Editorial: The Moral Choice is Clear 9/24/04

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 9/24/04

David Borden
Earlier this week, religious leaders from a range of denominations called for Congress to reject a senseless new mandatory minimum sentencing bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, and instead pass a wiser bill by Rep. Maxine Waters to repeal them. The issue was not a mere matter of opinion for the participants. As event organizer Charles Thomas of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative pointed out, "No denominations are known to support mandatory minimum sentencing. Can you think of any other issue on which the moral choice is so clear?" Incarcerating human beings for decades, for the reasons done in the drug war, is not moral.

A few years ago I had an editorial published in some Jewish newspapers that critiqued the drug war based on principles of justice as expounded in the Judaic tradition. One need not look far into the texts to find radical differences between the legal framework called for in a thoughtful work of moral philosophy and the reprehensible machine of repression and injustice we have created in America.

First, the tradition calls for a rehabilitative approach to matters of criminal offending. The transgressor who has done injury is taken into a family's home, to provide work in compensation to the victims but also to receive the family's help in learning to become a more responsible member of society. If by the end of the seventh year there are any unpaid debts, those debts are cleared and the individual is released from service.

The tradition calls for testimony used in determining guilt to be very carefully vetted for reliability. No party with an interest in a case may testify, nor may any whose past conduct has been less than upright. Contrast with the drug war, in which real or accused criminal offenders -- the unreliable people whose testimony the Judaic tradition proscribes -- are coerced into testifying against others through threat of harsher prosecution; or offered shorter prison terms or no prison terms -- the priceless commodity of freedom -- in exchange for testimony to help prosecutors garner convictions; or in which informants, often from the criminal set themselves, are paid for such testimony.

The writings lay out highly nuanced differences in sentencing, pointing to an extremely thoughtful and deliberate way of weighing culpability levels, striving in no case to over-punish. Contrast this with the origins of today's mandatory minimum sentences, which were anything but thoughtful. Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, who served as a counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in 1986 when those laws were passed, has discussed how members of Congress rushed into a bidding war, competing with each other to be the toughest on drug offenders following the widely publicized cocaine overdose death of Boston Celtics recruit Len Bias. Congress did not even hold hearings before radically transforming federal sentencing, Sterling recounts.

And because the guiding principle is one of compensation more than of punishment, drug prohibition seems to conflict with that in principle. Who is to be compensated by an individual who chose to use drugs but who committed no adverse actions against others in the process? Who is to be held responsible for damages for a private drug transaction that took place between willing partners? And because the guiding principle is one of rehabilitation more than punishment, drug prohibition itself seems to conflict with that in practice. Prohibition does the reverse of rehabilitation, literally tempting people into lives of crime who might otherwise have never gone such a route, by creating large, widely available profits for engaging in an activity that many consider acceptable.

Lest the foregoing discussion cast too intellectual a sheen on the issue, remember -- always -- there are half a million nonviolent drug offenders languishing in our nation's prisons and jails. Each day going by in this way is an injustice; each mandatory minimum sentence meted out to them is an abomination. The moral choice is clear.

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Issue #355, 9/24/04 Editorial: The Moral Choice is Clear | With New Sentencing Legislation Pending in Congress, Church Leaders Urge an End to Mandatory Minimums | Patients, Doctors, Supporters Head to Washington to Demand Rescheduling of Marijuana as a Medicine | For Second Year, John W. Perry Fund Helps Students with Drug Convictions Afford College | DRCNet Interview: Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate | DRCNet Book Review: "Patients in The Crossfire: Casualties in The War On Medical Marijuana," by Americans For Safe Access | Action Alert: Still Time to Contact Judiciary Committee Members About HEA Drug Provision | Newsbrief: Schwarzenegger Signs Syringe Access Bill, Vetoes NEP Bill | Newsbrief: Schwarzenegger Vetoes Bill Barring High School Drug Testing | Newsbrief: New Jersey Needle Exchange Bill on Fast Track, Passes First Hurdle | Newsbrief: Former Child Actor Macauley Culkin Busted for Drugs in All-Too-Typical Cave-In to Police Search Request | Newsbrief: Montel Williams Show Brings Medical Marijuana Issue to the Masses | Newsbrief: Bush Warns of Canada Drug Threat, Whistles Past Afghan Opium Fields | Newsbrief: Guatemala Seeks More Anti-Drug Money from United States | Newsbrief: Decades of Colombian Drug War Brings... New, More Efficient Drug Organizations | Newsbrief: Narc Hates Free Publicity | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: British Drug Policy Think Tank Says Government Abandoned Planned Heroin Maintenance Expansion | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar
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