Dose of justice needed here

Posted: Feb 15, 2002 12:00 AM
On Tuesday, President Bush announced a new Drug Control Strategy with the goal of reducing illegal drug use in America by 25 percent over five years. Too bad that Bush forgot to address the glaring inequities in federal drug sentencing laws and practices. In fact, the closest Bush got to federal drug sentencing was his amorphous pledge to "punish those who deal in death." Sounds good, but the feds have so corrupted the drug sentencing laws that they often misuse conspiracy laws meant to punish drug kingpins. As a result, underlings get hard time and the kingpins -- who can testify against a league of underlings -- walk or receive reduced sentences. Which leads to five more items that should be part of the Bush drug strategy. First, Bush should send a directive to federal law enforcement agencies to not cut deals that enable kingpins to skate while they testify against their underlings. Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums calls this "trading down," and it goes against the intent of the law. "They're supposed to be working their way up the chain, not down," she noted. Second, Bush should tell federal prosecutors to charge small-time criminals and dealers' girlfriends only for the drugs they've handled, and not for the bulk drug traffic of their overlords. Said Stewart, "The quantity alone does not necessarily reflect the culpability of the defendant." Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation thinks Bush should send a management directive that says, "We're going to look at the significant cases, not just the numbers." Third, call for an overhaul of the draconian federal sentencing guidelines. It's possible, maybe even likely, that the administration will deliver on this. Stewart noted that the president "is aware that sentencing at the extremes is out of control." John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told me, "We are undertaking a serious review of mandatory minimums." He hopes the review will be complete in four to six weeks. Readers should let the White House know that they support sentencing reforms. Fourth, Bush should start using his pardon power by commuting the sentences of first-time nonviolent drug offenders serving decades-long sentences in federal prison. Consider Clarence Aaron, who is serving a life sentence for hooking up two drug dealers on a huge drug deal. Yes, he deserves to serve time -- but not as much time as FBI agent-turned-traitor Robert Hanssen. Fifth, Bush should let local and state governments pass their own laws. I realize this is easier said than done and that some cannabis clubs, for example, so flout federal drug laws -- by smoking pot publicly, for example -- that the feds might feel compelled to make a statement punctuated with handcuffs. But when local governments follow the letter of local laws -- and it could be argued that's not the case with some California medical marijuana clubs -- the Bushies should stand back. America's drug problem is so complicated that the nation only can benefit when different jurisdictions try different approaches. Whenever I write on this issue, I hear from two sets of extremists. Libertarians argue that all drugs should be legal; some even assert that if legal, drug use would go down. (If that were true, Washington could legalize white-collar crime and there would be less fraud. Who believes that?) Fact is, no one knows what would happen. The other extreme supports locking up all Clarence Aarons for life. One strike and you're out. They apparently believe their kids would never be so stupid -- I only hope that they're right. In the real world, there are some murderous opportunists who live large off the sweat of some not very bright (and not very malevolent) people. Save long sentences for the kingpins, and mete out lesser sentences to the street-level chumps. Allow locals to deal with their drug problems locally. There would be no better way for Bush to find support for his drug war in corners where he never found it before.