The Drug War: Back with a Vengeance

A new bill in Congressional committee would drastically increase sentences for many kinds of drug offenses

If you think the congressional Republicans' war on the judiciary can't get any more shrill or irrational, you obviously haven't read up on House Resolution 1528, Defending America's Most Vulnerable: Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act of 2005. Now before the House Judiciary Committee, the bill calls for draconian new prison sentences for even first-time offenders in most drug crimes, creates a host of new drug offenses--including some third-party crimes--and punishes city residents more harshly than suburban and rural drug users.

The bill's provisions are numerous and dramatic. In addition to virtually eliminating federal judges' ability to impose sentences below the minimum recommended by guidelines, the bill would expand the "three strikes" law to mandate life imprisonment for anyone convicted three times under the RAVE Act, impose a 10-year minimum sentence for anyone 21 or older who gives drugs (including marijuana) to someone under 18, and require a five-year minimum for anyone who sells drugs near a minor or in a minor's home, whether or not the child is present.

The bill also seeks to create longer sentences for those who offer drugs to anyone who has ever been through drug treatment, and to impose prison time on anyone who fails to report to police upon witnessing any of various kinds of drug transactions. The law would also expand the definition of a drug-free zone so broadly that the enhanced penalties attached to offenses committed in those areas would apply to virtually any urban drug deal.

Critics say the measure--sponsored by Wisconsin Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, who tried a similar gambit last year--is an attempt to simultaneously punish judges and countermand a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that returned to judges a small amount of sentencing discretion.

But so-called "activist" judges won't be the ones harmed by this punitive measure: According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, the federal prison population has grown 81 percent since 1995; more than half of today's inmates are serving time for a drug offense. Half of federal drug offenders are serving time for the lowest-level offenses, and the length of those sentences has increased by a third since 1992. According to U.S. District Court statistics, Minnesota has seen a corresponding rise in federal drug cases, from 97 in 1999 to 171 last year.

 
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