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America's Addiction to Prison Should be the Focus in Paris Hilton's Case

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Message Edrea Davis
The world is focused on Paris Paris Hilton's incarceration. The circus even triggered a campaign to remove Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca from office for granting Paris Hilton an early release.

Sheriff Baca is not the culprit; the real perpetrator is the malfunctioning criminal justice system. Thanks to overzealous prosecutors and the failed war on drugs, jails and prisons are filled dangerously beyond capacity. Some jails - especially in California - are releasing inmates after serving only ten percent of their time.

Minorities and the poor have suffered the wrath of an unjust system for years. Recently our prison-addicted society has inconvenienced a few wealthy white American's like Paris Hilton and the Duke La Crosse players. Their celebrity status should be used to draw attention to broader issues like the fact that the Dept. of Justice reported that over 7 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at yearend 2005.

Rather than complaining about Paris Hilton's release, activists would accomplish more by protesting the biased laws that result in long sentences for petty drug criminals and cause such overcrowding in prisons that officials are forced to release inmates early. In 2000 the mean sentence imposed on federal prisoners for violent felonies was 63.0 months as opposed to 75.6 months for drug felonies.* The fact that murders, child molesters, rapists, and other violent criminals can get less time than non-violent drug offenders is alarming and a lot more newsworthy than Paris Hilton's ordeal.

Augmenting the prison population is not the only accomplishment the drug war can claim. Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug users, the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget has increased by 1,954% from $220 million in 1986 to more than $4.3 billion in 2001.* That same year, the California's prison expenditure was $4.2 billion, yet residents still live in violent, drug-infested neighborhoods.

Instead of questioning why Sheriff Lee Boca sent the confused hotel heiress home, citizens should wonder why he, according to the Los Angeles Times, is the highest-paid local elected official in the nation. Find out why the state built 21 new prisons, and only one new university from 1984 to 1996. Or, ask California officials if they think increasing prison expenditures 30% while decreasing higher education spending by 18% from 1987 to 1995 had anything to do with California ranking the fourth dumbest state in Morgan Quitno's annual state education survey.

The media could evolve beyond stories on Paris Hilton's prison stay and feature some of the talent wasted due to our prison-addicted society. Take for example, Kemba Smith, the Hampton student sentenced to 24 ½ years on conspiracy charges. Since her pardon in 2000 by President Clinton, Smith graduated from Virginia Union University with plans to attend law school; was awarded a Soros Justice Postgraduate Fellowship; and is the founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation educating youth about injustices in the criminal justice system. How many Kemba Smith's are working for the average .93 cents per hour paid to prisoners?

The web sites of the November Coalition and Families Against Mandatory Minimums feature compelling stories about victims of the war on drugs, including an article about twin brothers Lawrence and Lamont Garrison. They were arrested just months after their graduation from Howard University when the owner of an auto body shop was apprehended for playing a major role in a drug operation. To reduce his sentence, the shop owner implicated the brothers in the cocaine conspiracy. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of drugs found on the Garrisons or in their house, instead of attending law school as planned, Lamont and Lawrence are in a federal penitentiary serving 19 and 15 years respectively. The shop owner was sentenced to three (3) years.

Americans have become so desensitized to locking citizens behind bars, many people don't realize how barbaric it is to call for a troubled young lady to remain in jail instead of receiving treatment. Perhaps that's why the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world and the reason Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker would fight for Genarlow Wilson to serve his 10-year sentence for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.

I have a dream that one day this nation will look beyond race and class and recognize that our criminal justice system is terminally ill. It suffers from swollen prosecutors, severely infected police departments, a paralyzed judicial system, and a fractured legislature passing cancerous laws.

Paris Paris Hilton needs counseling; but our criminal justice system needs a transplant. The public needs to wake up from their celebrity-induced coma and focus on the real issues.

*US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics

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Edrea Davis is a communications consultant and the author of "SnitchCraft" a novel exposing corruption in the criminal justice system. The New Jersey native lives in the Atlanta area and has traveled internationally to cover media for several UN (more...)
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