Guest Column: Sentencing laws too harsh for nonviolent offenses

On Friday, Feb. 13, 2004, a minimum of 50 people’s lives changed. Those changes affected every taxpayer in America, especially those in Rockford, Ill.

Those lives were changed by the War on Drugs. At least eight people were arrested and charged with conspiracy to sell cocaine or a cocaine base. Six of those eight have pled guilty. At least three of those eight are expected to receive a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Those eight people were a mother and fathers. They were also people’s children. They may have been involved in some illegal activities, doing things they shouldn’t have. Yet those actions shouldn’t result in 20 years to life in prison. There are people who take the lives of others and rape children, who receive lesser sentences. Non-violent offenders received a harsher sentence than violent offenders. What sense does that make? What is that teaching society and the children of the future?

They may have been involved in wrongdoing, but how many people haven’t done something that they shouldn’t have? What if someone told you that because of something you’ve done, we are going to take your life? Do these people need to be punished? Yes, but not a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

It is also unfortunate that those people are African Americans and Hispanics. Are you aware that Illinois is one of the harsher-sentencing states in the nation? Are you aware that it is a proven fact that racial disparity in sentencing has been going on since the mid-’80s when minimum mandatory sentencing was created? Eric Sterling, counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, who was on the subcommittee for minimum mandatory sentencing, has been outraged in the use of it. He stated that it isn’t being used for its set purpose, that it is tearing families apart and taking children away from their parents.

This is a nationwide fight. The lack of knowledge in this area is one of the reasons change hasn’t begun in this area. It will not begin until people in all races come together, contact local officials, and start saying we are tired of minimum mandatory sentencing. We need to ask elected officials what we can do as a community to provide education, job training and drug rehabilitation, to help win this war on drugs in our community. As it stands now, not only are these people lost, but their children are, too. We call for the Ministers Fellowship and all elected officials to step up and get involved. The Jan. 12, 2005, Supreme Court ruling on Booker and Fanfan made the minimum mandatory sentencing advisory. It gives federal judges the power to sentence according to rehabilitation, the crime itself and other factors. If a killer or a child molester can be rehabilitated, why can’t these people? It would start saving the taxpayers’ dollars.

To find out more about the fight against minimum mandatory sentencing, log on to Famm stands for families against minimum mandatory sentencing. Also Both of these are not-for-profit agencies fighting issues with minimum mandatory sentencing. Fedcure also is working on a bill that will be reintroduced to the 109th Congress, asking for releases of non-violent offenders who have served half of their time or are at least 45 years old. It is a lot more to the bill, so I advise as many people as possible to log on and get involved.

With President Bush’s 2006 budget, the funds for the new federal prison project were denied. He stated that incarceration was not working for the war on drugs. Instead, he tripled the funds for drug rehabilitation.

Toni Thomas is a local resident. Eric Sterling, referenced in the article, is currently the president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C., and co-chairman for the U.S. Bar Association.

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From the April 6-12, 2005, issue

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