420 Magazine Background

More Than They Deserve

Thread starter #1


The population in federal prisons has quadrupled from 43,000 inmates in
1987 to 173,000 today - at a cost to taxpayers of $4 billion a year.

How did that happen? In the wake of the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s,
Congress passed harsh sentencing guidelines and mandatory-minimum
sentencing laws - requiring federal judges in most cases to impose long
jail terms on anyone convicted of drug trafficking, no matter how small
their crime.

But now, objections to the drug laws are coming from an unexpected source -
federal judges themselves. Normally reluctant to speak out on political
matters, federal judges by the dozens have protested harsh drug laws.

They contend the laws force them to send some people to prison who don't
belong there, and others for many more years than they deserve.
Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.

The overwhelming majority of inmates convicted of drug trafficking are
small fry in the narcotics trade. Most are people with no track record of
violent criminal behavior, like Brenda Valencia.

In 1991, Valencia was a 19-year-old former high school athlete in Miami
who'd never been in trouble with the law until she gave a ride to her
roommate's stepmother. Brenda knew the woman was a drug dealer and knew she
was going to West Palm Beach to pick up money from a cocaine dealer.

Why didn't she walk away?

"I've asked myself that question a million times. But honestly, I wasn't
even thinking about that day. I just made a very immature and quick
decision," says Valencia. "I didn't even think twice about it. Because even
though I knew what she did, in my mind I felt I had nothing to do with it."

In West Palm Beach, federal drug agents arrested Valencia, the woman she
gave a ride to, and the two men who set up the deal. Prosecutors charged
Valencia with being part of a cocaine conspiracy, and federal law required
the judge to sentence her to at least 12 years and 7 months in prison. But
he wasn't happy about it, and wrote, "Even the low end of the guideline
range is an outrage in this case..."

"As a 19-year-old, I should have known better, and I should never have
gotten involved in it to begin with," says Valencia. "But I don't feel that
the time I received was a just punishment."

Neither does Joe Bogan, who, for 18 years, was a warden the federal prison
system, and spent six years at a penitentiary in Fort Worth, Texas. Bogan
says Valencia's case is not unusual.

"You could go in here and you could find hundreds of cases that would make
the same point. Maybe the cases wouldn't be quite as minimally involved as
she was, but you would find cases where, you know, if people thought about
it, this is what happened to this woman, this is what she did, she ends up
with 15, 20, 30 years," says Bogan.

"It's not fair. It's not just. I mean, 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. Our sentences are just
too long in this country."

Last spring, Congress passed a law that makes it even harder for a federal
judge to impose a lighter sentence when that judge feels it is called for.
That was too much for Judge John Martin, a former prosecutor and a
Republican appointee to the federal district court.

"Judges throughout the country, of all political persuasions, feel that
they have to have discretion so that they can do justice in the individual
cases," says Martin, who is resigning from the bench.

"It is unjust. It's taking people who are low-level violators and putting
them in jail for 15-20 years. I had a situation where a defendant was an
addict. He sat on his stoop. People came to him and said, 'Do you know
where I can buy some crack?' He told them about an apartment where there
was crack being sold. For this, the people who sold it every once in a
while gave him some crack for his own personal use. The guideline range for
that man was 16 years in jail. That doesn't seem to me like justice."

But aren't they reducing the sale of drugs by taking the drug dealers off
the street?

"No, if you take some narcotic addict who is sitting on a stoop selling
drugs, if he goes off to jail, there's a person to replace him within a
nanosecond," says Martin.

In 1986, when he was the lead attorney for the House Subcommittee on
Narcotics, Eric Sterling helped write the mandatory-minimum drug
legislation. Sterling has left Congress and is now working to change the
drug laws.

"This has been the worst legislation I've ever been involved with," says
Sterling. "And it's probably the worst thing I've ever done professionally,
as a lawyer. This was the hastiest thing, the most unusual thing I've ever
been involved in on Capitol Hill."

What was the rush? Back then, images of drug busts dominated TV news. The
war on drugs was the No. 1 issue on the minds of Americans. But it was the
fate of a celebrated basketball player that got the tough drug laws passed.

Len Bias, a star at the University of Maryland, died of a cocaine overdose
just after he was selected as the top draft pick of the Boston Celtics. For
legislators, in search of an issue for the midterm election, Bias' shocking
death was just the ticket.

"They knew Len Bias and when he died it set off a kind of media political
frenzy on Capitol Hill," says Sterling. "It was like a heated Sotheby's
auction where everyone was trying to be tougher than the next guy."

In those days, Congressman Bill McCollum was one of the toughest guys in
favor of stricter drug laws - and he makes no apologies for it.

You'd had a lot of deaths from this stuff. And people wanted to send a
strong message: to get it off the streets as much as possible and say "By
golly, you deal in this stuff, you're going to jail for a long period of
time." And it didn't take a large quantity to cause that death or to cause
that problem.

The federal judges that 60 Minutes has spoken with say that the great
majority of the people they sentence for drug crimes are at the bottom of
the totem pole, and not in any way the higher-ups.

"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," says McCollum. "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."

But will this really serve as a deterrent?

"They're bound to be people out there who are deterred from doing this
because of the jail time they're going to get. And there are some people
who aren't. I think the idea of characterizing these people as small fry is
a terrible characterization," adds McCollum. "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

He says those sentences haven't helped in his district: "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 . Here, prosecutions happen regularly. Sentences
are meted out long and hard. Hardest sentences in the United States, right

What would he say to someone who claims that these tough mandatory
sentences are taking drug kings and putting them out of business by locking
them up in prison?

"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 when he's hauled into
court. I've seen very few drug kings," says Judge Murphy.

What he does see, however, is defendant after defendant like Brenda
Valencia, who served 11 years of a 12 year - 7 month sentence for giving a
drug dealer a ride - twice as many years as she would have gotten if she'd
killed someone and been convicted of manslaughter.

Some drug traffickers do get lighter sentences by agreeing to testify
against other traffickers. Why didn't Valencia's lawyer try to make a deal
in her case?

"The other two people were already cooperating with the government. So they
had the people they needed to cooperate," says Valencia. "And I didn't know
anything, and I couldn't give the government any information."

"The people with the least culpability haven't had any information to trade
to the prosecutor for a reduced sentence, but the people who were more
culpable, they've got lots of information, they trade it," says Bogan. "So
you've got the less culpable getting maybe 10-15 years and the more
culpable getting five. Again, it's not just."

If you look at the government's own figures, it had 12 million illegal drug
users in 1991. Now, there are 19 million, so it's gone up after a decade of
tough sentences by 7 million drug users.

"If we didn't have those tough sentencing laws, you'd have a whole lot more
people than 19 million on drugs," says McCollum. "It would be worse today
if we didn't have them. Far worse."

These drug laws were created to protect kids from drug dealers. But
Sterling argues that we're not doing this at all.

"This doesn't work to protect kids," says Sterling. "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. That's not protection."

Even conservatives on the Supreme Court are saying that Congress has gone
too far. Last August, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan
appointee, told the American Bar Association, "I accept neither the wisdom,
the justice, nor the necessity of mandatory minimums."

In all too many cases, he said, they are unjust.

Source: CBS News
Contact: audsvcs@cbs.com
Address: 524 West 57th St. New York, NY 10019
Phone: (212) 975-3247
Author: Ed Bradley
Pubdate: Jenuary 4, 2004