Drug War Lost in Battle of 86!

Drug War Lost in Battle of 86!
Posted by FoM on January 12, 1999 at 08:20:24 PT

Drug War LostIn Battle of '86 Eric Sterling will never forget the panic that swept Washington that summer of 1986.He remembers the frenzy over a new demon drug called crack and the tough new sentencing laws that the frenzy spawned after University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose.
Mostly, Sterling is haunted by his own actions  by all the innocent people and small-time drug pushers rotting away in federal prison today because of his efforts."My fingerprints are all over those laws," he says. "They came out of my word processor, off of my desk." When Bias died June 19, 1986, Republican Ronald Reagan was President, Tip O'Neill, the Democrat from Massachusetts, was speaker of the House and Sterling was chief counsel to the House subcommittee on crime.Sterling recalls that O'Neill came back to Washington from the July 4 recess all steamed up. In a classic case of bad timing, the Boston Celtics had made Bias their No. 1 draft pick just two days before his death. O'Neill's Boston constituents were understandably ready to shoot every drug dealer on sight.The wily O'Neill didn't need a gypsy palm reader. He called all the House leaders into a closed-door meeting and ordered them to produce an anti-crime package so tough it would make the Republicans look like putty. And O'Neill wanted the bill ready for a vote in 30 days, so the Democrats could use it in the fall election campaign.A key part of the final crime package was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which mandated the stiffest sentences ever for drug trafficking. For 5 grams of crack, the law set a five-to-40-year sentence. For 50 grams (about 2 ounces), it was 10 years to life.A dealer in powder cocaine had to be caught with 10 times more drugs to get the same sentence."The thing was put together in a couple of days," Sterling says. "We held no hearings, consulted no judges or prosecutors. It was all driven by politics."No one had any idea how mandatory sentencing would radically alter our criminal justice system.In less than 15 years, the federal prison population has exploded with drug traffickers. The federal prison budget jumped from $200 million in 1986 to $3 billion today. Most importantly, Sterling says, mandatory minimum sentences have been used not so much to go after major drug dealers, which was their original intent, but to hand obscene terms to low-level users and even innocent people.Only 11% of those in federal prison today for drugs are major traffickers. More than a third, though, have had their sentences reduced because they became snitches. The new law "gave prosecutors a sledgehammer to get snitches to cooperate," Sterling says. To avoid life sentences, drug dealers are routinely coerced by prosecutors to lie on the stand and put someone else behind bars, he says.Sterling, who now heads Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says too many prosecutors hungry for big conviction numbers are willing to put even innocent mothers, family members, friends and neighbors of drug dealers in jail. Impossible, you say?See for yourself tonight. Tune in to Channel 13 at 9 p.m. That's when "Frontline," the award-winning PBS documentary series, will air "Snitch," a stunning expose of our country's war on drugs. Producer Ofra Bikel has uncovered one outrageous case after another of individuals  even a whole town  victimized by federal mandatory-sentencing and conspiracy laws.But for Sterling, who is white, the most shameful effect of the laws he helped write are how the War on Drugs has been turned into a war on black America.White youth use cocaine at higher rates than blacks, he notes. Overall, blacks comprise only an estimated 16% of drug users in this country, but they represent about 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 64% of those convicted for drugs. The rate of black incarceration is more than seven times that of whites, and in some states as high as 10 times."How long are we going to tolerate a war that is racially prejudicial in its real effects?" asks Sterling, one soldier who refused to fight any longer in this hidden race war.
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