Why Go Easy on Junkies?

Reforming mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.

RYAN SHULTZQ: What’s in it for you?

Q: Why should you care?

Q: Nonviolent criminals are still criminals, so why go easy on junkies?

A: Mandatory minimum sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenders is not “going easy on junkies.”

In fact, nobody’s going easy on the junkies, especially junkies themselves. Addiction is a prison in its own right, and when our laws dictate that we actually imprison as many as we can for as long as we can, we perpetuate a cycle of inmates returning to their communities as maladapted as when they were prosecuted.

Still, does helping to change the life of an imprisoned drug addict sound wrong to you? Then think of it this way: Why should taxpayers like you and me spend upwards of $50,000 a year to simply house an addict? We’re not actually helping them become productive citizens, after all; a recent LA Times editorial on California’s incarceration woes reminds us that “prisons have been notoriously ineffective at purging inmates of their addictions, illnesses, gang ties or antisocial attitudes.”

Besides, junkies usually commit crimes the way lab rats run in circles or jump through hoops – because they’ve either been stimulated or manipulated into doing so. On the other hand, lawbreakers like me – convicted and sentenced to prison for robbery – are deliberate. We have getaway cars and backup plans. I’ve never seen a junkie or a lab rat with an escape route.

Spring Street Courthouse - U.S. District Court in Los Angeles By Eric E JohnsonHaving seen the inside of the criminal justice system up close and personally, I can’t imagine that most of our judges are corrupt or incapable of making sensible choices regarding appropriate sentencing. I both feared and trusted United States federal judge Harry Lindley Hupp, before whom I stood in court. I respected him, and I honored his disposition of sentence by not reoffending. And while no one has ever accused me of being an ass-kisser, I wish I had the opportunity to shake that man’s hand and thank him. He’s part of the reason why I advocate for allowing judges the discretion to sentence accordingly.

Though I haven’t read my court transcripts in quite some time, I remember Judge Hupp explaining why prison wouldn’t do me any good. He told me and my father that I’d be better served by therapy and counseling, but that he was unable to offer conditional probation. What the transcript leaves out is the frustration in his voice as he explained that he was compelled to sentence me to the mandatory minimum of 56 months in federal prison.

Now in my case, there wasn’t any confusion in the courtroom; we all agreed that I’d gotten what I deserved for the crimes I perpetrated. But standing next to me, also awaiting sentencing, was a well-spoken black man about 50 years of age. Judge Hupp’s irritation continued when he found himself issuing an identical 56-month sentence to this offender – simply for possession of what would now be considered “personal use” cocaine.

My lawyer told me later that Hupp could have departed from the sentencing guidelines in both cases, but that “he would have had some explaining to do” if he had done so. The souvenir I took home from the experience was that a federal judge had just (reluctantly) sentenced a crackhead to the same amount of time as someone who had robbed 39 retail businesses and 5 banks.

That’s why I care.

Prison-vs-PrincetonBut why should you care?

If what you just read doesn’t sound like justice to you, you’re not alone. Drug offenders make up 47 percent of the population in federal prisons, but only 20 percent of those are high-level drug traffickers. The remainder are convicted of minor dealing or personal possession. Yet who would you rather see behind bars for a long time, a crackhead or an armed robber? I was the latter, and I still know which one I’d pick.

In my home state of California, the state to which I paid my debt to society, we’ve built 1 college campus since 1980 and 21 prisons. In the broader context of America, one of every 31 adults is under some form of custodial supervision, which has long-devastated communities of color. And if that particular demographic statistic isn’t something you’re concerned about, fine: don’t keep your eyes on the prize; keep ‘em on the money. Follow the money and you’ll still find the taxpayer waste.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, describes a system in which mandatory minimum sentencing has helped create “a permanently disenfranchised, legally discriminated-against under-class of felon-Americans.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a country that escaped slavery only to turn around and build new shackles and chains out of “law and order” rhetoric. And right now, there are more African Americans in prison, in jail, and on parole or probation than there were slaves in 1850.

Still, what’s in it for you?

Even if you’re a closet racist who thinks civil rights should be reserved for “those people,” I bet you care about your wallet. So again, follow the money. What if America had to choose between wasting $80 billion a year on excessive incarceration or funding foreign wars? Well guess what? We do have to choose. We can no longer afford both – not when our roads and bridges are falling apart and major cities like Detroit are becoming Mad Max Island.

But nonviolent criminals are still criminals, and criminals belong in prison.

Yeah-yeah, we know that. So teach the lab rats to read already! I wasn’t a junkie, but I was certainly an inmate lab rat. And as such, I not only personally benefited from civilian employees poking and prodding the potential they saw in me that I couldn’t see myself, I also witnessed the transformation that happened for other men who grasped the power of literacy.

To the extent that we can provide inmates with milestones to achieve as a condition of their parole, a reallocation of our tax dollars toward making educational and vocational training more of a priority can actually help us reduce recidivism. Only then will we begin to see changes for the better in terms of the economic and social burdens that booby-trapped tough-on-crime policies and mandatory minimum sentencing have placed on communities nationwide. The more we start to question the ineffectiveness of a war on drugs where prosecutors and politicians compete with one another for “public safety” votes, rather than real solutions, the more apparent its failure becomes.

Right-wing? Liberal? A bunch of partisan rhetoric? 

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder_Justin SullivanU.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a rousing speech yesterday at the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates conference that reverberated “across the aisle.” Not even a month ago, the guy was being vilified by the media, and conservative TV talkers were ready ship him off to Benghazi. Today, though, liberals and conservatives alike are praising his call to reform mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent and drug-related crimes.

Folks, prison reform may just be our politicians’ last chance at redemption, a way for them to actually get something done. I mean, what excuse do they have? (Wait, don’t answer that.)

But in terms of legislation, this is clearly a centrist’s cause. So let’s save those billions and put fewer brown people behind bars – especially since we can condition addicts to make better choices in the first place.