Reserve prison beds for the real criminals

BLACKSBURG, Va., (U-Wire) — In our nation’s war on drugs there have been too many needless casualties as a result of federal laws that impose mandatory minimum sentences on certain drug offenders. These laws, popular with politicians looking to toughen their stance on drugs and crime, often put nonviolent, small-time drug offenders behind bars for obscene periods of time, without a chance for parole. Meanwhile, violent criminals, rapists and murderers, are given lenient sentences that are rarely served in full.
America’s federal prisons are now filled to capacity, mainly with drug offenders, when they should be housing the violent criminals of our society. A recent article in Time magazine stated that “more than half of all American prisoners are nonviolent offenders,” with 34 percent of those criminals sentenced for simple drug offenses. Our country, which ranks second in the world to Russia in total prison population, now must generate tax funding from the public to construct more prisons.
Each cell built will cost, on average, $58,000 of American tax funding, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. This money would be better spent on rehabilitation programs for these low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. A recent study from the Rand Corporation in Time magazine found that “treatment reduces about 10 times more serious crime than conventional enforcement and 15 times more than mandatory minimums.”
Politicians must not agree, as funding for these treatment programs are embarrassingly minuscule. Yet, a majority of these drug offenders are often small-time dealers, just in business to support their addiction. Common sense would follow that if these offenders were forced to undergo drug rehabilitation, they would most likely avoid becoming a repeat offender.
Mandatory minimums are not just costly and unjust; they are racially biased as well. Evidence supporting this claim can be found at the very inception of these laws, starting over a decade ago, in 1986. It was during this time period that mandatory minimums were passed as federal law in response to the booming crack epidemic tormenting the urban areas of every large city throughout the United States. The new drug was being mainly consumed by minorities, who made up the majority population of the inner cities. The federal government’s answer to this problem was to create mandatory minimums for offenders convicted of crack offenses.
Unfortunately, the laws they created are grossly inconsistent with other mandatory minimums, such as that for cocaine. For example, criminals convicted of distributing five grams of crack are given the exact same prison sentence as criminals convicted for selling 500 grams of cocaine. It is highly doubtful that this disparity in punishments is merely a coincidence.
These ridiculous laws strip judges of their power to decide appropriate punishments on a case by case basis. Clearly, politicians disliked the disparity between certain rulings and felt that this was the only answer.
But this type of legislation reduces the role of judges to merely a spectator — not exactly what the Constitution detailed as their role in democracy. The founding fathers of America sought to escape this type of unjust law, where the fate of a man is decided by politicians, not responsible representatives of the law. This is a sobering thought — the weight of justice rested solely on the shoulders of men who spend half of their career trying to escape the wrath of the law.
Let’s face it. Everyone makes mistakes in their life, children and adults alike. In some cases, people are luckier than others; they drink too much and learn a rough lesson of life as they struggle through a horrific hangover. Unfortunately, others make mistakes that will affect them for the rest of their lives. In the trials of youth, some people choose to get involved in the drug world, not expecting this decision to result anything too serious. Studies show that 70 million Americans have made this mistake in their lifetime, and while some experience the mysteries of euphoria and move on, others never get the chance.
Being caught with a small quantity of cocaine, under a gram, could happen to any young experimenting person, but if caught with this amount of cocaine in Texas, they would face up to 10 years in a federal prison. It is a nightmarish thought for anyone.
People guilty of these small drug infractions clearly deserve a second chance to prove their worth to society.
They are not violent criminals; just people who made a small mistake that can carry incredibly harsh consequences. Instead of locking these people up for a generous portion of their lifetime, why not treat these people with rehabilitation programs and lead them in the right direction.
It is not just the right thing to do — it is the fair thing to do.
Steve Srenaski’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s Virginia Tech paper, The Collegiate Times.