When our country's leaders declare war, we expect that they do it for our good and for the good of our nation - not simply to provide themselves with personal political advantage. We expect they will conduct the war with clear objectives in mind - and that they will pursue those objectives effectively and with integrity.
Disastrously, our nation's so-called war on drugs has violated all of those principles. To make matters worse, this war on drugs has destroyed the families and lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Many politicians excuse their earlier use of drugs as being "youthful indiscretions" - yet thousands of individual lives and families have been destroyed for making similar mistakes, and getting caught.
Many young people have engaged in stupid, illegal behaviors, including the use and sale of drugs, but, by any measure under a system founded on principles of justice, their conduct cannot merit prison sentences of 10 years, 15 years, and sometimes longer.
I have come to know the parents of Cory Stringfellow well over the past several years. They love Cory deeply. Their entire family has been devastated because of Cory's federal incarceration under inflexible so-called "guidelines." Because of Cory's involvement with drugs during his teen years and early 20s, and because he panicked and fled just before his sentencing, he was sentenced to 188 months - more than 15 ½ years - to a federal penitentiary.
Cory has much to offer. He has completed a drug program, obtained his Masters in Business Administration, and has read hundreds of books while in prison. He acknowledges his mistakes and is terribly remorseful for what he did more than seven years ago. Yet, after serving more than 5 ½ years in prison, he is facing another ten years behind bars - a horrendous waste in terms of a person's life, his potential, his family, and taxpayers' dollars.
In the end, who is the most heartless, the least moral, and the cruelest - the person who became involved with drugs as a young man or woman, or the politicians who so unnecessarily cause the destruction of lives and families for no reason other than to maintain their political standing as being "tough on crime?"
We must insist that those who formulate public policy reject the phony, ineffective, feel-good elements of the war on drugs - elements such as outrageous minimum mandatory and guideline sentencing. To truly lead in this area means to reject the politically convenient, yet ineffective, measures upon which this country has relied for far too long, and to implement the best, most effective measures to significantly reduce the terrible effects of dangerous drug abuse and addiction.
Certainly, there is good reason to take aggressive, effective action to reduce dangerous drug abuse and addiction. Heroin, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine are all addictive, toxic substances, which can lead to horrendously destructive behaviors, as well as death by overdose. In Salt Lake County, drug overdose is the number one killer of males aged 15-39.
Ironically, those tough-on-crime politicians and posturing administrators who advocate ineffective, politically opportunistic measures to combat drug abuse and addiction are not part of the solution; rather, they are part of the growing problem.
Their futile approach to the drug problem has increased the tax burden on the American people; it has destroyed families, disproportionately African-American and Hispanic; it has ripped apart the lives of hundreds of thousands of our citizens; and it has filled our jails and prisons to the point that the United States competes with Russia for the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. The "war on drugs," as it has been carried out, has not been a war against drugs. It has been a war against the people of this nation - and against our fundamental freedoms.
In 1980, the number of Americans in prison for drug offenses was 41,000; today that number has increased more than tenfold, to 458,000. When mandatory sentencing laws were passed in 1986, drug defendants comprised 38% of the federal prison population; today they comprise almost 60%.
We must stop this insanity.
We must stop this inhumanity.
President Clinton, during these last hours of your eight-year term - a presidency that has been marked by many great successes of tremendous benefit to the people of this country - please take a stand against the waste and injustice of our destructive sentencing laws. And please take a stand in favor of a better approach, an approach that humanely and effectively addresses the demand side - the people who get involved with drugs and their families. That approach requires that we commit our resources to prevention programs that really work, to good public health education, and to treatment programs for those who have substance abuse problems and are seeking help. You, President Clinton, can start the process of change by granting the commutation petitions of those who have been sentenced for unconscionably long terms for non-violent drug offenses. Please return Cory Stringfellow to his family. Five and one-half years is long enough for Cory to have spent in prison for his foolishness as a young man. For him to serve another ten years would be wasteful, cruel and incredibly unjust.
We have spent billions of dollars perpetuating pain and destroying families through a "war;" now it is time to make the same investment in healing. The healing can start by forgiveness and commutation - and by alerting the citizens of this country and their political leaders of the compelling need for reform.