Sam Uretsky

Sentencing Laws Need Rational Reforms

Nelson Rockefeller wanted to be President. This is a state of mind that routinely afflicts people whose parents, or grandparents, have accumulated so much money that their heirs feel qualified to run the country. In England this led to the War of the Roses, while in the United States we’ve seen the Rockefellers, Harrimans, Bushes and Perots among others decide that the nation needs them. The Koch Brothers seem to have the same notion, but are more efficient in their methodology, and don’t want to waste time on elections.

Gov. Rockefeller had already achieved a sort of immortality by destroying the mural that Diego Rivera painted for Rockefeller Center. It had apparently never occurred to Mr. Rockefeller that when he commissioned the mural to a member of the Mexican Communist Party some of the subject matter might be ill suited for the Rockefellers business associates. Maybe Mr. Rockefeller was fortunate that Pablo Picasso had rejected the commission.

But Mr. Rockefeller needed the Republican nomination for the presidency, and even in the 1970s, that required proof of Republicanness, which is something between a fraternity initiation and making Eagle Scout. Mr. Rockefeller decided to prove his qualifications by getting tough on drugs, which is how New York State, in 1973, confirmed what Shakespeare wrote in 1599: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” The Rockefeller Drug Laws pioneered mandatory sentencing, life without parole for drug related crimes.

Some of the Rockefeller legacy is described in the ACLU report “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses.” Life without parole has become the mandatory sentence for crimes other than drug-related offenses under the “three strikes and you’re in” rules, but the laws on drugs were the first, and often the least justifiable. One of the cases described by the ACLU report was that of Stephanie George, who received a mandatory life sentence after police found drugs hidden in her attic. The drugs had been placed there without her knowledge, by her boyfriend. In another case, “Teresa Griffin was sentenced to die behind bars for her first offense. She was 26 and seven months pregnant when police apprehended her with $38,500 of her boyfriend’s cash and half a pound of his cocaine.”

The statistics are fairly well known – it costs more to keep a person in prison than to send someone to college, and prison lasts longer. Prison overcrowding has become a national problem, and courts have described the conditions as “barbaric.” A Government Accountability Office report titled “Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure” (9/12/12) warned that the Bureau of Prisons was already 39% above capacity and would reach 45% over its limit by 2018. Although the Bureau of Justice was able to report minor declines in the prison population in 2011, largely because of a Court ordered reduction in California’s inmate population, the BoJ also said “Nearly half (48%) of inmates in federal prison were serving time for drug offenses in 2011, while slightly more than a third (35%) were incarcerated for public-order crimes.”

The need for sentencing reform is well documented, but it runs into politics. Since prisoners are counted on the census as residents of the place where they’re incarcerated, prisoners from urban areas increase the recorded population of rural areas where prisons are located without affecting the vote. The private prison industry has been making large profits, and political contributions to match. In 2011 the Corrections Corporation of America had revenues of $1.7 billion and spent $17.4 million on lobbying expenses. The Geo Group had revenues of $1.6 billion and spent $2.9 million on political contributions between 2003 and 2012.

Real change will be difficult to achieve, but it should be possible to start small and try to work from there. At the moment, there are 19 states and the District of Columbia that have passed laws to decriminalize marijuana. Eric Schlosser, an investigative reporter who has written extensively on prison conditions, said in a 1997 PBS interview that as many as 1 in 6 federal inmates was imprisoned for a marijuana offense. In the interview he said “Most of them are marijuana growers and marijuana dealers, although there are instances of people being put away for remarkably small amounts of marijuana. I’ve come across more than one case of people getting life without parole for a joint or for less than a joint. They tend to be habitual offenders and that’s their third strike, but that’s still a very severe punishment for possessing a joint.”

There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done to achieve rational sentencing, but it seems as if the public attitude towards marijuana is changing. That seems like a place to start.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2014

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