Empty Promises

Missouri has been pouring millions into prisons that aren't being used. But stay tuned: If politicians have their way, there will be plenty of inmates to go around.

Mandatory minimums typically depend on the quantity of drugs. The threshold ranges from 500 milligrams in the case of LSD to 30 kilograms for marijuana. Penalties for cocaine are particularly out of whack. Mandatory minimums for cocaine don't kick in until more than 150 grams is involved -- unless it's crack. Then the punishment ratchets up to a minimum of five years if a person is found with more than 2 grams. Mandatory minimums for crack dealers start at 10 years for someone caught selling more than 2 grams -- barely one-sixteenth of an ounce. If a dealer has more than 6 grams, he must serve a decade in prison without possibility of probation or parole.

Where drugs are sold also makes a difference. Sales of any drug within 2,000 feet of a school, university or public housing project carry a mandatory 10-year sentence. Some laws passed within the last few years are nothing less than bizarre. A person who sells 30 grams -- slightly more than 1 ounce -- of methamphetamine or ecstasy in a casino, grocery store, church or practically anyplace else faces a minimum 10-year sentence but can be paroled. If that same quantity is sold from a car or motel room, there's no chance for early release. The standard doesn't apply to heroin, cocaine or any other drug -- those dealers may conduct business from automobiles or hotels without any additional penalties.

To their credit, some judges are reluctant to throw away the key when it comes to drug felonies that carry penalties of 10 years to life. Inmates sentenced under those statutes in 1999 got breaks more often than not -- 27 percent of the sentences fell below state guidelines that year; 19 percent were in excess of guidelines. But leniency dissolves with less serious drug offenses. In 1999, the corrections department found that 37 percent of drug felons who were facing five to 15 years received sentences longer than those prescribed by state guidelines; just 8 percent were shorter than those indicated in the guidelines. Fifty-five percent of drug offenders guilty of crimes with a maximum seven-year sentence but no minimum received above-guideline sentences; 4 percent got a break. And 64 percent of those facing a maximum penalty of five years got sentences in excess of guidelines; only 5 percent got breaks.

Politicians elsewhere realize that such stiff sentences are a waste of money. Republican governors in New York and New Mexico have called for treatment instead of prison for drug crimes, especially for first offenders. The Democratic governor of Washington, with support from the Republican prosecutor of the state's most populous county, is proposing treatment in lieu of incarceration and shorter sentences for drug offenders who are sent to prison. "I think you've seen some pretty interesting people back away from it," says Riveland. "You may start seeing conservatives and liberals -- I don't like those titles -- those two camps coming together for different reasons. The liberals will come in because they think it's more humane and more effective to treat people in the community. The conservatives will come in because they recognize they don't want to spend the money to lock these people down. Hopefully that will result, in many jurisdictions, in fairly sound public policy."

In Missouri, lawmakers five years ago approved legislation that provided funding for drug courts and money to put more offenders on probation instead of sending them to prison. The $7 million allocated for prison alternatives was minuscule compared with the more than $150 million appropriated that year for new prisons and expansion projects at existing facilities. Some prosecutors, including St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, have been slow to set up effective drug courts, and some of the money has gone unused [Rushton, "What About Bob?" March 29, 2000]. Although the state has increased funds for prison alternatives, spending about $15 million in 2000, the Legislature hasn't provided enough money to set up alternatives throughout the state. Just 24 counties have received money for alternative programs begun five years ago, despite evidence that punishment short of prison saves taxpayers plenty. Between fiscal year 1997 and fiscal year 2000, prison admissions from counties that received the state money went down by 2.2 percent. Admissions from counties that didn't get the state help increased by 10.6 percent. Corrections officials figure the programs have kept 729 criminals out of prison at an annual savings of $3.7 million.

Some lawmakers would like to go further. Staples has sponsored legislation modeled after California's voter-approved initiative that mandates drug treatment instead of prison. "Instead of building a $75 million prison, I'd like to build a $75 million hospital for substance abusers and turn those beds over three times a year and treat those people instead of warehousing them," Staples says. "If an 18- to 22-year-old kid gets caught the first time, we give him 60 to 90 days in a rehabilitation center so he can be educated on drugs. That person wouldn't have a felony rap. He wouldn't have a prison sentence and he might be president of the United States someday. But right now, all he can do is wash dishes or mix concrete." Staples isn't afraid of what his constituents might think. "They tend to agree with me," he says. "I hear from a lot of people out there who tell me we don't need to build any more prisons and we don't need to build any more baseball stadiums."

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