Rolling Back Stiff Drug Sentences Twenty-Five Years after the First Law Mandating Tough Prison Terms, States Look for New Ways to Punish Drug Offenders
Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
A quarter century after New York ushered in the nation's first mandatory drug-sentencing laws, some states are showing signs of rolling back the mandates - a trend with far-reaching ramifications for the American criminal-justice system.
Worried about burgeoning prison populations, New York and several other states are beginning to look at ways of punishing nonviolent first-time drug offenders that don't require substantial jail time. At the same time, however, states are enacting even stricter sentencing laws and abolishing parole for dangerous felons, particularly violent sex offenders.
The twin moves underscore a truism of American criminal justice in the late 1990s: At a time when much of the public still wants tough treatment of criminals, states have to deal with the implications of those sentiments by erecting more buildings with bars and concertina wire. To be sure, many politicians and much of the public don't want any retreat from mandatory minimum sentences - including for drug offenders. They believe it is the best way to tackle America's entrenched drug problem. But critics counter that the laws create an inequitable system of justice that often punishes marijuana dealers more harshly than it does violent felons. Largely because of these laws, they say, the prison population has tripled since 1980. They also argue it makes the system inflexible, taking away too much discretion from judges. "States are clearly trying to be thoughtful about sentencing and make sure the laws passed are resource sensitive," says Donna Lyons, director of the criminal justice program of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. This summer, Michigan - which had some of the toughest drug laws in the country - set up new guidelines and rolled back its mandatory- minimum life sentence for drug dealing. Connecticut, Oklahoma, Arizona, and almost a dozen other states have either passed legislation or set up commissions to revamp their criminal codes - including minimum sentences. And in New York, the legislature is expected to at least modify the Rockefeller drug laws this session. "There would certainly be symbolism in the undoing of the Rockefeller drug laws, but it's also a practical policy decision," says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington-based advocacy group made up of families of prisoners. The challenges created by the Rockefeller drug laws in New York reflect those facing other states. Initially aimed at high-level drug dealers, they've often ended up netting low-level dealers and "mules" - those who carry the drugs for the dealers. Story of Thomas Eddy Thomas Eddy was among the first to be sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws. Arrested in 1979 for selling two ounces of cocaine, he expected to get a couple of years in jail, and then maybe probation. Instead, the sophomore at State University of New York, Binghamton, a National Merit Scholar who had his future ahead of him, got 15 years to life. "Even the judge said she wouldn't have given me that sentence if she had discretion, but she didn't," says Mr. Eddy, who was granted clemency after 13-1/2 years. A chief concern with mandatory sentencing is that it is often missing its intended target: big-time drug dealers. This has occurred as discretion has shifted from judges, who are required to mete out certain sentences regardless of circumstances, to prosecutors, who determine whether to bring charges that carry a mandatory-minimum sentence, experts say. Often, the higher-level drug dealers have more information to trade and, thus, can cut better deals with prosecutors. "The principal problem with current mandatory minimums is that they aren't targeted sufficiently toward the high-level dealers," says Jonathan Caulkins, author of a Rand Corp. study on mandatory sentences. …