment.
The event, which was hosted by Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), coincided with the introduction this week of House and Senate bills by Rep. Joseph Almeida and Sen. Harold Metts.
"For over 30 years, this country and this state have been fighting an ill-conceived war against drugs," Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the audience.
The fight consisted of poorly conceived laws, such as mandatory minimum sentences, that were designed to reduce drug use and distribution.
However, Brown said, enforcement of the laws has been arbitrary and capricious -- consistent only in the resulting discriminatory effect that they have had on people of color and the poor.
Even though blacks and Hispanics are not more predisposed to use drugs than whites, and the poor are not more predisposed to use drugs than the rich, those being sentenced under mandatory minimum laws are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic and poor.
"It is time for enforcement of this nature to stop," Brown said.
Sara Mersha, director of DARE, said state legislators followed a national trend when they enacted the "get tough on crime" measures in the 1980s, taking away judicial discretion in sentencing drug offenders.
The two-tiered system, spelled out in the Rhode Island Uniform Controlled Substances Act, imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, with up to 50 years, for anyone convicted of possessing, selling or manufacturing 1 kilogram of marijuana or 1 ounce of cocaine or heroin.
The second level imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, and a maximum life sentence, for anyone convicted of possessing, selling or manufacturing more than 5 kilograms of marijuana or more than 1 kilo of cocaine or heroin.
But, 20 years later, "national sentiment has changed and there is general consensus that the war on drugs is a failure: longer sentences and mandatory minimums have done little to reduce drug use and availability," Mersha said. "Too much money has been spent and too many lives have been ruined"
Statistics compiled by the Family Life Center, an agency that helps former inmates reenter the community, found that the state's prison population increased from about 1,500 in 1988, just before mandatory minimums were instituted, to more than 3,500 currently, or more than double.
Joseph Benton, of the Family Life Center, said a study done by his agency also found that Rhode Island had the most severe mandatory minimum sentences in New England.
For example, while other states have 5-year minimum sentences, Rhode Island's shortest sentence is 10 years. It means, Benton said, that someone caught possessing marijuana in Rhode Island would receive a sentence twice as long as someone caught in possession of cocaine in Connecticut or Massachusetts.
Also, the study found, Rhode Island is the only state in New England and in other regions where offenders could receive a life sentence for possessing or selling marijuana.
Just as the prison population has doubled, so, too, has the spending for housing a larger population.
When examining incarceration rates, the study found that while blacks, whites and Hispanics use drugs at similar rates, black Rhode Islanders are incarcerated for drug-related offenses 30 times the rate of whites.
Also, Hispanics are incarcerated for drug-related crimes at 11.5 times the rate of whites.
While the mandatory minimum laws may have been well-intended, Benton said, they have failed, been costly and discriminatory and have destroyed lives.
"Judicial discretion and treatment works better," Benton said, noting that the American Bar Association has asked for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing.
The study also found that Rhode Island, per capita, has one of the nation's worse drug problems, and the highest percentage of people who need treatment but aren't receiving it.
Mersha said that the $35,000 to $36,000 per year that the state spends to house an inmate could be better spent getting treatment for drug users.
Representative Almeida, who vowed to tirelessly advocate for the legislation, said it did not make sense that Rhode Island was more "apt to lock somebody up, rather than give them thehelp they need."
Neil Corkery, executive director of the Drug & Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island, said, "It may make some people feel good to put people away who have committed a crime."
But, he said, instead of curtailing the drug problem, the state is now left with a larger number of offenders who come out of prison having had no treatment, no rehabilitation and very little hope.
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