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August 14, 2013

Drug penalties deserve revision

The Daily Star

---- — In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” which at the time seemed to be a good idea. Parents were in many cases justifiably worried that their children would have their lives ruined by heroin, cocaine or the mysterious plant called marijuana.

The “war” escalated in 1973 with what became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York state that were emulated by other states around the country. It included harsh penalties for certain drug-related crimes and — perhaps most onerous of all — mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for even nonviolent drug dealers and addicts.

It wasn’t until 2009 that New York’s Legislature got rid of the awful laws.

“I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” said David Paterson in his first State of the State address upon becoming governor.

In the 1980s, Congress passed laws mandating five- and 10-year sentences for certain drug crimes, even for nonviolent offenders.

About that “war on drugs”?

We’re losing it.

While drug use is still rampant, the United States has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country. For every 100,000 Americans, 716 are in prison, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. In the federal justice system, there are more than 219,000 prisoners — 47 percent for drug crimes.

Now, finally, the federal government would seem to be getting out of the mandatory sentencing business. On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will avoid seeking mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders not associated with cartels or gangs.

“By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers,” Holder said, “we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation — while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.”

While many on the left and right of the political spectrum praised what Holder announced, some conservatives have called it a power grab by President Obama, and some liberals have criticized the president and attorney general for not doing it sooner.

Clearly, the new policy — which includes considering release of some elderly prisoners no longer considered threats to society — is the right thing to do on so many levels.

In addition to the enormous cost ($28,000 a year per inmate) of incarcerating so many people, there is an inherent unfairness in the sentencing process. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 37 percent of the federal prison population. Hispanics constitute about 17 percent of the country, yet 35 percent of federal prisoners.

It is far past time for all the states to follow the lead of the Justice Department and get rid of mandatory sentencing.