Sunday, September 19, 2004
Attorney: Law after Bias' death caused prison swell
The law that has resulted in the swelling of the federal prison population over the last two decades was sponsored by Democrats eager to look tough on crime for political gain, said an attorney who advised lawmakers on the legislation.
Lawmakers were stunned at the overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias in June 1986, said Eric Sterling, who was then counsel to the House of Representatives' Committee on the Judiciary. Bias had just signed with the NBA champion Boston Celtics when he overdosed on cocaine.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, returned to Massachusetts that summer and talked to his constituents, Sterling said. When O'Neill returned to Congress in July, he was determined to pass some serious anti-drug legislation, Sterling said.
"The summer of 1986 was all about drugs," Sterling said.
Lawmakers competed for media attention on who could best put drug dealers away. It was also an election year, and the Democrats wanted to win back control of the Republican-controlled Senate, Sterling said.
"It was with a very deliberate partisan motivation that this whole thing got kicked off," Sterling said.
The committee came up with the drug quantities for specific drugs and penalties for trafficking in those drugs - including mandatory minimum sentences and the death or serious bodily injury provision - "on the fly," said Sterling, who is now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Maryland.
The committee held no hearings on whether the drug amounts they picked made sense. The lawmakers never solicited comment on the wisdom of their proposals from the Drug Enforcement Administration, federal judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, public defenders or anybody else, Sterling said. The legislation passed through the Senate with few changes and became law.
It transformed the federal system, Sterling said. In the late 1970s, about 25,000 people were housed in the federal prison system, Sterling said. The number had remained relatively steady for at least 25 years, he said. Now there are more than 180,000 people in the federal prison system, according to Sterling.
Many federal judges have also been critical of minimum mandatory sentencing, Sterling said. In a speech to the American Bar Association in 2003, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that in the federal system, "our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.
"When it costs so much more to incarcerate a prisoner than to educate a child, we should take special care to ensure that we are not incarcerating people for too long," Kennedy also said.