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Washington, D. C. CONGRESS, which these days acts more and more like a quivering, viscous blob of pro toplasm, has recently inflicted two insane pieces of legislation on the American public. One is the omnibus drug law passed last year, in those heady, pre-Ginsburg days when opinion polls showed that your average Joe thought the drug problem was more important than nuclear disarmament. The other is the new mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, a piece, of paranoid lawmaking which cleared the Hill in October and which will soon write a new chapter in the book of cruelty. To gauge the human dimensions of the crisis, try this thought experiment: let us assume that, like the author, you are male, under 30, and terribly scatterbrained; you have somehow forgotten to register for the draft. Let us also assume that the federal authorities eventually catch up with you and more out of stubbornness than principle you continue to refuse to register. Eventually you are indicted. Let us assume that, unmoved by your boyish charm and Jewish lawyer, Hoss, Fritz, and the other members of the jury convict you. You are now a felon. You face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Under the new federal sentencing guidelines the court has no discretion in your case: because of your previous criminal record \(a badcheck charge, for which you had received a small fine and a suspended but to impose the full term proscribed by law. Your charity, your good works, your scintillating journalism all count for nothing. Your lawyer thoughtfully reminds you that the new guidelines eliminate parole. The prison you are sent to is an exercise in industrial-strength sadism. Because of the new drug laws, more than half of your fellow convicts are poor, nonviolent offenders, inner-city folk working off crack and heroin convictions; many of them will have Richard Ryan is the Observer ‘s Washington correspondent. 6 DECEMBER 18, 1987 RANCHO POTOMAC The Texas View from Washington tested sero-positive for AIDS. A small but tyrannical minority are assassins and psychopaths who terrorize the rest of the prison population. Because of the lack of bed space, you sleep on a cot in a hallway, among rows of other convicts. You subsequently refuse to join a white gang, whose leader had offered you protection in return for sexual favors. Your few personal possessions disappear. Your life expectancy takes a turn for the worse. Lloyd Bentsen That’s a way to look at the personal effects of the new legislation. Viewed macrocosmically, the situation looks every bit as horrific. Currently, federal prisons hold 42,000 inmates 50 percent over capacity. In the wake of the new guidelines and drug laws, the system will explode: by the year 2002, according to conservative estimates, there will be as many as 150,000 prisoners incarcerated. To grasp the effects of mandatory sentencing requirements on prison populations, consider the case of California. In the late 1970s, the California legislature passed tough judicial guidelines. As of this year, the state prison system faces a net increase of 200 convicts a week; given that a typical jail is designed to accommodate 1,000 prisoners, this means that Sacramento should ideally build a new prison every month, and in fact they have already set aside $2.8 billion dollars for prison construction, a figure that cannot begin to meet the logistical demands the system faces. The Congressional law-and-order binge will wreak havoc in the courts as well. Because the new system of sentencing will eliminate plea bargaining, all defendants will demand trials: after all, they’ll have nothing to lose. The federal court system will face huge case backlogs. Ninety percent of all convicted federal defendants will face stiffer sentences. Defense lawyers are so upset about the prospects that two organizations of public defenders have sued the U.S. government on the grounds that the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a body of Federal judges that originally proposed the guidelines, has usurped the lawmaking function of Congress. The suit’s advocates charge that Congress ceded its legislative authority to the Judiciary and then rubber-stamped the result. ONE OPPONENT OF THE guidelines is Congressman Mike Synar, the uncompromis ing progressive Democrat from Oklahoma. When Detroit Representative John Conyers introduced a bill to delay implementation of the law, Synar took to the floor in support of Conyers’s proposal: “This Congress, in what I think was one of the most irresponsible acts in recent memory, passed a GrammRudman bill that took the responsibility out of our hands for making the decisions for priorities in this country. Today [in passing the sentencing guidelines] we are about to make a second grave error and again take responsibility away from us as well as from the judiciary. . . . Mr. Speaker, we have got to quit putting this government on automatic pilot.” Later in his office Synar elaborated on his objections, both practical and constitutional, to the legislation: “I think a year from now we are going to be looking at a federal prison crisis it’s just a terrible mess. You’re going to be having Atlantas and Oakdales every week.” Alvin Bronstein, of the ACLU National Prison Project agrees there’s a disaster afoot: “A couple of years from now, when Congress starts getting these huge budget requests for prison construction, a real cry is going to go up.” What can avert the overcrowding and massive outlay of tax dollars on the Life in Hell By Richard Ryan