Playboy Magazine, December, 1997
Time Out for Justice
Why talking about drugs is worse than murder
By JAMES BOVARD
Politicians in Washington are demanding a new crackdown on-and harsher penalties for-cocaine users, among other narcotics violators. Yet before the nation embarks on drug war number 327, we should stop and examine what our political ruling class has already achieved. The files of the November Coalition, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and various media accounts are filled with horror stories. It is worthwhile to compare sentences that are given to drug offenders with those received by murderers, rapists, child molesters, armed robbers and other victims of difficult childhoods.
Jose Tapia, along with a friend, carried out "the largest mass murder in Rhode Island history," according to Providence prosecutors in 1996. Tapia and his buddy intentionally set fire to the home of a family of Guatemalan immigrants. Six people (including four children) died in the flames. (Typically, the criminals were both evil and stupid: Tapia and his friend were trying to torch someone else's home but got confused.) Tapia received a sentence that will make him eligible for parole in 21 years. By contrast, Kyle Lindquist, a 36-year-old excavating contractor and father of three, was busted in 1992 on conspiracy charges of intent to possess and distribute 1000 kilos or more of marijuana. Lindquist got a sentence of 23 years with no possibility of parole. Apparently, conspiring to hustle some weed is worse than burning down a house full of children.
Rodney Kelley murdered two brothers in 1991 near a New Orleans freeway overpass, shooting each in the head and robbing the corpses. The police caught Kelley but then prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to man slaughter, which meant an eight-year sentence-and eligibility for parole after only four years. By contrast, Will Foster, a 38-year-old software programmer and father of three, grew marijuana in his basement to treat his severe rheumatoid arthritis. Based on a bogus tip from a supposed "confidential informant" that Foster was selling methamphetamine, police raided his home. While no methamphetamine was found, police did find about 70 marijuana plants, many of which were seedlings. Because Foster was a first time offender, the judge let him off with a 93-year sentence.
William Edward Neusteter used a handgun to rob a 7-Eleven and several of its customers in Denver in 1995. District judge R. Michael Mullins sentenced Neusteter, the son of a prominent local businessman, to five years' probation. Similarly, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who went berserk and began shooting at kids who were spray-painting graffiti, and who engaged in a high-speed chase and then lied about the circumstances, was convicted of "assault with a firearm, gross negligent discharge of a firearm, shooting from a vehicle and filing a false report." Sheriff's Deputy Bobby Rodriguez could have faced 14 years in prison, but he received five years' probation. By contrast, Amy Marie Kacsor and many other luckless individuals have had five years added to their federal prison sentences merely because firearms were found in their homes by police searching for illicit substances. Kacsor, a 26-year-old Michigan resident, was busted for growing marijuana in her basement. The police searched her house and found two registered handguns owned by her mother, as well as two hunting rifles owned by Kacsor's boyfriend. Federal judge Stewart Newblatt denounced the additional sentencing as vicious.
In July 1995 Anthony Brown and his brother beat and raped a woman in Atlanta within days of Anthony's release from prison on armed robbery charges. Brown pleaded guilty to rape and received a one-year prison sentence. Under the state mandatory sentencing law, he should have received life in prison as a repeat violent offender, but prosecutors decided to be nice. His brother, who also pleaded guilty, was required to submit to five years of "intensive" probation. By contrast, Todd Davidson, a 27-year-old Deadhead, was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to possess LSD with intent to distribute. A friend with whom he shared a motel room sold some acid to federal agents. Davidson was caught in the same net, and he was found guilty partly on the basis of a remark made prior to the sale.
Daniel Green received a six-year sentence after using an ax to smash the skull of a 17-year-old boy and almost killing him (the victim was in a coma for three months and suffered permanent brain damage). North Carolina prison officials were beneficent and set Green free after he had served just a third of his sentence. Two months after he was paroled, Green and Larry Demery murdered Michael Jordan's father, James, and stole his Lexus. By contrast, Christopher Sia was initially sentenced to 24 years in federal prison after he was set up by an undercover federal agent. Sia's sentence was determined by a peculiar guideline that bases LSD penalties on the weight of the drug and its "carrier medium"-in this case blotter paper and a liquid solvent. Despite a modification in the sentencing guidelines, LSD offenders continue to receive disproportionately severe sentences.
Edwin "Fast Eddie" McBirney received a five-year sentence for fraudulent practices (such as using federally insured deposits to pay for sex parties) that wrecked his Texas savings and loan and cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $70 million. McBirney, served slightly more than half of his sentence. By contrast, Kelly Hackett, a 29-year old Ohio resident, got a five-year sentence after a "friend" (who turned out to be a government informant) brought an undercover agent to her house. They wanted to buy some crack. Hackett called an acquaintance, who sold them 5.4 grams of crack. Four months later, Hackett was arrested. Thousands of Americans are serving five years in federal prison (with no parole) after being apprehended in possession of less than two pennies' weight of crack- a mere five grams. Thanks to propagandists of the drug war, crack holds a special place on the political demonology honor roll of the late 20th century. First offenders who have never even been caught jaywalking automatically receive five years in prison, thereby making reelection campaigns safe for incumbent congressmen.
Elmer Tate of Warwick, Rhode Island admitted guilt in three separate child-molestation cases, in 1992, 1994 and 1996. Yet each time, local judges awarded him a suspended sentence. Apparently, the molesting of children may or may not deserve punishment, depending on the whims of judges and prosecutors. By contrast, the mere hearing of certain words is a hanging offense. Loren Pogue, a middle-aged real estate agent, got snared in 1990 because he agreed to help a friend sell a plot of Costa Rican land. Because the buyers-undercover agents- mentioned that they intended to use the mountainside as a landing strip for Colombian cocaine flights, Pogue was convicted of conspiracy to import, possess and distribute cocaine. Regardless of the absurdity of the scheme, the fact that the word cocaine was mentioned at the closing of the real estate deal earned Pogue 27 years.
The Reverend Richard Rossi Jr., pastor of the First Love Church in Pittsburgh, was charged with attempted murder after his wife identified him as the attacker who beat her nearly to death while they were house-hunting in a Pittsburgh suburb. In 1995 Rossi was permitted to plead no contest to second-degree aggravated assault and served 96 days in jail. Upon his release he announced he was writing two screenplays. By contrast, Donald Clark, a farmer in Manatee County, Florida, was caught with 900 marijuana plants by state offficials in the mid Eighties. After serving time in a Florida state prison, he assumed his debt to society was paid. But in 1988 federal prosecutors decided to pursue conspiracy charges against Clark. As the St. Petersburg Times noted, "Since he was charged under federal racketeering laws, he was considered responsible for every seedling ever grown in Manatee County during the Eighties. That added up to a million plants." He received life without the chance of parole.
The average murderer serves eight years in prison. According to Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, many people have been sentenced to ten years or longer merely for "conspiracy" via indiscreet discussions with federal informants-"dry cases," in which no illicit drugs are directly linked to the defendant. With our current moral-judicial system, talking about drugs disapproved of by politicians is a worse crime than killing citizens. In one five-year period beginning in 1986 the average prison sentence for drug offenses nearly tripled (from 27 months to 78 months). The number of people in federal and state prisons on drug charges has increased tenfold since 1980; since 1987, drug defendants have accounted for nearly three quarters of all new federal prisoners.
Under federal sentencing guide lines, a person is entitled to the same five-year prison ticket for possession of five grams of crack that he would receive for embezzling between $10 million and $20 million from a bank-or for using a threat of violence to extort between $2.5 million and $5 million from someone, or for kidnapping someone and seriously injuring the victim. Obviously, crack is terrible stuff.
Politicians seek to portray drug users and dealers as incurably heinous, yet they ignore the fact that three quarters of people sentenced to state prisons on drug charges have no history of criminal violence. Last year, the number of people sentenced to prison for drug crimes significantly exceeded the number of people sentenced for violent crimes. At a time when most big cities have a record number of unsolved murders on the books, more than 19,000 state and local law enforcement officials are assigned to the drug war on a full-time basis.
Florida State University economists Bruce Benson and David Rasmussen looked at the situation and concluded that cracking down on drugs unintentionally fosters theft, burglary and other property crimes because law enforcement resources are diverted. Their study notes that between 1982 and 1987, when Florida police focused on drug-law enforcement, drug arrests rose 90 percent, while total arrests rose only 32 percent. Property crimes escalated, with robbery rates rising 34 percent and auto thefts by 65 percent. As more resources are allocated to fight drug crime, the chance of arrest for property crime falls.
Politicians receive billions of dollars from citizens each year to fund the criminal justice system and provide police protection. But more than 5 million Americans were victims of violent crime last year. The only explanation for lawmakers' obsession with penalizing drug offenders while neglecting public safety is that they are far more anxious to control us than to protect us. As always, the lesson of political history is the same: Save us from our saviors.