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December 27, 2004 - The St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)

Drug Law Reforms: Marginal Or Real?

By Neal Peirce, national columnist who writes about state and local affairs

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

"The Rockefeller drug laws will be no more," declared New York Gov. George Pataki as he signed legislation in mid-December trimming back some of the ferociously severe drug offense penalties enacted 30 years ago under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

From now on, a New Yorker will have to be caught with 8 ounces of cocaine or heroin to trigger a mandatory sentence of eight to 20 years -- not the mere 4 ounces that previously triggered a chilling 15 years to life behind bars. Plus, parole will be allowed earlier than before, and about 400 inmates serving life sentences can ask the courts to re-examine their cases.

Because New York ushered in the era of exceedingly harsh drug laws that then swept coast to coast, this legislative shift -- after 12 years of intense efforts to enact reform -- has clear national significance.

And it highlights a trend -- registered in the last two years from Michigan to Texas, Indiana to Hawaii, Delaware to Nebraska -- of legislatures either reducing mandatory drug case sentences or substituting treatment for prison time for first-time offenders.

But are we seeing a turn to a gentler, less judgmental America -- or simply a pragmatic move to tame the explosive growth of incarcerations and big-time expenses for all the new prisons these mandatory laws have made necessary?

Nicolas Eyle, the Syracuse-based leader of ReconsiDer, a major New York reform group, dismisses the softening of the Rockefeller laws as "a joke" that gets the New York Legislature off the hook for having the country's harshest laws but "won't help the drug problem, or reduce the black market in drugs, or stop violence."

Two mega-issues, ones we all like to avoid, lurk behind every debate -- state or federal -- on drug policy. The first is prohibition. It took two amendments to the Constitution and a wave of gangster-led criminal activity to prove it didn't work for alcohol, so why should we ever expect it to work on drugs?

The second issue is race. An overwhelmingly disproportionate number of African-Americans is imprisoned for drug offenses. We have a global record-breaking 2.2 million prisoners. But black Americans, though just 12 percent of the U.S. population, are 44 percent of our population behind bars -- hundreds of thousands on narcotics charges even though surveys show actual drug use among blacks is no greater than and often far less than that of whites.

A prime reason: police routinely target blacks, especially young males in poor neighborhoods. A sample result: While blacks are 28 percent of Maryland's population, they're 90 percent of its prisoners convicted on drug charges. Nationally, one in three black men aged 20 to 29 is in prison, on probation or parole.

Behind this is what Eric Sterling, president of the Washington-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, calls an unrelenting, historic insistence on "white privilege" in American society. Glance back over our centuries of slavery and then the widespread lynchings and systematic denial of blacks' right to vote that followed Reconstruction. Most of white America remained silent, condoning the rank discrimination.

In the 1970s U.S. prison rates, which had been stable for decades, escalated suddenly. The end of legally enforced segregation coincided with Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential run, pledging to restore "law and order." Nixon's "Southern strategy" was designed to capture white voters abandoning the Democratic Party because of its newfound support for civil rights. Nixon declared a "war on drugs," not just to reduce crime, Sterling argues, "but as a symbolic tool to demonstrate intolerance for cultural ferment, youth protest, and black protest."

The "war on drugs" was pushed by Ronald Reagan and other presidents, indeed not even quashed during Bill Clinton's presidency. The Rockefeller laws and other state get-tough statutes proliferated. U.S. incarceration rates skyrocketed to their current world-record levels.

Today, Sterling argues, "local police who enforced segregation laws for 70 years are making 1.6 million drug arrests each year -- disproportionately arrests of African-Americans."

You can question that precise cause and effect. But there's no denying the linked phenomena -- millions of blacks incarcerated and therefore denied employment (who hires ex-felons?), excluded from housing, credit, college admissions or loans, and even the right to vote after serving time.

And still, white America is mostly silent.

Clearly, black society faces self-generated cultural problems. Yet even if every young black shaped up to Bill Cosby behavior norms, we'd still have what's been called our prison-industrial complex, from ambitious district attorneys to sheriffs to prison guards and privatized prison companies, not to mention opportunistic law-and-order politicos, blocking the road to essential drug policy reform.

Imagine diverting the billions now squandered on drug prosecutions and prison sentences to treatment, neighborhood-based family counseling and youth programs. We'd have a shot at safer streets, less dependency and fresh life chances for millions who now see no hope. But let's be honest: marginal shifts in today's draconian sentencing laws won't get us there.

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