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America's Drug Wars
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The Instant Fix of Sentencing Guidelines
Every weekend, at New York City's Columbus Circle, buses are crowded with women and children. It is round-trip service to see husbands and sons in New York's state and federal prisons. No one at the bus stop wants to give a name. One middle-aged woman stands quietly with her two teenage sons, and waits to board the bus to see her husband in jail on a drug charge.

"Fourteen to life," says one woman about her husband's sentence. "It's been turned upside down—it's really hard ... my life has been turned upside down. It's not very easy."

Close to 2 million people are now behind bars in this country. More than 60 percent of all federal prisoners are drug offenders; 23 percent in state and local jail.

One of the legacies of the Drug Wars is tough drug laws passed by Congress in the 1980s. The laws set out mandatory minimum sentences. For example, possessing more than five grams of crack cocaine, about the size of five sugar packs, means five years in prison. The laws were rushed through Congress at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic.

"They tried the instant fix of sentencing guidelines," says Jack Lawn, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration then. "Certainly we believed, the law enforcement community, that more attention should have been paid to the crack phenomenon, but truly there was a rush to judgment in establishing those guidelines."

It was the death of a basketball star that set off the rush.

In June of 1986, the Boston Celtics drafted Len Bias, an All-American. The day after the announcement, Bias was dead. Cardiac arrest, police reported—Bias had been using cocaine. In the following days and weeks, the news media talked about little else.

At the time, Eric Sterling was a legal assistant to the House judiciary committee. The House speaker, Tip O'Neal had just returned from Boston.

"We learned that the speaker, Tip O'Neal had convened the democratic leadership," says Sterling. "They decided that there would be an anti-drug bill, and it was going to have to be written in four weeks."

There was no time for expert witness testimony, the time-honored way to winnow out seemingly good ideas that can lead to bad legislation. And there was a new legal concept to deal with.

"We had not addressed at all the issue of mandatory minimum sentences before.," says Sterling. [Writing legislation in four weeks] was a horrifying prospect. We knew that mistakes were going to be made, and we were operating with a lot of ignorance and a lot of emotionality."

Laws designed to cut drug supply by cutting the number of big-time dealers has failed. The punishment goes mostly to small-time offenders, a disproportionate number of them African American.

These laws have been so controversial that some federal judges now refuse to even hear drug cases. In the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums have done nothing to reduce drug demand—and the profits from supplying that demand are enormous.

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