Pubdate: Thu, 11 Mar 1999
Source: Orange County Register (CA)
Copyright: 1999 The Orange County Register
Author: Kevin Zeese


With crime rates down and prison populations soaring, it's easy to
conclude that the latter has much to do with the former. America's
long-term efforts to lock up more violent criminals has indeed reduced
street crime. But the current prison boom has more to do with the
nation's War on Drugs than on its battle against violent crime.

"No matter how much crime plummets, the United States will have to add
the equivalent of a new 1,000-bed jail or prison every week -- for
perhaps another decade," according to a New York Times article
published in the Register last Sunday. That follows a decade in which
the U.S. prison population has nearly doubled, to almost 2 million

Mandatory sentencing laws, enacted during the 1980s anti-drug frenzy,
have led to the current situation, in which 400,000 people are serving
time nationwide for drug crimes. About 60 percent of federal prisoners
are incarcerated for drug offenses -- three times the rate 15 years
ago, according to the article.

To put things in perspective, the United States Sentencing Commission
reports that the average time served in federal prisons for drug
trafficking is 82.3 months. That compares to 73.3 months for sexual
abuse, 38.8 months for assault, 34.2 months for manslaughter and 22.9
months for bribery. Federal sentencing priorities appear to be out of

"We went through a period in the mid-1980s where we were just
ratcheting up drug sentences," Kevin B. Zeese told us; he's president
of Common Sense for Drug Policy, a drug-law reform organization in
Falls Church, Va. "We put in place a system with more and more people
going to jail for longer and longer time periods."

The nation, he said, has embraced "this mandatory approach to things"
in which judges no longer have the authority to see if an individual
really is "a danger to society." People caught buying, selling or
using even small amounts of illegal drugs are hit with stiff automatic
sentences, which means that nonviolent drug users end up serving time
with hardened felons.

What should be done? In the short term, Mr. Zeese urges lawmakers to
move away from mandatory sentencing and toward a more traditional
judicial approach that looks at individual circumstances. He also
calls for shorter prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses. In the
long term, he said Americans must decide "Which is better to control
drugs? An illegal market enforced by police or a legal market enforced
by administrative law?"

We agree. As politically dangerous as these proposals may be, they
offer a realistic alternative to an ever-expanding and costly
prison-building campaign that continues to fill the prisons with drug
offenders, and not just those who are menaces to society.

A new study coauthored by Mr. Zeese, "The Effective National Drug
Control Strategy 1999," is available on the Internet, at

Michael Shellenberger, Director Communication Works tel: 415-255-1946,
fax: 415-255-1947 We use Macs/Send all electronic files as text
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