DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Anthony Papa was in debt and desperate for cash when he accepted an offer, from a bowling buddy, to get involved in a drug deal. In exchange for $500, the father-of-one was to deliver an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine from the Bronx to Mount Vernon, New York.
Papa delivered it into the hands of undercover police. Despite being a first-time, non-violent offender with no wider connection to any gangs or cartels, the radio repair man was sentenced to 15 years to life in New York’s Sing Sing prison. His buddy, a lynchpin who organised the deal, was given three years to life.
Under Eric Holder’s long-awaited overhaul of federal prison policy, unveiled on Monday, offenders like Papa will no longer be subjected to mandatory minimum sentencing, which the attorney general has said is unfair.
It is too late for Papa, who served 12 of his 15 years in state prison before being granted clemency. But as an advocate for state and federal reforms for the Drug Policy Alliance, he welcomed Holder’s overhaul. Among the changes Holder announced is new guidance to federal prosecutors to omit listing quantities of drugs in indictments for low-level drug crimes, thus sidestepping the sort of mandatory sentences that led Papa to serve his 12 years.
“Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for non-violent, low-level drug offences” said Papa. “It’s a waste of valuable tax dollars and a waste of human lives.”
Drug-related offences drive the vast majority of the US’s bloated and expensive prison population, a point made by Holder in his speech in San Francisco. Around half of the 200,000 people in federal prisons are locked up for drug offences, and about 60% are serving time under mandatory sentencing provisions, according to The Sentencing Project, a campaign group for reform. Just under half of the 25,000 people incarcerated every year for drug offences are lower-level offenders, such as street-level dealers and couriers.
Mark Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said “thousands” of offenders fell into the category. Mauer described Holder’s proposals as a “significant development” which would not only go towards reducing prison populations but would also have an effect on the treatment of drug offenders.