From the Chicago Bureau:
Alan Mills is not one to make apologies for his beliefs – and one strongly held by the legal director of the Uptown Peoples Law Center is about America’s current drug laws.
“We’re locking up too many people for too long.”
Many laws, especially drug laws, have punishment lengths that do not fit the crime, he and other critics explain. In fact, a recent report titled “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” explains that unnecessarily long sentences contribute to America having the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration.
And these laws are harming youth in Chicago and across the country, which ensnare many youth in drug crimes early on, especially in poorer neighborhoods.
“This is a population of our society who have been neglected. We haven’t done right by them, there have been a lot of broken promises,” said David Kelly, the executive director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. “Too many young people live without possibilities and live for today because they have to live from one day to the next.”
The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation has been reaching out to those effected by violence since 2002. The organization frequently deals with youths in prison. Kelly explains that this day-to-day mindset is very harmful for youth, and many deal with the resulting pain by numbing themselves with drugs or trying to make money by selling drugs.
This can be particularly dangerous, as there is a lot of pressure from politicians and the police to arrest those who violate drug laws.
“In Chicago, we don’t have stop and frisk,” Mills said. “We have stop and incarcerate,” Mills said.
And these arrests have the potential to permanently damage a juvenile’s future.
“As soon as a kid gets a record, the pathway to more serious and adult arrests is there, so in a way it sets them up for further incarceration. And incarceration just inflames the problem,” Kelly said. “Kids come out more disconnected from their family and community and are behind in school. So we spend a lot of money incarcerating a kid and they end up worse than they went in.”
But the atmosphere of incarceration might change soon with the deliberation over the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bill, which has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, deals with drug sentences.
Among other things, the bill would allow judges to disregard mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant’s criminal history is not higher than category two and reduce sentences for crack cocaine passed before the Fairer Sentencing Act to be in accordance with that act.
This means that mandatory minimums will not be implemented if the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point and that the sentences for crack will now be in an 18:1 ratio to powder cocaine rather than a 100:1 ratio. The Fairer Sentencing Act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack.
Crack sentences have persistently been blamed for being discriminatory. Studies have shown that demographically, African Americans are more likely to use crack cocaine while white Americans are more likely to use powder cocaine. Before the Fairer Sentencing Act, the sentencing for crack cocaine was much higher than that for powder cocaine even though they are pharmacologically the same drug.
The bill, introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Michael Lee (R-UT), now has 17 Democrat and 12 Republican sponsors in the House of Representatives.
“What we’re talking about here, is doing everything we could do, sensibly, to reduce the level of incarceration,” Durbin said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Our bill focuses on drug cases, and those represent about 50 percent increase in prison incarceration.”
In a statement about the bill, Durbin also explained that the bill could help ease overcrowding in the nation’s prisons and lighten the load on a budget that currently spends roughly $30,000 each year for one inmate.
There are currently 10,520 drug-related inmates in Illinois state prisons today. They make up 21.6 percent of the current Illinois state prison population.
According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, they support the bill because it will save billions of dollars typically incurred by incarcerating drug offenders, address over-criminalization and help ameliorate a longstanding racial injustice.
Further, complying with the Fairer Sentencing Act’s elimination of the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine and allowing re-sentencing would shift discretion in drug cases away from the prosecutor and return it to judges.
In the current system, the sentence largely depends on the charge with which the prosecutor charges the defendant. Since the prosecutor has a one-sided agenda in the case, returning discretion to the judge could result in a more appropriate charge and fairer sentences.
However, many other groups, such as the National Sheriffs’ Association, the National Association of Police Organizations and National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition oppose the bill.
“We’re looking right now at historically low crime rates across the nation,” said Bob Bushman, President of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. “And that’s because of the good work of the police to get repeat offenders off the streets,”
Bushman also fears that reducing the sentence for drugs may send a message to Americans, especially juveniles, that drugs are not dangerous.
Many supporters believe that the bill is a start but does not go far enough in dealing with those struggling with drug problems. Proponents of the bill claim that drug addiction is a medical issue and should be dealt with in a medical fashion, such as replacing prison with rehab when dealing with drug abusers.
“We seem to have a problem grasping that drug addiction is in fact an addiction,” Mills said. “The analogy I use is that it makes no sense to lock somebody up if they have a fever. You have to treat the underlying disease.”
Some suggest the solution could be to destigmatize addiction and provide resources to often poor communities to help combat drug use.
“We need to have community based organizations and resources so the kids can access what they need in their own community and don’t have to be incarcerated at all,” Kelly explained.
Although the Smarter Sentencing Act does not deal with the underlying cause of drug use and its aftermath, the number of cosponsors in the House of Representatives is rising. It seems that this effort to reform drug sentences may be on its way to the White House.