Cruel and Usual : "Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders," A Human Rights Watch Report, March 1997, looks at some of the most punitive drug legislation in the United States. A first offender caught carrying 4 - or selling 2 - ounces of controlled substance in New York State automatically receives a minimum sentence of 15 years to life. Possession of 2 ounces by a first offender carries a minimum of 3 to 8 1/3 years - but 6 to 12? years for a second offender. That the sentences are mandatory means that all discretion is transferred from judge to prosecutor: If found guilty the offender's sentence is automatic. Each year, 30,000 people are indicted in New York on drug charges and 10,000 go to prison. Of these, approximately 9,000 are Blacks or Latinos.
Drug felonies are classified according to the weight of the drug involved. This means simply that the drug syndicate kingpins learned early - the New York laws were enacted in 1973 - never to carry drugs on their persons. Thus it is only the easily replaced street-level carrier or seller who spends years behind bars and the harsh sentencing policies have clearly failed of their purpose since drug trafficking continues apace.
The report concludes that current law, based on weight and prior conviction, inevitably results in disproportionate sentencing, and warns that, in today's atmosphere of "get tough on crime," both public officials and the public in general have become callous to how much hardship incarceration is: The prisoner is deprived of family and community, subjected to overcrowding in conditions where health and safety are under constant threat. Prisoners' families, in turn, often lose both financial and emotional stability. Such punishment should not be meted out lightly. HRW advises reform of the law to permit consideration of factors other than weight and prior conviction, and to allow judiciary discretion in sentencing.
Copies of this report are available for $6 from the Publications Department Human Rights Watch , 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10017-6104.
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