New Directions Conference Aims To Create New Approach To Drug Policy

June 17, 2010 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union is co-hosting a conference today that will bring together legal scholars, advocates, law enforcement and health experts in Washington, D.C. to discuss new approaches to the war on drugs. The New Directions Conference is aimed at finding better and more effective ways to deal with over-incarceration, drug treatment and prevention.

The ACLU is co-hosting the conference with amfAR, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, the Drug Policy Alliance, National Association of Social Workers, National Black Police Association and Physicians for Human Rights. ACLU Legislative Counsel Jennifer Bellamy will be moderating a panel on reducing crime and incarceration.

“Our jails are bursting at the seams with prisoners serving massive sentences for non-violent, first time offenses,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Our judges have their hands unfairly tied by mandatory minimum sentencing and are forced to give one-size-fits-all sentences to individuals regardless of circumstance. It’s tragically clear that we need a new and effective drug policy that protects our citizens’ constitutional rights from overzealous, ineffective and misguided policy.”

Mandatory minimums are enacted by Congress and place limits on the power of federal judges to reduce sentences below the levels set by Congress. The ACLU has long believed that mandatory minimums should be abolished or reformed because they generate unnecessarily harsh sentences, create racial disparities in sentencing and empower prosecutors to force defendants to bargain away their constitutional rights.

Currently, Congress is poised to revise a specific mandatory minimum tied to crack cocaine offenses. The law, which penalizes five grams of crack as harshly as 500 grams of cocaine, has been denounced by the ACLU, congressional leaders and the Obama administration as racially unfair. The Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the 100:1 crack-powder ratio to 18:1, has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. While the bill will still leave an unbalanced sentencing structure in place, it will eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession.

“Congress, for the first time, is on the verge of making a huge and necessary step by modifying a mandatory minimum statute. Federal mandatory minimums have had significant ripple effects for many Americans who have been caught in an unfair and broken justice system with little or no recourse,” said Bellamy. “While the Fair Sentencing Act is not perfect because it doesn’t completely eliminate the unjust crack cocaine sentencing disparity, it is as close as we’ve ever been to striking down a mandatory minimum in an important area, and Congress should not miss this opportunity. It’s time for House to take decisive action against mandatory minimums by passing the Fair Sentencing Act.”

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