Drug war, not bias, clogs judicial system

November 15, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

"Eliminate [racial] bias" in sentencing. That was one of several recommendations put forth on the final day of the National Symposium on Sentencing sponsored by the American Judicature Society in San Diego two weeks ago.

The details of exactly how we achieve this lofty goal weren't discussed. Nor was the possibility of eliminating the racial disparity in sentencing addressed. But throughout the symposium there was that constant refrain: There are too many "people of color" in prison. We have to deal with the racial disparity in sentencing.

There are, of course, other disparities that weren't mentioned. Crime statistics show those arrested for homicide and robbery are overwhelmingly black. Since these are serious crimes, we would expect the sentences to be harsh. There's also a racial disparity on the victim side: Most of those robbed and murdered are black. But you're considered a poor sport if you bring those statistics up, which may explain why the symposium's seminars on victims' rights were sparsely attended.

Drug arrests may account for some of the racial disparity in sentencing. Twenty years ago, more than 75 percent of those arrested for drugs were white. Today, the figures are about 55 percent white and 45 percent nonwhite. Somewhere along the line a decision was made about which drug users would be arrested. Should, for example, Baltimore City police concentrate more on arresting white drug offenders? The question was put to Baltimore City Circuit Judge David Mitchell.

"I don't see how they can," Mitchell said. "This is an urban police force, and urban police forces by nature deal with street crime. We have a lot of fine people in this city who say 'get this stuff off our streets.' "

Two inmates in Maryland prisons -- one at the penitentiary, the other at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup -- weighed in on this debate, commenting specifically on Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana Levitz's statements about the link of crime and drugs, mandatory minimum sentences and disparity in sentencing. We should not dismiss what inmates have to say on this subject. We're desperate for solutions and need all the advice we can get. Besides, these two guys actually read newspapers, which is more than we can say for many folks on the outside.

The first comment comes from Wayne S. Carver at the penitentiary: "Your column, November 9, 1997, entitled 'Judge sheds a little light on the logic of sentencing' should have been titled 'Judge sheds little light on the logic of sentencing. ' If you really want to see this logic in action go to any district courthouse and sit in on some of these cases. Read some of the depositions. As a former correctional officer and currently an inmate here at the Maryland Penitentiary, I feel I have a balanced perspective since I have been on both sides of the fence. Your paper reported on a young man back in September who was going to trial in Howard County on numerous charges. He had an extensive criminal history, yet he had served only about two years on the convictions he had.

"Now let me enlighten you from firsthand experience. I know of two individuals with similar criminal histories and no prior drug convictions. Both were caught with small amounts of narcotics. These small amounts and circumstances of arrest placed them in the user category. Their charges were reduced to 'simple possession.' However the judgments handed out in both cases were quite different. One man was given probation while the judge in the second case wanted to give the other defendant fTC nine months. Where is the logic in that? The problem with sentencing is the inconsistency in sentencing and the politics involved."

That was the problem that befuddled symposium attendees. Judicial discretion, which most of the judges seemed to favor, led to inconsistent sentences. Mandatory minimums did not permit judges to sentence defendants on a case-by-case basis.

Frederick Jones, also known as Yahuda Bin Shabazz, wrote from Jessup:

"I am serving 45 years, the first 25 without the possibility of parole, the result of a mandatory minimum sentence. Sir, if 90 percent of cases the Honorable Judge [Levitz] sees are connected to some sort of drug use or abuse and he's in Baltimore County, pray tell, what do you think the percentage is in Baltimore City or the District of Columbia, two of the top 10 deadliest cities in America? The crime problem in these two cities are not crime problems at all but drug problems."

Carver agreed. "Let's face it," he wrote. "It's politics and money. If we adopted Mayor Schmoke's policy of drug decriminalization and concentrated on treatment, look at all of those folks in the criminal justice system who would be out of work."

A new strategy in the drug war -- a war that is now crippling our judicial system -- is needed. Two diametrically opposed groups -- judges and inmates -- clearly see it. Why can't our legislators?

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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