The War on Drugs is a complete failure.
No, it’s worse than that. In their zeal to win the War on Drugs, lawmakers have implemented sentencing requirements that have resulted in egregious penalties for non-violent offenses. For example, Darion Barker was a crack head petty criminal who stole to feed his habit. But, he was also a repeat offender. When he was busted with a bag of crack rocks, his already pitiful world came crashing down around him:
“I never stooped so low to steal from my family. My mentality was if I can’t do you no good, I won’t do you no harm. I won’t come around to have that kind of temptation.”
But police found him, again and again. Over a five-year span, Barker was convicted of theft by receiving stolen property, marijuana possession with the intent to distribute, cocaine possession and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute.
That last of those convictions, in 1994, put Barker behind bars for just over a year. Ominously, it meant his next conviction for drug dealing made him eligible for a life sentence. And because he had the prior convictions, it meant he could get a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
On Oct. 13, 1995, a Macon police cruiser turned into a cul-de-sac known for drug activity. Two officers saw Barker toss a brown paper bag the moment he spotted their car.
Barker was quickly apprehended. Because the bag contained 34 rocks of crack cocaine, he was indicted for possession with the intent to distribute.
The life-without-parole sentence was now a real possibility. Yet Barker took his chances at trial and was convicted.
He wasn’t a rapist. He wasn’t a murderer. He was an addict.
But he was sentenced to life without parole, meaning he sat in jail and watched people with body counts come and go.
Nothing about that is right. But Georgia is working to correct it. Recent reforms landed Barker on a short list, and eventually, landed him in a chair at his mom’s house, a free man:
This year, after House Bill 328 passed, Barker read through it and saw provisions affecting nonviolent drug offenders like himself – people with no hope of ever getting out. Even so, he refused to believe it applied to him.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, OK, OK, I’ve read this before,’” he said.
Little did Barker know that pardons and paroles officials had already identified him as being eligible under that very bill. Not only that, he was first in line for early release.
On the first day the law took effect, Patrick Price, the parole board’s strategic planning coordinator, called Barker’s 73-year-old mother, Ella Jackson, to tell her the news. The board had just voted to grant Barker parole, Price said.
After Jackson repeatedly screamed “Praise Jesus!” and danced and sang and cried, Price told her Darion would be coming home soon.
When Barker made a routine call to his mother on July 4, she told him the incredible news.
Barker didn’t believe her.
But it was true and Barker is now free.
More reforms like this are needed, as the War on Drugs has claimed a lot of victims like Barker. People like Jeff Mizansky, who was until recently, the only person in the Missouri prison system serving life without parole. His crime?
Last year’s overhaul of the state’s criminal code removed that option. Gov. Jay Nixon commuted Mizanskey’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole in May, and a parole board granted him parole earlier this month.
He’s scheduled to get out September 1.
Criminal court reform is a hot issue. Not only is President Obama discussing it, but several of the Republican candidates for President want action on it:
Staunchly conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for an end to “overcriminalization, harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and the demise of jury trials,” while proposing several specific reforms. Notably, Cruz urged Congress to put more thought into laws and for the elimination redundant statutes that can punish offenders multiple times for the same crime.
Cruz also called for the “current draconian mandatory minimum sentences” to be reevaluated to ensure people are not sentenced to severe prison terms for crimes that don’t deserve them.
Sounds familiar. The Business Insider article also mentions reforms called for by Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul, who both call for sentencing reforms. Gov. Chris Christie called for “drug treatment programs to replace incarceration when possible.”
More and more, the injustice of the justice system is being realized and reforms are put in place to correct it. It’s an issue where partisan politics takes a back seat to doing what is clearly right and people on the same page come together to make a difference.