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Sessions Should Learn from the Past Mistakes of Fighting the Drug War

In the 1980s and ‘90s the U.S. relied on tougher laws which mandated mandatory minimum sentencing that did nothing to reduce drug abuse or drug prohibition-related violence, but contributed significantly to staggering government deficits as prison spending skyrocketed.

Now, once again under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions these tough laws are being introduced, despite being a proven failure in the past. Sessions wants prosecutors to rely on mandatory minimum sentencing using the so called opioid epidemic and public safety as reasons why America should revert back to archaic responses to the age old problem of escaping reality through illegal drug use and prescription drugs. He contacted 2,300 hundred prosecutors and told them in a memo to always charge offenders with mandatory minimums, however unjust. The major problem with this is it will handcuff judges’ and take away their ability to look at the totality of the facts of a case.

Some experts flat out say there are many myths associated with the so called opioid epidemic.

Well I know all too well that in the past when the government wants to create unconstitutional tools to fight the drug war they only have to declare an epidemic and hide behind the shield of public safety.

But I know personally that this shield of public safety gets worn down when you create laws that violate individual constitutional rights and evolve into unintended consequences, which has destroyed our criminal justice system. This happened in New York State in the past.

In 1985, I made the biggest mistake in my life and got involved in drug activity. For $500 I delivered a package containing four ounces of cocaine to undercover police officers. At the time I was married with a young daughter and struggling to pay my rent. I was approached by someone I knew from my bowling team. He asked why I was coming late to the league. I told him my car kept breaking down and I did not have the money to fix it. He asked me if I wanted to make some easy money. I agreed.

When you get desperate you do stupid things.

I delivered the envelope right into the hands of undercover narcotic officers. I had been set up in a sting operation. I was shocked when I was sentenced to TWO 15-TO-LIFE SENTENCESunder the mandatory minimum provisions of the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York. The judge in my case knew I was not a drug dealer, and gave me a break by running the two sentences together resulting in one 15-to-life bid. It was the same sentence given to someone convicted of second-degree murder in NYS.

I served 12 years in Sing Sing prison until I was granted executive clemency by the Governor George Pataki When I was released, I became an activist and dedicated my life to bringing change to the Rockefeller Drug Laws and doing away with mandatory minimum sentencing.

When these laws were created in New York State in 1973, the legislative intent was to curb the drug epidemic and to capture the drug kingpins. But their intent was flawed, imprisoning instead, low-level drug users, many of who were addicts. In fact the NYS legislature had to revise the laws in 1974. Despite this revision and two others in 2004/2005, hundreds of thousands of lives were ruined, costing New York State billions of dollars.

In 1986 the United States Congress enacted similar mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which compelled judges to deliver fixed sentences to people convicted of certain crimes, regardless of mitigating factors or culpability.

Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors: the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture (or alleged weight in conspiracy cases), and the number of prior convictions. Judges are unable to consider other important factors, such as the offender’s role, motivation and the likelihood of recidivism.

According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, today there are 2.3 million people locked up and 1 in 5 are incarcerated because of the war on drugs. The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, largely due to misguided drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements. Since the 1980s, drug war practices have led to the conviction and marginalization of millions of Americans — disproportionately poor people and people of color — while failing utterly to reduce problematic drug use, drug-related disease transmission or overdose deaths.

However, the U.S. learned from its mistakes and failures by the historic reformation of New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009 by Governor Paterson. Congress followed by repealing the first mandatory minimum law in 2010, and in 2012 California voters repealed the state’s controversial “three-strike” law for nonviolent offenders. Significant changes followed including revising crack/cocaine disparity sentencing laws that retroactively freed thousands of non-violent individuals. Following significant changes occurred by many including the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Obama Administration under Attorney General Eric Holder who tried to fix the broken federal system by telling prosecutors not to rely on mandatory minimums. President Obama at the same time used his pardon powers to free a record number of non-violent drug offenders, many who were sentenced under the provisions of mandatory minimums.

As we see using mandatory minimum sentencing was a proven failed policy that became a poison to the criminal justice system. Many activists have spoken out to stop Jeff Sessions including Dr. Carl Hart who has called him a racist.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions should learn from the mistakes the United States has made in the past trying to deal with the war on drugs. Instead of adopting a get tough approach which includes increased sentences for drug possession and mandatory confinement for addicts a smarter approach should be made that will invest public resources into educating the public about the use of drugs and provide treatment options to fight addiction from opioids. If not, we all lose and the criminal justice system will be broken once again.

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Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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