A Temporary Aberration?

The punitive element of the War on Drugs at home has led to record rates of incarceration.  Of the world’s entire prison population, twenty five percent are now in the US.  More than half the inmates are there on drug-related charges, and of these the majority were arrested for simple possession.

On this note, here is an excerpt from a speech given in 1993 by Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Brooklyn, New York, at the Cardozo School of Law, in Manhattan:

“The sentencing guidelines which Congress requires judges to follow result, in the main, in the cruel imposition of excessive sentences, over-filling our jails and causing unnecessary havoc to families, society, and prisons. Most judges today take it for granted, as I do, that the applicable guideline for the defendant before them will represent an excessive sentence. Drug cases, particularly those involving low-level smugglers or “mules” who are poverty-stricken, present a special problem, because the sentences mandated are so overwhelming.  I am now so depressed by the drug situation that this week I sent a memorandum to all the judges and magistrate judges in my district stating:

One day last week I had to sentence a peasant woman from West Africa to forty-six months in a drug case. The result for her young children will undoubtedly be, as she suggested, devastating. On the same day I sentenced a man to thirty years as a second drug offender – a heavy sentence mandated by the Guidelines and statute. These two cases confirm my sense of frustration about much of the cruelty I have been party to in connection with the “war on drugs” that is being fought by the military, police, and courts rather than by our medical and social institutions.  I myself am unsure how this drug problem should be handled, but I need a rest from the oppressive sense of futility that these drug cases leave. Accordingly, I have taken my name out of the wheel for drug cases. This resolution leaves me uncomfortable since it shifts the “dirty work” to other judges.  At the moment, however, I simply cannot sentence another impoverished person whose destruction can have no discernible effect on the drug trade. I wish I were in a position to propose some solution but I am not. I’m just a tired old judge who has temporarily filled his quota of remorselessness. 

Until we can address and deal with the rotten aspects of our society that lead to drug dependence, we will not deal effectively with the drug problem.  I believe that in the future we will look back on this horrendous period of overpunishment as a temporary American aberration. Apart from everything else, the expense of this foolishness is too great for the taxpayers to bear.”