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Small-Time Drug Dealers Crowd Nation's Prisons


AS the Clinton administration agitates for still more mandatory sentences for more federal crimes, the impact of the last great push for stiffer, surer sentences is apparent within federal prison walls.

Many federal inmates are now what a recent Justice Department study calls ``low-level'' drug-law violators. Small-time offenders have grown in the prison population since laws passed in 1986 and '87 created mandatory minimum sentences and abolished parole at the federal level.

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A first-time offender who goes to federal court for possessing five grams of crack cocaine, for example, faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Since parole is not an option, the only chance for early release is for good behavior, which can subtract up to 15 percent of the sentence.

Drug offenders with no violence in their records, no involvement in sophisticated crimes, and no prior prison record amount to 21.6 percent of the federal prison population, according to a deputy attorney general's study.

For low-level offenders, an average prison stay will be nearly six years. Yet research shows sentences for such offenders makes no impact on their chances of committing another crime. The taxpayers' cost is $20,000 per inmate per year.

Federal prisons are also 36 percent over capacity. If a ``three strikes and you're out'' law, requiring life in prison after a third conviction for a violent federal crime, is passed this spring, it will create a ``substantial'' rise in the federal prison population, according to United States Sentencing Commission projections. President Clinton supports such a law; the Senate has passed one in its crime bill.

No federal prisoners are released early for lack of space. Excess prisoners are absorbed by state and local prisons. But crowded prisons and mandated sentences create tougher choices at the state level - where most prisoners are.

A 1993 study of Florida inmates by the National Council of Crime and Delinquency found most convicts sentenced under the state's ``habitual offender'' law are street-corner buyers and sellers of rock cocaine mainly supporting their own habits, according to study author James Austin. As these prisoners, whose average sentence is 10 years, clog prisons, he says, it will force the state to release those possibly more dangerous but whose parole is not barred by law.

STUDIES by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics of violent offenders in large, urban counties from 1988 to 1990 found that the risk of going to prison dropped for felony offenders with prior convictions. ``The reason ... is because the risk of going to prison has risen dramatically for drug offenses and public-order offenses,'' says Jacqueline Cohen, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon.

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But Allen Beck, a bureau research director, says no displacement of violent offenders by the rise of low-level drug offenders has been found. ``There's no evidence that the truly violent are not going to prison or that they are serving shorter sentences,'' he says. The trends in time served for violent crimes are fairly flat, he says, and murder arrests, for example, that result in prison time fluctuate with no trend.

What is clear is that prisons are above capacity, and the '80s building drive is still in full swing. The Clinton budget proposal last week called for $101 million more for bringing into service 9,673 new federal prison beds and $83 million for building prisons to add 4,224 beds.

Federal inmates make up 5 percent of the nation's total. State prisoners tend to have a higher proportion of violent offenders and a lower, but growing share of drug offenders. Attorney Alan Ellis says he is ``shocked at how low-level they are and how poor they are.'' Very few are big-time drug traffickers, he says.

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