A Proposal for Improvement

webeagleThere is a growing movement for sentencing reform, specifically the need for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Three bishops, representing a religious coalition, wrote an op-ed in the Des Moines Register directed at Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the chair of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The bishops wrote: “We recognize no simple solutions exists when it comes to protecting liberty and safety, and crime demands accountability. However, a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ philosophy actually undermines both of these values.”

Senator Grassley responded: “One of the best ways to reduce the number of victims is to take down the kingpins who profit from this dangerous and corrosive industry.”   This comment generated ire from concerned citizens, accusing Grassley of being out of touch with the poor, everyday drug user who’s being unjustly punished under the current sentencing system.

But Grassley also raised hope, demonstrating awareness for some of the problems with the current system when he stated:

I’m willing to look at proposals to improve our nation’s criminal justice policies, including reforms that help ensure that indigents are adequately defended. The Sixth amendment calls for any indigent defendant who is charged with misdemeanors and faces a possible jail sentence to have legal representation. Some states and localities regularly fail to comply with this requirement. As a result, potentially innocent individuals plead guilty to crimes. They also then accrue a criminal record that causes them adverse consequences including difficulty finding a job and a greater criminal history that would be considered in any future sentencing determination. (Our emphasis.)

Although these are important issues, especially acknowledging the possibility that innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, what is missing from the conversation is making policy changes to aid recovery from addiction. Currently, key supply side tactics—policies for taking down drug dealers are undermining recovery from addiction.

For example, Grassley genuinely believes that: “Mandatory minimum sentences are used to target serious drug traffickers and dismantle organized drug operations by encouraging offenders to give up their bosses to avoid longer prison terms. The assistance they provide is instrumental in helping law enforcement to take down leaders of drug ringers.”

Unfortunately, this long established approach seriously damages an addict’s ability to recover from addiction and should be changed if the true goal is to get people off of illegal drugs. Long term recovery is based in honesty, honor and integrity.   When an addict harms other people, especially for personal gain, the road to recovery is at best bumpy and more realistically unobtainable.

Prosecutors focus on convictions and may very well be able to live with “the ends-justifies-the-means” value system, but an addict does not have that luxury. In order to successfully enter and remain in recovery, an addict needs to hold himself accountable for his actions, not harm someone else to gain a lighter sentence.

Taking down a drug kingpin may momentarily feel powerful, but in the long run it is simply an exercise in futility. There is always a new drug dealer eagerly waiting to take over the territory. The illegal drug trade is highly profitable, so the best approach is to take away the profit margin—minimize the demand for illegal drugs.

Grassley pointed out the obstacles for locating a job when carrying a criminal record. A more serious consequence is eliminating access to the very situations needed for recovery, simply because an addict has fallen victim to the crime of addiction.

Like the bishops, I too will “pray for the thousands of Iowans still behind bars, their families and the many thousands more who will be subject to extreme sentencing policies in years to come if lawmakers choose not to act.” But I will also pray for changing policies so that these poor souls will have a chance for long term recovery.

This article was written by Stephanie Fawkes-Lee, who made improving prevention programs for the drug and alcohol problem the focus of her graduate and undergraduate degrees and now lobbies for the Justice Reform Consortium and its mission to lobby against enhanced penalties, including eliminating mandatory minimums. The view or opinion presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Justice Reform Consortium.


And More

It was strange that Senator Grassley would mention in his Des Moines Register essay earlier this month in response to a coalition of bishops that the “Sixth amendment calls for any indigent defendant who is charged with misdemeanors and faces a possible jail sentence to have legal representation.” An April 3 Iowa Supreme Court decision held that “under article I, section 10 of the Iowa Constitution, an accused in a misdemeanor criminal prosecution who faces the possibility of imprisonment under the applicable criminal statute has a right to counsel.”

Another Des Moines Register editorial on Monday, May 18, gave Senator Grassley credit “for focusing national attention on an issue that affects the vast majority of people caught up in the criminal-justice system,” court-appointed legal counsel. We agree that defendants who face time behind bars should be provided with the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel. However, one thing most people don’t realize is that this service is not free.

If a defendant is found guilty of committing a simple misdemeanor, and has been provided with a court-appointed attorney, the defendant is subject to restitution. Restitution will include: “Fines, penalties, and surcharges, crime victim compensation program reimbursement, public agency restitution, court costs including correctional fees claimed by a sheriff or municipality, and court-appointed attorney fees, including the expenses for public defenders.” (Citations omitted.)(Emphasis ours.)

The Register brings about the fact that “the promise of legal representation is too often not fulfilled because of a lack of state and local resources to pay for experienced lawyers.” Why should a defendant ask for court-appointed counsel if the defendant may see the attorney only once in their life – for about 15 minutes prior to standing before the judge? The client never gets to choose the amount of time the attorney spends with them when the lawyer is court-appointed.   It’s an additional amount of money to pay for justice that most defendants don’t have. If not paid, misdemeanants will likely get caught up in the system as a “frequent flier”, a derogatory name given to people who seem to be trapped in a revolving door at the courthouse.

In another May essay, R. Ben Stone writes about the people mentioned above. Once you’re in the criminal justice system there are very few exits. The first thing they take from you is your bootstraps.

It’s more than Sixth Amendment rights to court-appointed counsel, but it’s a start. Treating addiction as a crime, making defendants pay for court-appointed attorneys (even when charges have been dismissed or the person is found not guilty), charging cell rates that cost more than the nearest Holiday Inn Express, and lackadaisical accounting of restitution are all dysfunctional elements of the system we call criminal “justice”. It’s here in Iowa, but it’s spread throughout the nation. The entire criminal justice structure is out of whack.

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One Response to A Proposal for Improvement

  1. Jean Basinger says:

    This is a great piece and gets to the heart of the problem. Our whole system is out of whack. We are spending an unbelieble amount of money to lock people because they are addicted to alcohol and other drugs and/or have a mental illness and less and less on good comprehensive treatment. We encourage people to become snitches which allows the people at the top a way to get off with light sentences.

    It is good that more and more people are talking about the “crime” of mass incarceration, but will they (we) do more than talk and actually put the “War on Drugs” to rest and replace it with focus on the underlying needs of individuals and families in our society who are so desperate for help.

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