- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004


Many get-tough approaches to crime don’t work and some, such as mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug offenders, are unfair and should be abolished, says a report from the American Bar Association released yesterday.

State and federal laws requiring mandatory minimum prison terms leave little room to consider differences among crimes and criminals, a commission studying problems in the criminal justice system found.

More people are behind bars for longer terms, but it is not clear whether the country is safer as a result, the ABA said.

Long prison terms should be reserved for criminals who pose the greatest danger to society and who commit the most serious crimes, the report says. States and the federal government should find alternatives to prison terms, such as drug treatment for many less serious crimes.

“The costs of the American experiment in mass incarceration have been high,” the report says.

States and the federal government spent $9 billion on jails and prisons in 1982 and $49 billion in 1999, an increase of more than 400 percent, according to the report.

The likelihood that someone living in the United States will go to prison during his or her lifetime more than tripled to 6.6 percent between 1974 and 2001.

The report, nearly a year in the making, follows up on blunt criticism of the criminal justice system that came from an unlikely quarter last year. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a moderate conservative placed on the court by President Reagan, asked the nation’s largest lawyers group to look at what he called unfair and even immoral practices throughout the criminal justice system.

The ABA responded with a lengthy study and recommendations for changes in sentencing laws and in other areas. In the case of mandatory minimum-sentencing laws, state legislatures and Congress would have to pass legislation to repeal the existing laws.

The ABA, the nation’s largest lawyers group with more than 400,000 members, will vote in August on whether to adopt the recommendations as official positions of the organization. The ABA’s policies are not law, but are influential.

“For more than 20 years, we have gotten tougher on crime,” said ABA President Dennis Archer. “Now we need to get smarter.”

An end to mandatory minimum prison terms is among the report’s most specific recommendations and probably one of the hardest to achieve.

Mandatory minimum sentences have proliferated in the past two decades, and are often politically popular. They often respond to a specific new threat or phenomenon, such as the spread of crack cocaine in the 1980s.

In 1986, Congress required certain long federal prison terms for possession of crack that were longer than sentences for the powder form of the drug. Possession of 5 grams of crack yields a mandatory prison term of at least five years.

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