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November 15, 2005 - News & Observer (NC)

Drug Sentences Under Scrutiny

Forum Addresses Prison Overcrowding

By Thomasi McDonald

Describing the war on drugs as "an utter failure, a total failure," a former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice said Monday that the state should consider decriminalizing drug offenses to reduce the need for additional prisons.

"What if we decriminalized drugs?" Burley B. Mitchell Jr. asked at a forum on prisons in downtown Raleigh. "If you knock out all the profits, then there would be no more Colombian cartel. There would be no more Mexican cartel. They would be broken."

Drug offenses should be treated as a medical problem, he added.

"God, what could we do with the money we spend on sending people to jail?" Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who was chief justice from 1995 through 1999, was one of three panel members for "Getting Smart on Crime: Facing North Carolina's Prison Crisis," at the Exploris Museum.

The forum was co-hosted by N.C. Policy Watch, an organization with the goal of changing the way government officials debate issues, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national nonprofit that challenges sentencing laws.

About 50 community activists, legislators and others attended the event, which focused on the state's prison bed crisis and the disproportionate numbers of blacks in prison.

A second panelist, Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy nonprofit in Washington, noted that the United States has 2 million people behind bars on any given day. Nationally, more than half of all federal prisoners are in for drug offenses.

"The United States is the world leader in the numbers of people it locks up," Mauer said. "We have just replaced Russia."

The prison population has been rising exponentially since the 1970s. Mauer attributed the growth to changes in criminal justice policy instead of rising crime.

Those polices include the 1980s war on drugs, and get-tough policies in the 1990s such as three-strike sentencing and mandatory minimums.

"We are sending more people to prison, and we are keeping them there for a longer period of time," Mauer said.

Projections by the N.C. Sentencing Commission indicate that at current incarceration rates, the state will need 10,000 new prisoner beds by 2010.

Forum organizers noted that blacks make up about 59 percent of the state's total prison population and 72 percent of people convicted as habitual offenders.

"The toll that the criminal justice system is having on the black community across the state and nation is unforgivable," said panelist Dan Blue, a former speaker of the N.C. House. Blue said violent offenders should be treated more severely, along with white-collar criminals who wreak substantial economic damage.

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