Drug War Briefs: Moral Blindness

This week, the American Bar Association releases a report calling for an end to unfair justice system practices; China executes 18 to mark International Day Against Drug Abuse; and the US Justice Department releases a report showing that America's prison population tops the world.
June 24- Dallas Morning News reports: Many get-tough approaches to crime don't work and some, such as mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug offenders, are unfair and should be abolished, a report from the American Bar Association said Wednesday.

Laws requiring mandatory minimum prison terms leave little room to consider differences among crimes and criminals, an ABA commission found in its study of problems in the criminal justice system. More people are behind bars for longer terms, but it is unclear whether the country is safer as a result, the ABA said.

The report and recommendations for changes in sentencing, prison conditions, and programs for released prisoners follow criticism of the criminal justice system last year from Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Justice Kennedy asked the nation's largest lawyers' group to look at what he called unfair and even immoral practices throughout the criminal justice system, and he appeared alongside the group's president Wednesday to accept the first copy of the resulting study.

"The political phrase 'tough on crime' should not lead us into moral blindness," Justice Kennedy said.

Citing his role as a judge, Justice Kennedy did not specifically endorse the report's recommendations, although he has previously denounced mandatory minimum sentences and called for revision of federal sentencing guidelines.

In his speech to the ABA last year, Justice Kennedy said existing guidelines give prosecutors too much power and judges too little discretion.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the federal guidelines in 1989, but on Monday a federal judge in Boston seemed to echo Justice Kennedy in ruling that the guidelines are unconstitutional because they weight the system toward prosecutors.

"The focus of our entire criminal justice system has shifted away from trials and juries and adjudication to a massive system of sentence bargaining that is heavily rigged against the accused citizen," U.S. District Judge William G. Young wrote.

The ABA will vote in August on whether to adopt the recommendations as official positions of the organization. The ABA's policies are not law but are influential.

June 27- The People's Journal of the Philippines reports: Some 17 drug traffickers were executed Saturday in China's southwestern Chongqing and eastern Shanghai municipalities to mark International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, state media reported. The Chongqing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court sentenced 16 criminals to death on charges of drug trafficking in a public trial Saturday, Xinhua news agency said.

China executed at least 18 people Friday, 12 of them for drug trafficking and six for murder, Xinhua reported.

China annually executes more people than the rest of the world combined but maintains the number it puts to death as a closely held state secret.

Earlier this year a delegate to the National People's Congress, China's parliament, estimated that up to 10,000 criminals were executed every year.

Pressure groups including the New York-based Human Rights, say up to 15,000 people are executed in China every year.

May 28- Boston Globe reports: America's inmate population grew by 2.9 percent last year, to almost 2.1 million people, with one of every 75 men living in prison or jail.

The inmate population continued its rise despite a fall in the crime rate and efforts by many states to reduce some sentences, especially for low-level drug offenders.

The report issued yesterday by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics attributes much of the increase to get-tough policies enacted during the 1980s and '90s, such as mandatory drug sentences, "three strikes and you're out" laws for repeat offenders, and "truth in sentencing" laws that restrict early releases.

There were 715 inmates for every 100,000 US residents at midyear in 2003, up from 703 a year earlier, the report found.

The nation's incarceration rate tops the world, according to The Sentencing Project, another group that promotes alternatives to prison. That compares with a rate of 169 per 100,000 residents in Mexico, 116 in Canada, and 143 for England and Wales.

Russia's prison population, which once rivaled the one in the United States, has dropped to 584 per 100,000 because of prisoner amnesties in recent years, the group said.
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