Mr. President, Show Mercy and Good Sense 

Mr. President, Show Mercy and Good Sense 
Posted by FoM on December 15, 2000 at 09:11:54 PT
By Judy Mann
Source: Washington Post
As a lame-duck president with no political capital at risk, President Clinton has an opportunity to restore fairness and common sense to the way this country treats nonviolent, small-time drug offenders. A coalition of more than 650 clergy members from the major denominations has appealed to him to commute the egregiously long jail terms handed out by federal judges operating under mandatory- minimum sentencing laws that offer precious little leeway in making the punishment fit the crime.
Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, estimates that 24,000 of the current 146,000 federal prisoners are low-level drug offenders, with no violence on their records, no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity and no prior commitment. Sterling, who as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee when these mandatory-minimum sentencing laws were written, says that "none of us envisioned" the incarceration rate soaring as a result. He said the goal of these laws was to put high-level traffickers, including international traffickers, behind bars. But only 11 percent or 12 percent of the drug prisoners are high-level traffickers. He says the Justice Department has squandered its resources in rounding up gangs of low-level and mid-level dealers. Some of those caught in drug conspiracies are serving barbarically long sentences. Here are two examples. Dorothy Gaines, a widow with three children, is serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to possess and distribute crack cocaine. A search of her Alabama home produced no evidence of drug activity. Federal prosecutors relied on drug dealers who testified against her to get their own sentences reduced. Gaines has been in prison since March 10, 1995. Her oldest daughter left college to raise her siblings.Another case that has caught the public's attention is that of 26-year-old Kemba Smith, who became involved in an abusive relationship with a man who, unbeknown to her, had been running a drug ring since 1989. The prosecution admitted in court that she did not use or handle cocaine. Smith, a junior at Virginia's Hampton University, was five months pregnant in August 1994 when she heard that she had been indicted as part of a drug conspiracy. Her boyfriend was killed in Seattle in October 1994. Smith did not even know the boyfriend when the conspiracy began and did not sell any drugs, but she was held accountable for the entire 255 kilograms in cocaine sales attributed to the drug ring. She was sentenced accordingly to 24 years in prison, with no possibility of parole.The only way for drug offenders to escape mandatory sentences is to provide "substantial assistance" to the prosecutors who are going after other drug violators. That is patently unfair: Ringleaders of drug conspiracies have plenty of colleagues they can rat out. Low-level dealers and their girlfriends, who are often caught up in drug dragnets, don't know enough to strike a deal. These laws were passed in the mid-1980s at the height of the crack epidemic and its accompanying violence. The laws inflict much harsher punishment for selling crack than selling powder cocaine, resulting in much higher rates and longer terms of incarceration for African Americans than for others.Clinton acknowledged this problem in an interview published last week in Rolling Stone. "I think the sentences in many cases are too long for nonviolent offenders," he said. "I think the sentences are too long and the facilities are not structured to maximize success when the people get out." Clinton commented that the great majority of federal judges want to do away with mandatory-minimum sentences, and he called for a reexamination of them at the very least. "The disparities are unconscionable between crack and powdered cocaine," he said. Clinton came out in favor of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, and he came out against the federal law that bars drug offenders from having access to college loans. He said he did not believe, by and large, in "permanent lifetime penalties." He noted that as governor, he pushed through a change in the law in Arkansas so that people who had served their jail terms could have their voting privileges restored. He supports a bill pending in Congress that would do the same for federal prisoners.As the outgoing president, Clinton has the freedom to promote discussion about things other politicians dare not get near. The war on drugs and the concomitant growth in the prison industry are two topics on which the public is far ahead of the politicians. The public now supports treatment, education and rehabilitation for low-level drug offenders rather than long-term incarceration: the overwhelming success of state initiatives that take that tack shows where the trend is going.The call for clemency is coming from the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency, which points out that 2000 is a jubilee year, an occasion that comes every 50 years in the Christian and Jewish traditions and that is marked by forgiveness of debt and the liberation of prisoners. There is powerful symmetry in the coalition's argument, particularly if you consider the facts the coalition point outs: There are about 500,000 people in prisons for drug offenses in the United States, or 100,000 more prisoners than in all of the jails of the 12 countries of the European Union. The EU has 100 million more people than the United States. But the most tragic figure of all cited by the coalition is this: There are 600,000 children in the United States who have parents in jail for drug offenses.The Justice Department has standards for determining who is a low-level, nonviolent drug offender. No one expects Clinton to grant clemency to thousands upon thousands of prisoners. But there are people, such as Gaines and Smith whose cases cry out for mercy. Clinton has the power to grant it, and he should.Source: Washington Post (DC) Author: Judy MannPublished: Friday, December 15, 2000Address: 1150 15th Street NorthwestWashington, DC 20071 2000 The Washington Post Company Contact: letterstoed washpost.comWebsite: Related Articles & Web Sites:Criminal Justice Policy Foundation for Jubilee Clemency Ask To Commute Drug Sentences Now, the Rest of Clinton's Clemency Story
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Comment #8 posted by VitiminT on December 18, 2000 at 00:11:55 PT
If I have my facts straight, Sterling did his work on sentencing laws during the Nixon administration. Such laws were not enacted until more than a decade later. For my part kaptinemo, I do pardon your laughter, but Sterling has seen the error of his ways and has been a good and valuable friend to the reform movement for a very long time. For as long as this god-awful war rages I'll continue to direct my energies toward our real enemies, and let those former drug-warriors that we've won over join right in.
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Comment #7 posted by Stripey on December 17, 2000 at 20:42:14 PT
Anyone smell a tool?
Clinton the tool. . . let's run a drug war then decide against what we've been supporting. . . Someone's trying to get back into the limelight. . . OR spent four years in the White House being a damned poser.
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Comment #6 posted by mungojelly on December 17, 2000 at 20:05:42 PT:
p.s. picture this
Picture this: a press conference with several former presidents (clinton, carter), several governors (johnson, ventura), and a host of minor politicians, religious leaders, cultural figures and etc... all calling for the legalization of marijuana. Doesn't sound all that far-fetched anymore, does it? 
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Comment #5 posted by mungojelly on December 17, 2000 at 20:00:48 PT:
man give him some credit
Clinton's in a hard position. He has a clemency request for Leonard Peltier (which he obviously wants to sign) on his desk, and crowds of FBI agents protesting it outside his door. He was harrassed for years just for saying that he tried marijuana once in another country and didn't like it, never mind suggesting we should have a liberal policy towards it. Now that he has less political weight on him, he's come out in favor of substantially liberalized policies. This is a man with tremendous amounts of support from the American people -- much much more than either of this year's presidential candidates. He is a man with the charisma and social standing to make a huge difference in our cause. I think we should forgive his sins and try to milk him for good material! 
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Comment #4 posted by dddd on December 15, 2000 at 19:36:32 PT
 I doubt Clinton will do anything mercifulbefore January. Dan is right about the shrub administration.Nothing will change because he is little more than a puppet.  Anything important is never left to the vote of the people. We only get to vote on some man; we never get to vote   on what he is to do. -- Will Rogers
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Comment #3 posted by Dan Hillman on December 15, 2000 at 13:18:42 PT
So Mr. Bill now sez that pot smokers shouldn't go to prison. Amusing. Amusing because for eight years, he has been prosecuting the biggest drug war run-up in US history, with almost 1 million marijuana arrests *per year* of his administration.  Here's what Bill's waffling on the subject translates to me: Bill sez: "It's was important that I postured on drug war issues for eight years and *appeared* like a hard liner to the politicians to my right. How's that? The freedom of hundreds of thousands of people and millions of dollars lost to those squeezed by astronomical legal fees to defend a trumped up 'possession and use' charge?  Distinctly less important. And Kimba Smith? Hey, I feel her pain."The worst part is I don't expect any movement towards reform from the Shrub, either. Look for more of the same from the executive branch 2000-2004.
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Comment #2 posted by kaptinemo on December 15, 2000 at 11:21:13 PT:
The short-sightedness
'Sterling, who as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee when these mandatory-minimum sentencing laws were written, says that "none of us envisioned" the incarceration rate soaring as a result. He said the goal of these laws was to put high-level traffickers, including international traffickers, behind bars. But only 11 percent or 12 percent of the drug prisoners are high-level traffickers. He says the Justice Department has squandered its resources in rounding up gangs of low-level and mid-level dealers." 'Pardon me, but I can't help but say..."No sh*t, Sherlock!"Never hand a gun to an idiot, as he's more than likely to use it on *you*, even by accident. Giving such power as the mandatory-minimum laws to zealous - and dare I say, 'vindictive'? - LEOs and prosecutors is the rough equivalent of that same act.There were people back then, in the mid 1980's, who, with chilling foresight worthy of Cassandra, warned of the eventual abuse of these laws. As today, they were castigated for their beliefs and for speaking out against what has proven to be one of the most flagrant examples of judicially sanctioned racism since the old Jim Crow Laws. Witness the number of minority prisoners incarcerated as opposed to their percentage of the population of users *in toto*, and you have all the proof you need. Almost as worse, the forfeiture laws that arose at the same time have led to one of the most massive redistributions of wealth ever witnessed in this country. Silently, under gun barrels of police and the robes of courts, people have been reduced to poverty by fiat, with never being charged of a crime. In short, 'taxation' of a most injurious sort, without even the *pretense* of representation. The police forces of the country have become de facto 'highwaymen', preying on travellers and robbing them of their cash without due process.But it was people like Sterling who made it happen. And now he's crying about his role in it? Pardon me as I ruefully laugh at the spectacle of a fool acknowledging his foolishness.  
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Comment #1 posted by TroutMask on December 15, 2000 at 09:16:12 PT
Doubt it
I doubt that Clinton has the guts to do anything so radical and intelligent.IMHO, -TM
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