A country of many prisoners

March 01, 2001|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Here's a not-so-trivial trivia question for you: Under which president did the most Americans go to prison for serious crimes: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or the first George Bush?

Here's a hint: He likes to give out lots of pardons.

Yes, a study released last week by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found that Bill "You Beg My Pardon" Clinton wins this dubious distinction.

Some 673,000 inmates were added to state and federal prisons and jails under Mr. Clinton's two terms, the institute found, compared to 343,000 during Mr. Bush's term and 448,000 during Mr. Reagan's two terms. Love him or hate him, you can't call Mr. Clinton soft on crime.

Mr. Clinton has not boasted about this occurrence as much as he has bragged about the economic boom. I guess he's had other things on his mind.

Of course, in fairness to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush did exceptionally well in this dubious contest for a fellow who served only one term. According to my calculations, an average of 85,750 went to jail per year under Mr. Bush, compared to 84,125 under Mr. Clinton and 56,000 under Mr. Reagan.

Mr. Bush's per-year lead was appropriate considering the big deal he made during his 1988 campaign of how much tougher on crime he would be than would Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Neutralizing the crime issue was crucial for Arkansas Gov. Clinton in 1992, when he made no secret of his support for the death penalty and his willingness to use it.

So, no, I was not shocked to see Mr. Clinton presided over record jailings. He knows how to play hardball politics on the crime issue, among many others.

The only question I had while reading the latest report was this: Do all of these inmates who now make our prisons bulge really belong in prison?

For an answer, I called JPI President Vincent Schiraldi. "It's hard to say," he said, "But the numbers of people in prison for nonviolent offenses, particularly drug crimes, are a good place to start looking."

A lot of those nonviolent drug offenders are not big-time dealers. They're small-time addicts who should be treated as patients, not prison inmates.

Take, for example, the sad decline and fall of Willie Aikens.

Willie Mays Aikens was a rising star for the Kansas City Royals. During the 1980 World Series, he became the first player ever to have two multiple home-run games in the same World Series.

But cocaine ended his career in the 1980s, and, in 1994, he was arrested for selling crack to a federal undercover agent in a highly publicized case that strikes many as entrapment.

In a case strikingly similar to the bust of former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry, but without the videotape, Aikens was lured into selling the drug by a female agent whom Mr. Aikens unsuccessfully asked out.

According to news coverage of the trial, she encouraged Aikens to cook powder cocaine, turning it into crack.

That's important because, under federal sentencing guidelines, one gram of crack is punished as if it were the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine.

Had Aikens been sentenced for selling powder cocaine, he most likely would be free by now. For selling crack, he was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, no parole. With time off for good behavior, he could be released after serving 17 years.

As Mr. Clinton was leaving office he said in a New York Times op-ed piece that the nation should "immediately reduce the disparity between crack and powder-cocaine sentences" and re-examine its federal sentencing policies, "particularly mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders."

Sports commentator Frank Deford of National Public Radio says Aikens hoped to receive a commutation from Mr. Clinton. His hopes were not answered. Judging from the unfolding controversies over those whom Mr. Clinton did pardon, maybe Aikens just didn't know the right people.

The current President Bush has expressed an interest in ending mandatory sentencing and ending the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. He also wants to spend more money on drug treatment, including faith-based programs, as an alternative to prison for the addicted.

I hope he follows through. Mr. Bush can't do much about the folks Mr. Clinton has pardoned. But he can still do a lot for those Mr. Clinton left behind.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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