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Villanova Law Review Publishes Forum on Sentencing and the "War on Drugs"


March 1996

The latest issue of the Villanova Law Review examines how federal sentencing has been affected by drug policy ("The Sentencing Controversy: Punishment and Policy in the War on Drugs," Villanova Law Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 1995).

In the first article, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania defends the Sentencing Guideline approach to sentencing (Hon. Stewart Dalzell, "One Cheer for the Guidelines," Villanova Law Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 1995, p. 317-334).

While the Guidelines system is under fire from within and from outside the judiciary, Dalzell argues that in application, the Guidelines system is better than having no system at all. Sentencing Guidelines and provisions under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 constrain judges, but they also make judges accountable. Disparities in sentences existed before reform, but were invisible to systematic analysis and criticism.

However, Dalzell does find flaws in the Guidelines: the system dictates a 100-to-1 disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences, it is too complicated for defendants to understand, and it is unbending for sentences to be tailored to individual defendants. The system can produce what he describes as "bizarre anomalies": a convicted felon who sells fifty or more Uzi semi-automatics would be sentenced to an offense level of 20 -- the same level for a first offender trafficking two or three grams of crack. Dalzell predicts that "if the Guidelines' relentless application produces results that disturb significant constituencies, or that touch a wide enough legislative sense of injustice, there will be change."

Judge Margaret P. Spencer of the General District Court in the City of Richmond, Virginia provides a scholarly overview of what she argues is Congress' over-reliance on incarceration as a way to deal with the drug problem (Hon. Margaret P. Spencer, "Sentencing Drug Offenders: The Incarceration Addiction," Villanova Law Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 1995, p. 317-334). Incarceration, she writes, does not enhance public safety. She describes alternatives to incarceration: electronic monitoring, boot camps, drug courts, and treatment programs. The Guidelines take discretion away from judges and result in incarceration of the "wrong" offenders -- low-level, non-violent offenders.

Eric E. Sterling, president of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and editor-in-chief of NewsBriefs, presents a short overview of the politics and theory of the nation's current drug policies (Eric E. Sterling, "The Sentencing Boomerang: Drug Prohibition Politics and Reform," Villanova Law Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 1995, p. 317-334). Sterling offers a glossary of drug policy and reform terms, including legalization, medicalization, harm reduction, and decriminalization. He provides an insider's history of the adoption of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in 1986 and the debate over provisions of the 1994 crime bill. He concludes with his proposal for redefining the goals of drug strategy and twelve principles for managing the drug problem.

[A reprint of Sterling's article is available from the NewsBriefs office for $3.00.]