Hawks in the Drug War

I just can't do it any more, a federal judge said recently. I cannot rule in cases where I'm compelled to impose sentences I feel are unjust. The judge was Jack Weinstein, and he was referring to laws that set mandatory minimum sentences, especially for drug offenders. Laws passed by Congress decree that crime X shall receive punishment Y-no matter what the individual circumstances may be. And when that means sentencing low-level, nonviolent, first-time offenders to several years in prison, some judges are rebelling. In this case, Judge Weinstein said his change of heart came when he was forced to sentence a West African peasant woman to 46 months for a first-time drug offense. He has announced that he will no longer hear drug cases. Attorney General Janet Reno is another official who questions the wisdom of mandatory sentences. Today two-thirds of inmates in federal prisons are there for drug-related offenses. Despite this huge swelling in the prison population, the war on drugs has not been won. What's worse, a lot of the people taken prisoner in the war are mere foot soldiers: a man who drove a friend to a drug deal; a wife who knew her husband was growing marijuana and failed to call police; a teenage girl who directed someone to her boyfriend's house to close a drug deal. These are some of the people being locked up under mandatory sentencing laws. And to free up prison cells for them, officials are granting early release to murderers and rapists. . . who are then free to prowl the streets again. This, I submit, is costly and wasteful. Yes, minor players in drug deals have broken the law and deserve to be punished. But to banish them to years behind bars is a punishment sharply disproportionate to their crime. They lose marketable skills, their families fall apart, and they often become hardened to a life of crime. The best response to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses is the development of community-based sentencing: house arrest; electronic monitoring; and, for addicts, mandatory drug treatment. Community sentencing makes a lot more sense for minor offenders. It keeps them closely tied to the very things that motivate people to straighten out: their families, their friends, their jobs. It keeps their families off welfare. It gives offenders a chance to pay restitution to their victims. We all want to fight drugs; the only issue is which strategy works best. A Christian view of justice takes into account a person's entire motivation and circumstances. Before the days of mandatory sentencing, that Christian principle was the working ideal in our courtrooms. Judges took a whole host of factors into account: an offender's personal history, his likelihood of repeating the crime, his willingness to undergo treatment. But today judges are forced to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence-which sometimes doesn't fit well at all. In spite of that, politicians continue to pass mandatory sentencing because they think the public demands it. Please let your representatives know that you are not hoodwinked by costly proposals for mandatory sentencing. The war on drugs is producing too many needless casualties.


Chuck Colson


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