In 1994, Kemba Smith pleaded guilty to a first-time, nonviolent drug offense and was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison under the federal sentencing guidelines. The charges stemmed from the 19-year-old college student’s relationship with a man involved in drug trafficking. Unbelievably, the federal prosecutor in her case conceded Smith never sold or handled any drugs. Smith still was charged with conspiracy, an offense falling under the same mandatory sentencing imposed on drug traffickers. “Justice” in this case finally was served in 2000 when
Bill Clinton, then a lame-duck president, granted Smith executive clemency. However, six years of Smith’s life had been taken, after which she stated, “Despite my poor choices, it is hard to understand how locking up a first-time, nonviolent drug offender until Jan. 5, 2016, at the cost of $25,000 a year, would make America safer.”
Smith was lucky. Caught in an outrageous perversion of the criminal justice system, she was a young and sympathetic victim. Most drug offenders, particularly addicts, are far less dramatic, and they lack the financial resources and family support to gain such attention. We live in a time in which draconian sentencing for drug addicts is encouraged. Politicians don’t win elections looking “soft on crime.”
Addicts charged with a nonviolent drug offenses should not receive prison sentences. The policy is inhumane, costly and not working. Drug addicts need treatment, not prison. Prison only will perpetuate the criminality of the addict and offers very limited access to drug treatment. Most county jails, where an addict is likely to serve his or her sentence if less than a year, offer no drug treatment at all. Addicts are treated like subhumans. Of course, crimes committed by addicts, even if related to their addiction, need to be punished. However, the criminal justice system needs to view addicts as human beings and potentially productive citizens in need of help.
The hopelessness of the system should be obvious to all. In most states, it is a felony to possess crack-cocaine or heroin at any amount, and felonies put people in jail. In 1980, 580,900 Americans were arrested on drug charges. By 2003, that number increased to 1,678,200. That means we are making more arrests for drug offenses than for murder, manslaughter, forcible rape and aggravated assault combined. In my home state of Wisconsin, as in most other states, a high percentage of inmates are imprisoned for alcohol- and drug-related crimes. Projections show that taxpayers soon will be contributing more toward the swelling prisons relative to the entire university system. This is a true folly.
What’s the answer? First, eliminate mandatory sentencing for drug convictions. Second, send addicts charged with these nonviolent drug charges to treatment. In the case of hardened, repeat offenders we can implement mandatory treatment programs. Third, and most importantly, as a society, we need to move away from this “war on drugs”. Wars require enemies, and the enemy is us. Rather than demonizing the enemy, maybe we need to think of them as our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and neighbors. We need to change our whole way of thinking. We need to conditionally surrender.
Peter Cullen is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]