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January 12, 2006

Drugs and racial discrimination

As a powerful follow-up to the recent report by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing urging reforms to the state's drug sentencing laws (details here and here), the New York Times today has this editorial entitled "Drugs and Racial Discrimination." Here is a selection:

The mandatory sentencing laws that have swept this country since the 70's have clearly done more harm than good. The inmate population has skyrocketed, driving prison costs to bankrupting levels, while having no impact at all on the drug problem. By taking away judicial discretion, the laws have led the country to write off first-time offenders who might have deserved second chances and to imprison addicts who could otherwise have been effectively and less expensively handled through treatment programs.

The laws have also discriminated against members of minority groups, who are disproportionately singled out for harsher mandatory sentences, often because of where they live....

The broader message of [the recent NJ Commission study] is that the country can't just imprison its way out of the drug problem. Coping with this issue — while reducing prison costs — will require a complex set of strategies, including drug abuse treatment and prevention services and increased judicial discretion in sentencing.

January 12, 2006 at 03:49 PM | Permalink


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The costs of the mandatory sentencing guidelines are yet to be seen. The past 15 years I spent in federal prison, I saw young men, mostly black, imprisoned for 20 years and more for a tablespoon quantity of crack cocaine. These young men incarcerated since their late teens and early twenties never got a chance to grow up and mature learning to pay bills and worry about raising children. Everything was provided in prison, the responsibility lessons of growing through the twenties and thirties have be denied to these young men. The first 20 year prisoners of the U.S.S.G. will be released soon and they will not be 40 year old mature men, but 40 year old teenagers who never matured, who never got a chance to grow into adults. Prison does not provide a youngster the tools to deal with everyday problems of paying bills, providing food for the family and education children, it is a warehouse where people just grow old and don’t grow up. How these immature older men will adapt to the strange world of middle age without the experiences lost to prison is yet to be seen, but may be extremely costly.

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