Fall Guy

Larry Gould was a long-time junkie on the mend in a methadone program until he was lured into a drug sting. Now he's doing five years. But he made a few undercover cops look good in the process, and that was the important thing.

In 1994, lawmakers asked the commission to study whether the sentencing policies "are effective in furthering the goals of protecting the public safety and coordinating correctional resources with sentencing policy." The commission recommended reducing sentences for some drug offenders, which won support from judges, prison officials, and the governor, but failed to sway the Legislature, many of whose members fear softening any criminal sentences. Lawmakers asked the commission to "further study the issues," but that was 1995, the year Minneapolis's murder rate skyrocketed.

Swanson had hoped that the Minnesota Supreme Court would address the issues earlier this year when it heard Gould's and Soto's cases. The court, however, said the laws were properly applied. In Soto's case, the justices acknowledged that the drug laws target a disproportionate number of minorities. But they concluded, in an opinion written by Justice Esther Tomljanovich, that that's an issue most effectively addressed by the Sentencing Guidelines Commission--of which Tomljanovich happens to be a member. The commission in turn says the problem should be addressed by the Legislature.

Swanson dismisses as buck-passing the idea that the Legislature is the only place the sentencing problems can be fixed. The commission can change its guidelines after holding public hearings, he notes, although the changes must be reviewed by the Legislature. And the Supreme Court forges precedent all the time.

Even Gov. Arne Carlson has acknowledged that the system isn't working, and that the Legislature needs to overhaul the laws again. But that's simply not going to happen. In fact, taking a page from the 1992 decision that created parity among crack and cocaine defendants by raising penalties for coke, the Legislature this year lowered the threshold for heroin to 10 grams, to equal that of crack and cocaine. Lower thresholds, Swanson and commission Director Debra Dailey argue, will only compound the system's problems.

Minnesota's thresholds are already lower--and sentences longer--than those used by most states. Cocaine sales start earning higher sentences in Minnesota at three grams, vs. 10 grams in Wisconsin, 25 in federal courts, 50 in Michigan and 500 grams in Iowa. Minnesota punishes a first-time offender with six grams of cocaine with four years in prison, a level at which no other state mandates prison time.

"Because of how cases are charged out, you may see 86 months in one and probation in another," concedes Dailey. "We do see a wide variation in charges. We don't know what determines what a prosecutor does when it comes to charging." In many respects, she adds, the old system that left sentencing decisions up to the judges worked better. "Departures are a better approach to dealing with drug offenders. The majority of the people caught in Minnesota are mules, users, and small-time sellers."

Minnesota's drug law reforms mirrored a similar crackdown at the federal level, which reached its nadir during the administration of George Bush. On his watch, mandatory prison terms were instituted for progressively smaller quantities of drugs, the number of people serving federal prison sentences for drugs quadrupled between 1980 and 1992, and the amount of money available to narcotics agents across the board skyrocketed.

It's no secret that mandatory minimum sentences have clogged prisons with drug offenders. This month, the RAND Corp. issued a study concluding that while mandatory minimums are popular with voters, they aren't a cost-effective method for reducing drug sales, use, or drug-related crime. Researchers found that for every $1 million spent on incarcerating drug offenders for longer periods, cocaine use in the United States was reduced by some 13 kilograms. The same $1 million spent on conventional law enforcement reduced use by 27 kilos. Spent on substance-abuse treatment for heavy users, however, it reduces cocaine consumption by more than 100 kilograms.

The researchers uncovered one important caveat: When dealers are faced with longer sentences, prices on the street go up, which contributes to an immediate drop in use. The cost of keeping dealers in jail for longer periods is felt only later. However, money spent on treatment now pays off mostly in the long term. "Mandatory minimums appear cost-effective only to the highly myopic," the researchers note. "We find an exception in the case of the highest-level dealers--those who value their time most highly and are hardest to apprehend--where sentences of mandatory minimum length appear to be the most cost-effective approach. However, current mandatory minimum laws are not focused on those dealers."

Even if politicians could be weaned from the PR fix afforded by passing tougher drug laws, there's still the apparatus that has grown up around the war on drugs to contend with. Critics charge that the anti-drug bureaucracy has become so institutionalized that the criminals are almost beside the point. Last year, the federal government spent some $14 billion on the war on drugs. That means big money for law-enforcement agencies, schools to train narcotics officers, multi-agency drug task forces, and both public and private prisons to house the skyrocketing number of users being locked up. At last count, there were between 30 and 50 federal agencies whose budgets and missions were tied to the prosecution of the drug war.

And don't forget forfeiture laws, adds Swanson. Police agencies have come to depend on the money and property they seize during drug operations. In Minnesota, 70 percent of seized drug cash goes to the arresting agency--which might be one clue why at least three law-enforcement agencies were looking at Gould's alleged supplier, Huisman.

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