Drug Prevention Law Ignores More Effective Alternative, ACLU Tells PA Lawmakers

August 18, 1999 12:00 am

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HARRISBURG, PA — In testimony before a state committee on criminal justice issues, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania opposed a law that would slap a mandatory two-year prison term on anyone convicted of dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a day-care center, the Bucks County Courier Times reports.

The new bill also provides for $10 million in state grants to police departments to enforce the law. State law already makes it a crime to deal drugs within 1,000 feet of a school and it carries the same mandatory two-year sentence.

Larry Frankel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, urged the committee not to adopt the proposal, recommending instead that they follow the lead of an Arizona program that encourages treatment over prison.

“This legislation creates yet another situation when a mandatory sentence would be imposed,” Frankel said. “We think that this kind of legislation does not really address the ongoing problem of drug use, which is just as much a public health problem as is a crime problem.”

According to the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, many of Pennsylvania’s state prisons are now operating at more than 50 percent above capacity – despite a steady drop in the number of violent offenses. Critics have blamed that increase on the rapidly expanding number of laws that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

“The ACLU objects to mandatory sentences because they eliminate judicial discretion and preclude a consideration of the individual circumstances in the case,” Frankel told the committee, adding that a report by the Arizona Supreme Court found that as many as 77 percent of the offenders sent to that state’s treatment program remained drug-free after a year, and that the program saved taxpayers about $2.5 million dollars.

“In fact, the rate at which offenders are testing free of drugs is significantly higher than for offenders on probation in most other states,” Frankel added.

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