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Prison not a place for pot smokers

By Hempology | November 13, 2007

Michigan Citizen, MI
11 Nov 2007
David Salisbury


LANSING – Drug abuse can lead to criminal activity, but are the state’s current drug laws too uncompromising?

Many convicted drug violators are non-violent, but they are lumped in with other criminals who harm people, critics of the present sentencing rules say.

But Rep.  Paul Condino, D-Southfield, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, wants to revamp the punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Condino is working on legislation to divert marijuana offenders from prison into drug courts and programs where rehabilitation and court-mandated screenings attempt to treat drug users.

“These aren’t people who are murderers or rapists,” he said.  “These are non-violent people who need treatment.”

Patricia Caruso, director of the Department of Corrections, said that prison sentences for drug violations are “extremely lengthy” in Michigan compared to other states.

For example, a person convicted of dealing or possessing more than 1.75 ounces of cocaine faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Michigan houses 50,000 convicts, among whom many were found guilty of drug-related charges.

Caruso told of one woman given a long sentence for possessing a relatively small amount of cocaine.

“It will be 25 years before she’s eligible for parole,” Caruso said.

That’s longer than second-degree criminal sexual conduct, which has a 15-year maximum, or negligent homicide, with a two-year maximum.

Caruso said about 75 percent of inmates have had a substance abuse problem like the woman who received the lengthy prison term.

“It’s people in cases such as these that need to be given rehabilitation rather than taking up valuable space in our overcrowded jails,” she said.

Michigan has the sixth-largest prison population in the U.S.  The corrections department receives 25 percent of the state’s annual budget-approximately $2 billion a year.

Although Michigan ranks 30 among states in crime rates, it has the ninth-highest incarceration rate.  Drug sentences are a significant part of the reason, Caruso said.

Victor Fitz, prosecuting attorney for Cass County, estimates that 80 percent of the cases he sees a year have some drug aspect.

“Often it’s some guy on drugs or trying to get drugs that commits a crime under the influence,” said the 25-year prosecuting veteran.  The main substance abuse problems in his county include meth amphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.

Rarely do people charged with drug possession go to jail, he said.  “We go after the dealers.”

Delivery of marijuana carries a four-year maximum.  Delivery of hallucinogenics and other controlled substances carries a seven-year maximum.

Fitz said that unless a person convicted of drug possession has a lengthy criminal record, he or she is usually doesn’t receive prison time.

“We save prison for the most violent offenders.”

But “delivery” charges can include providing marijuana to a friend at a party, or a person caught driving with drugs.

Caruso said that although some lawmakers favor less severe drug laws geared more toward rehabilitation, few do so publicly because they don’t want to appear “soft on crime.”

“Often a law is enacted in a knee-jerk reaction to one, extraordinary thing,” she said.  “And once a standard is established, it’s hard to change it to anything else.”

Caruso said a cocaine epidemic in the 1980s led to stricter drug laws.  Most of the laws have remained in effect.

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