Peter Schaffer on Drug Laws

The humanity and inhumanity behind drug laws.
  • Transcript


Peter Schaffer: Well, it was incredibly unjust because they had a hundred to one ratio.  For example, if you had one gram of cocaine powder, if you had one-hundredth the amount of crack cocaine that those would be considered equal.  And I think that crack cocaine typically has been associated with communities that are lower income, poor people; whereas, you know, at, you know, parties in Aspen, people aren’t smoking crack.  So it did have a horrific effect on

population.  I do federal criminal work and I’ve seen a number of young people face horrific sentencing because of their involvement with crack cocaine, maybe on a very superficial level, but because of the way the way the sentencing guidelines were structured, there was no such thing as a small case.
I mean they would have to have a hundred times as much as the equivalent amount of crack.  And from what I’ve learned that to convert powder cocaine to crack, it’s a one-to-one basis.  So if you were in the federal system, it’s insidious enough that if there was proof that you intended to convert say 50 grams of powder into 50 grams of crack, it would be treated at the 100 to 1 ratio. 

Question: So you feel your clients arrive in court because they were destined to be there?

Peter Schaffer:  Well, I don’t know if anybody’s destined to be before the criminal justice system, but if you grow up in an area of low income where many people are not working, where there’s not much employment, where there is not a lot of guidance, inevitably people- there are a lot of opportunities to become involved in criminal activity.  Also in the lower income communities, people are much more likely to resolve disputes simply by dialing 911.  And police are more predisposed to just simply

arresting people rather than trying to resolve an issue or see if an issue really requires an arrest.  So you see a tremendous amount of people that in other communities there wouldn’t have been the opportunity to get in crime.  Things that they do would not have been treated as a crime but for the fact that that’s the way that the police handle things.  And people are very- it’s very easy to dial 911 to resolve a problem.

Question: What will keep people from getting into that position?

Peter Schaffer:  Well, again, I think it’s the funding programs to help addiction, education programs to stop people from becoming involved in, you know, substance abuse situations, job training.  People that are working are far less likely to become involved in crime.  They don’t have to take things to support themselves.  So I think a lot of money would be better spent before people get into the criminal justice system than now.  Now we spend the most amount of money-- and when I say we, I’m talking about government-- in building prisons to simply warehouse people and that’s why this country has more people in jail per capital than any country in the world and that’s pretty horrific.

Question: How likely is it that men and women who have spent 10 or 20 years in prison can come out productive?

Peter Schaffer:
  Well, I still am loathe to say that someone that’s committed a crime even if they’ve gone to prison that they’re gonna be like anyone else because they’re still individuals so I think it really depends.  There’s no rehabilitation.  As far as rehabilitation education, very little is spent on that.  Most of the money for corrections is spent on protection and really making sure people don’t escape, don’t engage in violence with other inmates, but there’s not a lot done to see that when people get out that they won’t repeat those behaviors.  But I still think it depends on the individual.  If they’re coming out and they have a supportive family, they probably have a shot.  If they’re coming out to nothing and they have an extensive criminal history beforehand and they’re going back to the neighborhood where they’ve gotten arrested and prosecuted over and over again, I think there’s little hope that they’re gonna turn their entire life around.
: What should be done to help these people?
Peter Schaffer:  Well, I think if towards the end of people’s sentence, I know in the federal system depending on what crime you were convicted of, they release people to halfway houses and conditionally release people so they get some sort of job skills or training.  There has to be something other than sitting in a cell for 20 years and then on the day that you’re scheduled to be released, they simply open the door for you and give you your clothes that you came in with.  One would
hope that towards the end of sentencing, some effort is made to match that individual up with some sort of preparation for the world outside ‘cause the world- not only is it different from their experience at being incarcerated, but the world is different from when they went in.