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Lock 'Em Up,
And Throw Away The Key
No Sooner Said Than Done

February 28, 1999

She's just 39, mother of two (a boy, 8 and a girl, 12) a former drug addict, with two small convictions for possession, then a third strike, and under Kansas law, she's serving a life in prison without parole. She's attractive, blonde, and her two kids could easily be poster children for middle America. Her crime? Possession of $40 worth of cocaine.

He's 55, father of nine and a seasonal sawmill worker with no prior convictions. He was arrested for growing 14 marijuana plants at home. Five years in Federal prison.

She's 34, mother of four, no criminal record or history of drug use. She stated that she was paid $44 to mail a package for a friend, and that she didn't know it contained 232 grams of crack cocaine. Ten years in Federal prison. No parole.

She got caught in a sweep for her boyfriend, a dealer. She's a mother of two, with no priors. Convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Ten years in Federal prison.

One of every 20 Americans born this year will serve time in prison. For black Americans, that's 1 in 4. As of 1996, 8.3 percent of all black men, ages 25 to 29, were in prison. And for

A prison construction site in Texas. One of hundreds being built every year.

people caught for possession of crack cocaine, justice is swift and inexorable: an automatic sentence of at least five years in Federal prison, for having just five grams. That same amount in regular cocaine would be a misdemeanor with no jail time. No other country in the world recognizes this distinction between crack and regular cocaine. Crack is cocaine processed for smoking, nothing else. Possession, by Federal statute, of 400 grams of powder cocaine, worth $40,000 or more, calls for less than a year in prison, if that. If that were crack, it would be a mandatory sentence of 10 years. No parole.

And, once every twenty seconds someone in America is arrested for a drug violation. Nearly 90 percent of all inmates serving time for crack are black. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, inspired by the death of Boston Celtics basketball player, Len Bias, passed the House with only 16 dissenting votes. And, despite warnings that no one had really studied the bill to understand its implications, it was rushed to the desk of Ronald Reagan a day before the election, and he signed it with great fanfare. During the Bias episode, it was originally thought that he had died of a crack cocaine overdose, but a year later, too late, testimony revealed it was powder cocaine. At its height of use, crack cocaine was used by less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans over the age of 12. At that same time, 10% of all Americans have used marijuana. And while the politicians proclaimed that crack was the most addictive drug in history, actual researched clearly demonstrated that most Americans who tried crack, did not continue to use it. And studies have shown that crack and powder cocaine are far less physically addicting than either alcohol or tobacco. Of all of the millions of people, like the four listed above, who were convicted and sent to prison for crack cocaine violations, only 5 percent were high-level dealers. As Michael S. Gelacak, the Chairman of the Federal Government's Sentencing Commission put it, "The current policy focuses law-enforcement efforts on the lowest level of the distribution line, the street level dealer. Unless we ignore all evidence to the contrary, the current policy has little or no impact upon the drug abuse problem and the jails are full." 578,200 people, not dealers, have been convicted under the 1986 law and sentenced to serve mandatory prison terms with no parole. The judges are furious at being forced to send first-timers to long incarcerations. And Dr. Jonathan Caulkins, one of the original researchers on the crack cocaine study that inspired all of this, now sees it differently than he did in the late 80's. "We misread a lot of what was going in the 1980's, in that we thought crack use was going to grow and take over society. The real tragedy is that, now that it's clear that crack was not the epidemic it was supposed to be, we still have these laws."

Every week a new prison is built. Every day thousands of people are sent to them for long terms. Mothers, fathers, friends and lovers, America's blind justice taps along ineffectively, unevenly, and without regard for the facts, tearing the fabric of lives and families. Yes, drug abuse is very, very bad thing. Any thinking person recoils from the destruction that addiction, in all its forms, causes. But reckless and unfair laws rushed to enactment before elections are just as bad, or worse. At least the drug abusers can say they didn't know what they were doing. The politicians who fanned the hysteria and screamed that society was going to ruined, that we must get tough on crime, capture these drug fiends, and lock 'em up and throw away the key, have gotten what they wanted. But drug use continues to increase. The prisons are full to bursting and have become training grounds for racial hatred and colleges of crime. It's depressing. It's discouraging. It's cynical the way those same politicians are still there rushing the next trendy law into place. Will Rogers once said, "Oh, Brother. I'm not a great comedian, it's those people in Congress who are the great comedians. Look at them. Every time they make a joke it's a law. And, every time they make a law, it's a joke."

But, who's laughing now?

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