By Gregory B. Hladky
12:00 PM EDT, August 21, 2013
Holy Brainstorms Batman! The feds finally figured out the War on Drugs is a bust that's costing us billions, hasn't stopped the dopers, and is filling prisons with people who shouldn't be there!
That was the underlying message of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's address last week calling for dramatic revisions of federal prosecution and sentencing guidelines for nonviolent and low-level drug offenders.
And the trigger was apparently the same thing that drove Connecticut and other states to change their sentencing policies years ago: massive prison overcrowding because of the vast numbers of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
"Connecticut's ahead of the curve right now," says David McGuire, a lawyer with this state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter. "We're one of the leading states in terms of alternatives to incarceration."
The only real surprise in all this is that it took the feds so long to recognize the realities of a broken system that's clogged our hugely expensive prisons, primarily by filling them to overflowing with blacks and Hispanics. Connecticut began making changes to its sentencing policies more than a decade ago, and has trimmed its inmate population by more than 11 percent since 2003.
In July 2003, we had 19,121 inmates locked up in Connecticut prisons, according to state Department of Corrections reports. This July, the prisoner count was 16,986.
While the number of white prisoners in Connecticut hasn't changed much from a decade ago, the African-American inmate population plummeted by 16.8 percent and there are now 14.2 percent fewer Hispanics in state prisons. (Violent crime, in case you were wondering, has been dropping in Connecticut and the rest of the U.S. since the early 1990s.)
The difference between Connecticut's experience and the federal system, with its insanely rigid mass of mandatory minimum sentences, is astonishing.
Holder noted in his San Francisco speech that the federal prison population has grown by a mind-boggling 800 percent since 1980, and that the system is now 40 percent over capacity. "Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners," Holder pointed out.
The impact of that sort of craziness is being felt here in Connecticut. The feds were planning to transfer 1,115 women inmates from the federal prison in Danbury to an isolated Alabama prison — more than 1,000 miles away — to make room for some of the male inmates now jammed into facilities around the U.S.
U.S. Senators from Connecticut and New York protested that would be unfair to the female inmates and their families, most of whom live in the Northeast.
The Danbury prison and its inmates also happen to be the focus of the popular Netflix show, "Orange Is the New Black." The author of the book that became the show, Piper Kerman, was sent to Danbury for 11 months on a drug crime charge and pointed out in a New York Times op-ed piece that the women in that facility are the mothers of more than 700 kids.
According to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has now put that proposed inmate transfer on hold, temporarily.
The harsh reality of this situation is that the percentage of Americans using illegal drugs hasn't really changed since the War on Drugs was launched 40 years ago. More drugs are coming into the U.S. now. Prices for dope have dropped. Mexico is locked in a bloody civil war with drug gangsters. U.S. states are decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana and medical pot, leaving federal authorities in a quandary.
"Yeah, I think they've figured that out," Moira Buckley, president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, says of the federal government's long-delayed recognition that the War on Drugs has failed.
Buckley and other defense lawyers are waiting to see the impact of Holder's policy statement and an upcoming review of federal sentencing guidelines by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
"I am curious to see how our U.S. attorney [in Connecticut] handles that," says Buckley. If Holder's new policies give federal prosecutors more leeway in charging low-level drug offenders, Buckley adds, it could make a big difference.
In Connecticut, prosecutors have far more discretion than the feds to decide what charges to file against someone picked up for drug crimes. Nonetheless this state still has 64 different mandatory minimum sentences on the books, which means a conviction in such cases leaves judges no choice but to send the convicted person to prison for years.
"I hear from [state] judges all the time, 'Don't tie our hands with mandatory minimums, give us some flexibility,' " says Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, co-chair of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee.
Right now, for instance, you get caught in a "drug-free zone" (within 1,500 feet of a school, day care center or public housing project) with illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia and you could get hammered with a one-to-three year minimum sentence.
Sounds kind of good, except that in urban centers like New Haven there isn't any place that isn't covered by a drug-free zone, which means any drug transaction could be subject to the mandatory minimum. (New Haven's only exception is apparently a golf course.) And that basically defeats the whole purpose of making those zones specially protected.
"The majority of these people are drug addicts themselves," Buckley says of the people often picked up on such charges. "They get into moving the stuff" to pay for their addictions and end up as pawns of serious drug dealers, she adds.
Buckley says the mandatory minimum laws that were "originally intended to punish the real bad guys" often end up sending low-level addicts to prison instead.
There have been multiple repeated attempts to ease that drug-free zone law in Connecticut. The latest happened this year when the Connecticut Sentencing Commission asked lawmakers to chop those drug-free zones down to just 200 feet.
Fox says a lot of legislators, mostly from the suburbs, shied away from changing the zones. "It appeared the bill didn't have the votes in the House," he explains, and the legislation was sentenced to a very quiet death at the end of the session.
There's general agreement that Connecticut's done well with finding alternative ways to handle low-level, non-violent offenders through things like home release and halfway houses and drug treatment programs. But many advocates insist that, even with the apparent shift in federal policy, this state needs to do more.
McGuire points out that the "federal criminal justice system doesn't have that much impact in Connecticut." He says that, for every one case brought by the feds here, state prosecutors and judges handle 300 criminal cases.
Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice aide is Michael Lawlor. He says the state's progress in providing alternative sentencing for low-level drug crimes and reducing the overwhelming racial disparity in Connecticut prisons has been impressive.
Lawlor believes the policy changes Holder is now pushing are part of a "serious national momentum" to deal with drug crime and drugs in a more rational way.
A number of Connecticut reformers want to take advantage of that momentum, both in this state and nationally.
Buckley says the state needs to work harder to get rid of those mandatory minimum sentencing laws that keep judges from using common sense when dealing with people caught up in illegal drugs.
Bill Dyson believes the feds and Congress must find a way to help the "thousands upon thousands who have gone through the federal [prison] system and have no mechanism for getting their records cleared and getting on with their lives."
Dyson has retired from the General Assembly, where he was for years one of the most influential African-American politicians in Connecticut and a vocal critic of the racial disparities in this state's criminal justice system.
He says the War on Drugs has left multitudes of people in the minority community with criminal records that prevent them from getting decent jobs, decent housing and helping their families.
The problem, Dyson points out, is that neither Holder's policy changes nor the attitude shift by the Obama administration and others is doing anything to "unscar the people who were scarred by the War on Drugs."
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