Tough Drug Sentencing’s Impact Questioned


The federal prison population quadrupled from 43,000 inmates in 1987 to 173,000 today, at a cost of $4 billion a year, notes CBS’s “60 Minutes.” The TV newsmagazine traces the impact of federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.

Consider Brenda Valencia, who in 1991 was a 19-year-old former high school athlete in Miami who’d never been in trouble until she gave a ride to her roommate’s stepmother, whom she knew was a drug dealer on her way to pick up money from a cocaine dealer. She ended up with a 12-year-seven-month prison term. Joe Bogan, a former federal prison warden, says the case isn’t unusual: “You could go in here and you could find hundreds of cases that would make the same point….It’s not fair. It’s not just….if you look back here in this prison, there are maybe 1,400 inmates, and there are probably 700-800 of them could be out. And their sentences would still be just. It would still hold them accountable for their criminal conduct.”

Federal judges told “60 Minutes” that most of the people they sentence for drug crimes are at the bottom of the drug-trafficking totem pole.

Former Florida Representative Bill McCollum, who backed the mandatory sentencing laws, defends them: “You know what we have a problem with? It’s recidivism. When people commit these crimes, they get back out on the streets. They’d do it over and over again. And so you’re going to have ’em back on the streets dealing, even more dealers. So the idea of lesser sentences makes no sense to me at all…characterizing these people as small fry is a terrible characterization. It’s a misnomer. Yeah, they may be comparatively smaller in terms of the quantity of drugs they’re selling, but they’re still major drug dealers and traffickers.”

Patrick Murphy, the chief judge of the federal district court in East St. Louis, Ill., doles out long sentences nearly every week to drug dealers and traffickers that he says have done little good: “You’re in East St. Louis. East St. Louis is crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, violent, dirty, dangerous, and here the sentences are the longest and the hardest anywhere in the federal judiciary…What passes for a drug king in 99 percent of the cases is nothing more than a young man who can’t even afford a lawyer…I’ve seen very few drug kings.”

Eric Sterling, a former congressional aide who helped write sentencing laws he now opposes, said they do not “protect kids…When you look at what kids say, ‘How hard is it for you to get drugs, easy or hard?’ We’ve been asking the same question of samples year after year, and now kids say it’s easier to get heroin, marijuana, cocaine then ever.”


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