Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Addiction to Incarceration

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Addiction to Incarceration

Article excerpt

In America, our criminal justice system has too often focused on vengeance and punishment.

In 2003, I represented dozens of African-American residents in Tulia, Texas, who had been convicted after a botched drug sting. Jason Jerome Williams, a 22-year-old with no prior criminal record, had been sentenced to 45 years in prison for four sales of an eighth of an ounce of cocaine. Freddie Brookins Jr., 25, had received 20 years for a first-time offense of selling less than four grams of cocaine. Joe Moore, a 56-year-old hog farmer, had gotten 90 years for two cocaine sales totaling under five grams. Others accepted plea deals to try to avoid such lengthy prison terms.

The convictions, in 1999 and 2000, were based on the flawed testimony of an undercover officer. The prosecution offered no physical evidence of marked bills, weapons, narcotics or drug paraphernalia -- things you would expect to find in a sophisticated drug ring.

It took years of advocacy by many lawyers to win their release, but this hard-fought vindication was just a flash in the pan. Starting in the 1970s, a domestic "war on crime" dominated by antidrug policies and racial profiling fueled a prison-building binge that is morally -- and now financially -- bankrupt. Both political parties embraced draconian policies like mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and wide disparities in sentences for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. The result: by 2003, the United States had 4.6 percent of the world's population but 22.4 percent of its prison population -- even though violent crime started dropping in the 1990s. Prospects for reform looked bleak.

So I was elated when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced on Monday that the government would commit to reducing the bloated prison population. This is without precedent: the nation's top law enforcement official directed all federal prosecutors to exercise their discretion toward ending the relentless warehousing of inmates -- the vast majority of whom are minorities -- in federal prison for low-level drug crimes.

But the immediate impact will be very limited at best. First, federal inmates accounted for just 14 percent of the nation's 1.6 million prisoners last year. Second, Holder has limited authority to enact permanent reforms without Congressional action. Third, it's unclear how federal prosecutors will enforce his plan. To maximize its impact, the Justice Department needs to track implementation by the 93 United States attorneys around the country and hold them accountable for enforcing the policy.

For lasting national impact we need to look at the states, where most criminal defendants are sentenced. Over the past few years, a quiet revolution has been brewing in state capitals. Historically low crime rates and shrinking state coffers have led to a nascent consensus among lawmakers and advocates across the ideological spectrum that our addiction to incarceration is not sustainable, effective or humane. …

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