The Criminal Justice Reform Unit of the UN is responsible for assisting member countries in their fight against crimes. It also undertakes measures to reform the existing laws within the criminal justice system. There are several areas of laws in which reform has become necessary for the operation of justice system more effectively. Particular attention is paid to women and children who are vulnerable to crimes. “Criminal justice reform has been a part of the UN mandates for years. It has been discussed in several UN Crime Congresses held during the past five decades.
The First UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders was held in Geneva in 1955. It explored the ways to reform the criminal justice system to make it more human. After that several UN Crime congresses were held. The Crime congresses held in Vienna in 2000 sought for the strengthening of the role of the United Nations in criminal justice reform. The main focus was to assist the member nations in building fair and strong criminal justice systems” (Joffe, & Yancy, 2004). Drug Abuse Drug abuse is major issue which comes under the criminal justice system.
It has become a global phenomenon. Drug abuse affects most of the countries in the world and their economies. It is found mostly among the youth and also is spreading among the children. “Opiates and Cannabis are the most deadly form of drugs that are used globally. Three-fourth of all countries report abuse of heroin and two-thirds of countries report abuse of cocaine” (Burrows, 2005). Drug use often results in several crimes, sexual exploitation, domestic violence and mental disorder. Drug related problems also include the deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.
Criminal Laws on Drugs There are several areas within the criminal justice system in which reform is very much needed. One of such area is drug law. Positive and negatives sides existing drug laws have been debated throughout the world and it has been felt that these laws must be amended in the larger interest of people. Human rights issue can be addressed properly only by reforming the existing laws. There is no ambiguity over the fact that drug abuse is a major issue today in most parts of the world. Criminal laws on drugs prescribe stricter punishments.
There are several types of drug related crimes against which are brought before the justice system. These crimes include drug cultivating and manufacturing, Drug distribution, Drug trafficking and Drug possession. “Drug cultivation and manufacturing is a crime under the law. There are stricter punishments for growing, producing and possessing certain plants and other natural elements which have been declared illegal under the international law. These substances include cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD and Ecstasy” (Friedman, 1993). Drug laws in the states vary according to the types of drug and their amount.
Penalties against the selling, transportation and import of drugs comes under the drug distribution/trafficking laws. Both the individuals and the network of people can be charged under these laws. Possession of illicit drugs is considered a serious crime. Persons found possessing such drugs are tried under the drug possession laws. “During the past decade, the United States witnessed a high increase in drug related cases. The number of jails and inmates grew significantly in the past few years. According to the reports prison and jail population in America touched 2 million in the beginning of the 21st century.
Drug related arrests have been tripled in the US in the past decade” (Joffe, & Yancy, 2004). It has been noticed that people between the ages of 20 and 29 are the major group who have been arrested under drug laws. “Recently, Human Rights Watch released a report that revealed how African Americans have been sentenced imprisonment because of drug offenses” (Joffe, & Yancy, 2004). The increasing number of jailed persons and serious reports of human rights violations have forced people to think that there is a need of widespread reform in the drug laws.
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws There are two types of federal sentencing laws in the United States. These are mandatory sentencing laws and the sentencing guidelines. The law that is in question is the mandatory sentencing law, which was passed by the Congress in 1986. These laws make it mandatory for the judges to deliver fixed sentences to the convicts of drug abuse. There are some factors that determine these drug sentences. Judges take into account the type of drug, weight of the drug and the number of previous convictions before passing the sentences.
Under the existing law, Judges do not get the rights to consider other factors such as the offender’s role and motivation. These are the major loopholes in the existing laws that are to be amended. There is an option of providing information to the prosecution about other offenders. Those who assist the prosecution by providing such information, usually get shorter sentences. Sometimes, it is seen that people provide false information in order to get relaxation in the sentences. By doing this, they often mislead the authorities and hamper the investigation.
There are some areas of concern within the drug law that needs to be addressed properly. “The main objective of the mandatory sentences was to nab the ‘kingpins’ in the drug distribution networks. However, if we look at the statistics, it is clear that only low-level offenders and drug users suffer the most. Only 11 percent of all the drug offenders are high-level drug dealers. The drug dealers are always in a better position to provide enough information to the prosecution to get minimum sentences. But the low-level offenders get the maximum sentences as they can not provide any important information about the drug networks.
They often end up serving longer sentences because of the loopholes in the drug law” (Macallair, 2002). “Both the US Sentencing Commission and the Department of Justice concluded that the mandatory minimum sentencing laws failed to deter crime. In most of the cases, black people have been subjected to sentences. It has worsened the racial and gender disparities and has become a matter of concern for the government and justice system” (Edwards, 1999). The mandatory minimum sentencing laws have armed the prosecutors with more powers.
The decision making authority has been shifted from the judges to prosecutors, which is a disturbing trend. These laws never achieved the target of punishing high-level offenders. In fact, mandatory sentences are more or less responsible for sending a large number of women and poor people to prison. To make them more effective and reduce the discrepancies, it is very necessary for an overhaul reform in the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Three Strikes Law “After the murder of a 12-year old girl in 1993, a new law called the three strikes law was introduced in California.
The murderer of the girl was a three time offender who was on parole. The law caught the attention of the whole nation” (Edwards, 1999). Voters in California approved a mandating prison terms of 25-years-to-life for the offenders convicted for the third time. This law also doubled the minimum terms for the second time offenders. “Washington State adopted the three strikes law in 1993 and several other states followed suit. Finally, Congress passed the federal version of the law in 1994” (Edwards, 1999). There are some positive aspects of the three strike laws.
These laws have been hailed by many people as tough measures to combat crimes. However, there are several negative aspects of the law, in which amendment is necessary. It resulted in overcrowding of prisons. If a person is convicted of a third offense, he or she will be sentenced to 25 years imprisonment irrespective the nature of the crime. Even if the offenses are minor, convict will get the sentence in such cases. This is very disturbing and cannot be justified completely. Most of the convicts sent to jail under the three strikes laws are low-level offenders.
The main intent of the law was to stop violent crimes. However, it has been noticed that criminal with a history of minor offenses get longer terms than the deadly criminals who commit violent crimes. The popular opinion agrees that three strikes laws have not been effective in combating the crime so far. The most common charges found against third-strike criminals are drugs, theft or burglary that are minor offenses as compared to other violent crimes. People convicted with drug-related crimes are the worst affected by the three strikes law.
“According to human rights reports, the US has jailed a large number of its citizens more than any other country in the world. Now the public mood is not against the three strikes law. It has been noticed from the independent surveys and reports” (Edwards, 1999). It was argued that the three strikes law has succeeded in curbing the crime rate. “The sharp fall in crime rates in California was attributed to the strong implementation of the three strikes law. However, others like New York State also witnessed the same crime reduction in that period” (Edwards, 1999).
Hence, it cannot be concluded that the three strikes law is fully responsible for the decline in crime rates. “The black and the Latino population of the US suffered the most under the three strikes law. Of the people serving 25 years life imprisonment under this law, 44% are black and 26% are Latino” (Joffe, & Yancy, 2004). Rather than taking initiatives to reform the drug-addict people, the law put them behind the bars for 25 years, which is a cruel and unjust punishment. They got the punishment even if all the three offenses committed them were not serious in nature.
A country that serves the world as the ‘champion of human rights’, cannot see its own people suffer under a draconian law for a long time. It is very much necessary to bring reform in this law to uphold the value of criminal justice system. Decriminalization of Drug Use “Between 1970 and 1980, the US drug policy showed considerable tolerance towards the drug users. Eleven states in the US decriminalized marijuana. Drug addicts were sympathized as victims. Due to the permissive attitude by the government and society, drug users in the US increased significantly by the early 1980s” (DEA, 1994).
As a result, crime and drug-related problems were on the rise. They had a negative impact on the society. It forced the government and law enforcement authorities to take adequate steps to prevent drug use. Drug user accountability had been applied in schools, colleges, institutes and offices. It led to a significant decline in the use of drugs. However, situation has been changed to a large extent in the past few years. The negative impact of drug laws on people and victimization of the weaker section of the society made people believe that there is a need for decriminalization of drug use.
Drug user lobbyists and organizations reject the drug user accountability measures. They believe that this is interference in one’s personal rights to use drugs. They advocate the permissibility if illicit drugs for people and urge the government and the law enforcement authorities to soften their stand on drug use. A majority of Americans now support decriminalization of drug use and even the legalization of drugs such as opiates and cannabis. They think that people should not be punished heavily for simple possession of drugs. Instead, they could be fined.
“According to a 2003 Zogby survey, forty percent Americans say, the government should treat marijuana more or less the same way it treats alcohol: It should regulate it, control it, tax it, and only make it illegal for children” (Burrows, 2005). Among all the drugs, marijuana is widely used among Americans. It gets a special place in the US criminal law. “Near about 90 percent of the drug related crimes are only the simple possession of drugs. It is being felt that there is a need of decimalization of drug use. Even the foreign-born US residents feel the heat of the drug laws.
They can be deported for a drug offense even if they have lived in the country for a long time. The Federal Higher Education Act prohibits young people convicted of any drug offense, from getting student loans” (Friedman, 1993). Such restrictions on people are definitely an infringement in their rights. Necessary steps must be taken in the best interest of people. There are still a large number of people who reject the liberal approach about drug use and stick to the conservative approach. They argue that decriminalization of drug use will expand the use of drugs and it will have negative impact on the society.
They are concerned about the health hazards that may arise after the decriminalization of drug use. They believe that crime rate will rise further if drug use is legalized. That will result in an increase in prison population. Both the liberal and conservative approaches on decriminalization are strong and there is a need for more debate and discussion. Prison overcrowding with non-violent Drug Offenders “According to the Justice Department, the number of imprisoned American adults has been increased surprisingly, thanks to the stricter laws on drugs” (DEA, 1994).
The mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the three strikes laws are among the drug laws that are responsible for the increase in prison population. These laws are being questioned because of prison overcrowding. The main objective of the drug laws was to stop the crime and punish the violent drug offenders. However, it has been noticed that in most of the cases, non-violent drug offenders get the punishment and land in jails. Instead of nabbing the drug dealers and kingpins, the system sentenced the low-level non-violent drug offenders. These laws put tremendous pressure on people and their families.
The overcrowding prisons forced the authorities to build new prison, which is a burden on the tax payers. A reform in the drug laws within the justice system will definitely augur will for the society and the government. The main focus should be on the well being of people. Punishing the non-violent offenders will only aggravate the problem. Reform of Drug Laws in the current Political Environment Although the majority of people want the existing drug laws to be reformed, it is yet to be seen whether the current political establishment will allow it to happen or not.
The Bush administration has so far maintained a strict policy on drug use. Its fight against drug abuse expanded beyond the US to Asia and Latin America. However, several states in the US have bowed to the public pressure and are taking measures to legalize drug use and reduce the punishment. “Oregon, Alaska and Montana are among those states. According to reports, Alaska is all set to become the first state to decriminalize drugs like marijuana. There are at least nine states that have adopted laws for the medical use of marijuana.
These states are California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Vermont, Alaska, Oregon and Washington” (Marijuana Policy Project, 2004). “Recently, there was a proposal to stop the federal government from prosecuting people found using marijuana for medical reasons in the states that allow it. That proposal was defeated in the US House. This issue will be heard by the Supreme Court soon. Even the politicians are divided on this issue. Tom Golisano, the conservative candidate of the Independence party, campaigned heavily on the decriminalization of drug use during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign in New York” (Burrows, 2005).
Leading Republicans and some Conservative party leaders support the medical marijuana bill produced before the New York legislature. On the issue of reforms in drug laws, the White House has been directly pitted against the states. Majority of the states want the drug use to be legalized. “It is believed the anti-drug sentiments in the US are the creation of politicians. To garner support of people, they fabricated stories and spent a huge amount of money on anti-drug advertisement campaigns.
Their drug war speeches motivated a substantial number of people to turn against drug use” (Friedman, 1993). Now the public mood has been changed to a great extent. A majority of people support the decriminalization or legalization of drug use. It has forced a section of political establishment support the popular mood. Although there may not be any fundamental changes in the drug laws, some sort of amendments will definitely be made. There is a consensus among the supporter of drug use and the anti-drug campaigners on one point. They all agree that there should be reduction in the supply of drugs.
Although the law enforcement authorities are apprehensive about the positive outcome following the reduction in supply of drugs, this will be a welcome step considering the differences of opinions among people. Also, the government will be forced to take adequate measure to stop the overcrowding of prisons which is responsible for the unnecessary burden on the treasury, law and order problems and human rights concerns. These problems will be resolved only by allowing reforms in the drug laws within the criminal justice system. Conclusion
Notwithstanding the debates on legalization of drugs and the abolition of strong punishment for drug abuse, one thing is clear that illicit drug use is a major problem that grappled the society. Irrespective of race, community, gender and regions, drug abuse has created serious problems everywhere. The poor and backward sections of the society always have been the victims. It is necessary to prohibit the large-scale use of drugs. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the government and law enforcement authorities to make provisions so that people do not get heavy punishments for minor offenses.
It is necessary to bring reforms in the draconian provisions of the drug laws to provide relief to common people. Bibliography Burrows D. (2005). Towards a regulated market for illicit drugs: Effects of the harm reduction model of controlled drug availability. International Journal of Drug Policy 16(1): 8-9. DrugSense MAP Inc. How Do Drug Laws Influence Crime? Retrieved November 13, 2005, from http://drugsense. org/html/modules. php? name=Oldsite&page=crime. htm Drug Policy Alliance. Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Retrieved November 14, 2005, from http://www. drugpolicy. org/drugwar/mandatorymin/
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