Undo This Legacy of Len Bias's Death

By Eric E. Sterling and Julie Stewart
Saturday, June 24, 2006

When Len Bias, the basketball star, overdosed on cocaine 20 years ago, Len Bias, the symbol, was born. To many he symbolized the corruption of college athletics -- stars whose academic performance is poor, if not irrelevant, but who are essential to bringing in donations and other revenue. To others, he became the object lesson: Cocaine is dangerous, don't do it, you can die. For yet others, Bias symbolizes the danger that arises when a powerful symbol overwhelms careful judgment about what ought to be the law.

Immediately after Bias's death, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., from the Boston area (where Bias had just signed with the Celtics), issued a demand to his fellow Democrats for anti-drug legislation. Senior congressional staffers began meeting regularly in the speaker's conference room as practically every committee in the House wrote Len Bias-inspired legislation attacking the drug problem. News conferences around the Capitol featured members of Congress extolling their efforts to clamp down on cocaine and crack.

One result was the innocuous-sounding Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act, which became the first element of the enormous Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, hurried to the floor a little over two months after Bias's death. But the effect of the penalties and enforcement legislation was to put back into federal law the kind of clumsy mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that had been done away with 16 years before. And there they remain, 20 years and several hundred thousand defendants later.

Congress wanted to send several messages by again enacting mandatory minimums: to the Justice Department to be more focused on high-level traffickers; to major traffickers that the new penalties would destroy them; to the voters that members of Congress could fight crime as vigorously as the police and prosecutors. But Congress garbled the message. Instead of targeting large-scale traffickers, it established low-level drug quantities to trigger lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms: five grams (the weight of five packets of artificial sweetener), 50 grams (the weight of a candy bar), 500 grams (the weight of two cups of sugar) or 5,000 grams (the weight of a lunchbox of cocaine). Large-scale traffickers organize shipments of drugs totaling tons -- many millions of grams -- filling tractor-trailers, airplanes and fishing boats.

The Justice Department has compounded the problem by focusing on countless low-level offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that only 15 percent of federal cocaine traffickers can be classified as high-level. Seventy percent are low-level. One-third of all federal cocaine cases involve an average of 52 grams, a candy bar-sized quantity of cocaine, resulting in an average sentence of almost nine years in prison without parole.

Not surprisingly, the federal prison population has exploded. From 1954 to 1976, it fluctuated between 20,000 and 24,000. By 1986 it had grown to 36,000. Today it exceeds 190,000 prisoners, up 527 percent in 20 years. More than half this population is made up of drug offenders, most of whom are serving sentences created in the weeks after Len Bias died.

Sadly, the nation's drug abuse situation is not much better after 20 years. Teenagers are using very dangerous drugs at twice the rate they did in the 1980s. The price of cocaine is much lower and the purity much higher, which tells us that the traffickers have become more efficient.

There is a trickle of hope that mandatory sentences as a legacy of Bias's death might come to an end. A handful of conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee have begun to question the wisdom of current mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and some vote against them. The first round of mandatory minimums for drug offenses, enacted in 1951, was repealed almost 20 years later, with bipartisan support. Among those who backed repeal was George H.W. Bush, then a congressman from Texas. With his son in the White House, this would be a good time for history to repeat itself, and for this sad legacy of Len Bias's death to finally end.

Eric E. Sterling, counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989, is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Julie Stewart is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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