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August 6, 2004 - The Centre Daily Times (PA)

Prisons Needlessly Overpopulated With Drug Offenders

By Walter Cronkite

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In the midst of the soaring rhetoric of last week's Democratic Convention, more than one speaker quoted Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, invoking "the better angels of our nature."

Well, there is an especially appropriate task awaiting those heavenly creatures: a long-overdue reform of our disastrous "war on drugs." We should begin by recognizing its costly and inhumane dimensions.

Much of the nation, in one way or another, is victimized by this failure, including, most notably, the innocents, whose exposure to drugs is greater than ever.

This is despite the fact that more than 500,000 people are housed in federal and state prisons and local jails on drug offenses. Clearly, no punishment could be too severe for that portion of them who were kingpins of the drug trade and who ruined so many lives. But, by far, the majority of these prisoners are guilty of only minor offenses, such as possessing small amounts of marijuana. That includes people who used it only for medicinal purposes. The cost to maintain this great horde of prisoners is more than $10 billion annually.

And that's just part of the cost of this war on drugs: The federal, state and local drug-control budgets last year added up to almost $40 billion.

These figures were amassed by the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the foremost national organizations seeking to bring reason to the war on drugs and reduce substantially those caught in the terrible web of addiction.

There are awful tales of tragedy and shocking injustice hidden in those figures -- the product of an almost mindlessly draconian system called "mandatory sentencing" in which even small offenses can draw years in prison.

Thousands of women, many of them mothers of young children, are included among those minor offenders. Those children left without motherly care are the most innocent victims of the drug war and the reason some call it a "war on families" as well as on drugs.

Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, with almost 80 percent of them incarcerated for drug offenses.

The deep perversity of the system lies in the fact that women with the least culpability often get the harshest sentences.

Unlike the guilty drug dealer, they often have no information to trade for a better deal from prosecutors and might end up with a harsher sentence than the dealer gets.

Then there are women such as Kimba Smith, in California, who probably knew a few things but was so terrified of her abusive boyfriend that she refused to testify against him.

(Those who agree to testify, by the way, frequently are killed before they have a chance to do so.)

Smith paid for her terrified silence with a 24-year sentence.

Nonviolent first offenders, male and female, caught with only small amounts of a controlled substance frequently are given prison sentences of five to 10 years or more.

As a result, the number of nonviolent offenders in the nation's prisons is filling them to overflowing, literally.

The resulting overcrowding is forcing violent felons onto the streets with early releases.

The Drug Policy Alliance also points out other important areas of injustice in the present enforcement system.

For instance, people of color -- blacks and Hispanics -- are far more likely to be jailed for drug offenses than others.

And college students caught in possession of very small amounts of illegal substances are denied student loans and even food stamps.

The alliance and other organizations are working to reform and reframe the war on drugs. And they are finding many judges on their side, who are rebelling against this cruel system.

We can expect no federal action during the congressional hiatus in activity ahead of the November elections, but it would be of considerable help if, across the country, campaigning politicians put this high on their promises of legislative action, much sooner than later.

Walter Cronkite's column is distributed by King Features Syndicate.

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