Drug offenders serving less prison time

Researchers say findings indicate authorities targeting lesser crimes

First-timers benefit

March 13, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Despite a massive expansion of the nation's drug war, narcotics traffickers and users busted by federal law-enforcement agencies are doing far less time in prison than in years past, according to interviews and new data released yesterday.

Researchers at Syracuse University said new statistics suggest that federal authorities are failing to target the most dangerous drug kingpins and the most drug-infested areas, focusing instead on lower-level marijuana crimes.

As a result, judges may be meting out shorter sentences -- a result of weaker cases or less serious offenses, the researchers said.

Primary beneficiaries of the shorter sentences were nonviolent, first-time offenders and criminals who saved the government the cost of a trial and helped agents catch fellow lawbreakers in return for being allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges.

"There are a number of reasons for the decline," Justice Department spokesman John Russell said. "Enactment of the `safety valve' provision for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders; the trend among drug defendants toward more guilty pleas and fewer trials; and the increase in the number of drug defendants providing substantial assistance" to investigators.

Severe drop in Calif.

The reduction of drug sentences appears particularly severe in Southern California, according to the new statistics, which are based on the federal government's computerized data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Notorious as a gateway for drug importers, Southern California once meted out the toughest drug sentences in the country, according to the most recent statistics compiled by TRAC, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. But the group's study shows that penalties in that region have shrunk by more than half, from an average federal sentence of 18 years in 1992 to seven years in 1998.

Nationwide, federal drug sentences fell 22 percent over the same period, even as the number of drug prosecutions and convictions reached record levels, the study found. Working on the assumption that more-populated areas have more drug activity, the researchers ranked 90 federal court districts by the number of federal drug referrals per capita.

DEA, Customs study's focus

The study focused primarily on the DEA and Customs -- the two leading agencies in the federal anti-drug effort -- and it raised questions about the consistency and effectiveness with which both enforce drug laws.

Several experts in the law-enforcement and drug communities said they were surprised by the findings. No one seemed certain how to explain them, but all agreed that the statistics -- particularly the severe drop in drug sentences -- are worth closer scrutiny and could mark a potentially significant trend with broad implications for anti-narcotics enforcement.

TRAC, a nonprofit research organization, has been a thorn in the government's side in recent years, suing repeatedly -- and successfully -- under the Freedom of Information Act for access to data that the government had refused to divulge.

DEA spokesman Terry Parham said, "We are reviewing the study itself and we are working with TRAC, because we found some discrepancies in their numbers."

While federal authorities have disputed TRAC's methodology in past studies, the group's findings have drawn attention.

`Mixed message'

The White House drug czar's office will be studying the report's "mixed message" to determine its implications, spokesman Bob Weiner said. But he added that the findings on shorter sentences, although surprising, may simply reflect the increased discretion that judges have been allowed in recent years in avoiding "mandatory minimum" sentences.

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