Mandatory drug sentences debated

by Andrew Donohue

In March 1991 Jeff Stewart was sentenced to five years in federal prison without parole after being convicted of growing 37 marijuana plants.
Because of mandatory minimum-sentencing laws, his sentence was not handed down by a judge or jury, but by a rigid set of impersonal guidelines.
Outraged by cases like her brother’s, ex-Washington lobbyist Julie Stewart began a crusade against the practice of mandatory minimums within a year of her brother’s conviction.
Julie Stewart’s personal campaign shortly turned into a national organization, with her founding of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Sacrificing a personal salary for a number of years, Julie Stewart’s organization has now caught the eye of a few philanthropic causes. One of her larger financial supporters is the Rex Foundation, which was founded by members of the Grateful Dead.
Julie Stewart brought her knowledge and fight to the University on Thursday as one of two national experts chosen to speak at a public forum titled “Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Are They Worth the Cost?”
She was joined by Jonathan Caulkins, a professor from Carnegie Mellon University, as the second expert. Caulkins is the lead author of a RAND Corporation study, which examined the cost-effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences.
The Open Debate Project sponsored the event, which was held Thursday night at the University Law School. Following an hour-long reception, both Julie Stewart and Caulkins took part in an open discussion with a panel of local experts. Questions were also fielded from the audience.
With a goal of raising awareness of drug policy options, the project is sponsoring the forum to spread accurate information on effects of certain policies.
Mark Willenbring, director of the Open Debate Project, said the University serves two roles in the sentencing issue.
“The University must help disseminate accurate information about mandatory minimum drug sentencing and play a role in research and policy issues,” Willenbring said.
According to FAMM statistics, 18- to 25-year olds accounted for 25.3 percent of all drug trafficking convictions and 36.2 percent of all possession convictions between 1995 and ’96. Although most college students fit into this age group, Caulkins said students are more indirectly affected.
“Because of the long prison sentences, money is taken out of state governments, which leaves less discretionary money to go to things like universities,” Caulkins said.
Mandatory minimum sentencing began drawing attention in Minnesota in the late 1980s, as bipartisan support grew nationally for a crackdown on crime.
Under the current system, if a convicted felon fits certain general guidelines, the convict is given a mandatory sentence without any judicial consideration.
“I’m appalled that members of Congress who have never laid eyes on the defendant have already determined his or her sentence, even though they know nothing about the case,” Julie Stewart said. “I was outraged at the inability of the judge who had been on the bench for 25 years to give the sentence that he felt was appropriate.”
Although Julie Stewart focuses on the personal impact of the sentencing, Caulkins extends his efforts to the cost comparison and effectiveness between prison terms and treatment programs.
The main advocates of mandatory minimum sentencing have been politicians looking to “crack down on crime.” Attorney General Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III has been a large supporter of the sentencing in the past and is currently backing new legislation on stiffer penalties in convictions related to methamphetamine, or crystal meth, a street drug that can be constructed from items found in most drug stores.
Adversaries of mandatory minimum sentencing assert that they are advocates of punishing criminals, but that there are more cost-effective solutions that benefit both the criminal and the taxpayers.
“I don’t have any problem putting people in prison that have broken the law,” Julie Stewart said.
Caulkins’ study revealed that putting convicted drug abusers in prison is far more costly and less effective than placing them in treatment. While prison overcrowding continues to grow and new prisons cannot be built fast enough, many studies have pointed to alternatives.
“The problem is the sentences are long and mandatory; they are too long to be just and cost-effective,” Caulkins said. “The sentences are based on objective and irrelevant factors.”
The final conclusion of Caulkins’ study was that mandatory minimum sentences are not cost-effective for reducing drug consumption or drug-related crime.
“We need to instill in the public a greater trust in judges, we need to realize that all cases are not the same,” Caulkins said. “Right now legislators bind the judges’ hands. We train and elect judges to judge, and we should let them do that.”
Locally, a report released in September by the Minnesota Citizens Council on Crime and Justice found similar results. The study states, “Longer sentences have greatly increased costs with little if any effect on the crime problem. (The report) also shows that alternative sanctions can be made to work.”
Because of prison overpopulation and previous ineffective treatment, the survey recommends that Minnesota save prison resources for major drug dealers, with users and minor sellers being held accountable, punished and treated in the community.
Both Julie Stewart and Caulkins agree that Minnesota currently has an enviable system compared to many states, but legislators are moving toward more strict and financially burdensome policies.