WITH THE HIGHEST INCARCERATION RATE IN THE WORLD, AMERICA HAS STILL MANAGED TO LOSE THE WAR ON DRUGS, DESTROY MILLIONS OF INNOCENT LIVES, RIP FAMILIES APART, WASTE BILLIONS OF DOLLARS AND BUILD A RACIST CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM SECOND TO NONE.
by Debbie Epstein
for HUSTLER Magazine – May 2010
In April 1993, 23-year-old Clinton Matthew was staying at a friend’s house in Norfolk, Virginia, with his girlfriend when the police burst in. A small amount of drugs, belonging to others, was discovered in the house, and Matthew ultimately received a sentence of life with no chance of parole even though he basically was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Under a federal law passed in the 1980s, dealers’ friends, lovers and family members who possessed little or no illegal substances could be charged with “conspiracy,” potentially a life sentence.
To establish conspiracy for Matthew, the police paid known criminals to testify against him, according to court records. For some reason (probably a previous bust that pissed off the police because he’d been found not guilty), police decided Matthew was the “kingpin” even though he couldn’t afford a lawyer. One paid snitch was allegedly Bernard Vick, a close relative of Michael Vick, the pro football player busted for running dog fights. Others got better deals if they named Matthew, although some refused and were deported. He will turn 40 in prison this year. Under his sentence, he’ll die behind bars.
“When I was young, I was an angry kid trying to find my way,” he says. “I got into some minor trouble before the bust. But I’ve grown out of my anger. Sitting in this place all these years has made me learn to value the small things. Still, it seems shameful that so many men are locked away like this.”
Matthew continues, “I’ve been sent to so many different penitentiaries, places where you walk a straight line and give people the highest respect because if you don’t, it may cost you your life. Predators prey on the weak. The strong survive, and the weak lay down and die. I’ve lost my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather and countless friends while I’ve been here. And every time, a part of me is ripped out.”
Matthew’s father, a veteran who lives in Florida, tries to stay positive. “I can’t believe my son is going to spend his entire life in jail,” he says. Every request for an appeal has been refused. Because “the kingpin” had to rely on a public defender, he’s had basically no hope from day one.
A GROWING INDUSTRY
Matthew is just one of a million or so Americans wasting away in jails for victimless, nonviolent drug violations. Since the 1970s the number of imprisoned drug offenders has increased 1,200%! America jails five times more people—most of them for drugs—than any other countryAnnually, about 800,000 people are arrested for marijuana crimes alone. Four out of five are for possession. There are 2 million drug busts in the U.S. each year.
What’s behind the madness? “In the ’80s, President Reagan and the Republican Congress were trying to prove who could be the toughest on drugs,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. The result was more busts, longer sentences and mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. Now about half a million men and women are wasting away in prisons for drugonly crimes. No guns, no violence or other crimes—just drugs. The number doubles when you include those in jail for violating parole by failing or refusing drug tests. In Alabama, for example, about half the prison population falls into this latter category.
The cost of arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating a million or so drug offenders each year is huge, with taxpayers footing the bill. California (a groundbreaking state in drugpolicy reform) saved more than $1.5 billion in a year by softening its drug policy.
“There’s a lot of money involved,” says Piper. “Grass is the bread and butter for lots of law officers and prison workers.” Some of the main supporters for mandatory minimum sentencing are the prison guard unions. They are also some of the largest donators to lawmakers who want to ensure that prisons stay filled to the bursting point.
RACISM AND REPUBLICANS
Every war has casualties, and this one hits the poor, the young, and blacks and Latinos the hardest. Although blacks, for example, make up only 12% of the population and use only slightly more drugs than whites, 75% of all drug sentences are handed out to minorities. “All the offenders busted in my case were black,” Matthew says, “and it was well known on the street that the town was trying to clear us out of that area of Norfolk.”
“It was the rise of crack and its racial undertones that bred mandatory minimum drug sentences,” says Monica Pratt Raffanel, communications director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. (When you’re black, it’s crack; when you’re white, it’s coke. The difference can mean life in prison.)
These new sentencing laws took all discretion away from the courts. “The judges and parole officers often express their horror at the cruel sentences,” says Pratt Raffanel. One judge commented he wished the defendant standing before him had been a congressman; he was forced by law to sentence a 23-yearold man to 20 years for possessing cocaine and an unloaded rifle under his bed. Another judge said it was with a heavy heart that he sentenced a 22-year-old man to 20 years for coke possession. Neither defendant was white.
“There should be consequences for offenders, but the punishment should fit the crime,” says Pratt Raffanel. “Mandatory laws require a five-year sentence for 5 grams of coke. In Indiana one man with a minor prior record was sentenced to life in prison for marijuana possession,” she says. “The lower-level offenders get the highest sentences because they have no information to trade with the police.” Piper agrees: “The high-ups avoid possessing the drug by using low-level couriers.”
Given the growing inequality that borders on ethnic cleansing and apartheid, the time has come to stop this national disgrace. Surveys show that 65% to 75% of Americans oppose jail time for pot. And President Obama almost immediately stopped the raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal, such as California. His predecessor, George W. Bush, aggressively busted legal medical marijuana stores.
Obama also called for a repeal of the federal syringe exchange ban to control AIDS and other diseases, and he has requested changes in the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. Additionally, the President named Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, a cop who has a fairly liberal record on drug policy, as the drug czar. Kerlikowske declared that the war on drugs is over.
Like California, Washington state has been at the cutting edge of drug policy reform, legalizing medical marijuana in 1998. (Today, 13 states have legalized marijuana or medical marijuana.)
Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) has told the Senate that this country is locking up far too many people who do not belong in jail. “Drug offenders are swamping our prisons,” according to the senator, who introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. It calls for an 18-month commission to review the entire criminal justice system and offer real reform recommendations, not just a laundry list of wrongs. The act is supported by President Obama, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and many lawmakers.
“The commission is a good idea, but it will take years to bring real change,” says Piper. “The federal government should be expending its resources on arresting violent gang members.”
In the meantime, those who would probably go free under Senator Webb’s legislation remain caged—missing their children and families—while costing millions when they could be contributing to society.
Debbie Epstein is an award-winning healthcare and science author who lives in Ringwood, New Jersey, with husband David, Wilbur the cat and Joe the Yorkie.
MAY 2010 – HUSTLER Magazine
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