Tougher law enforcement and longer prison terms may make sense for the dangerous and defiant drug dealers. But for the lowly addicts who keep them in business, drug treatment offers a better return. Seldom has that case been made more compellingly than in this letter I've just received from Mansuel Lee Union, an inmate in the Pinellas County (Fla.) jail. Slightly edited, here it is:

By the time you receive this letter, it will be too late to help me, as I'm due in court on Jan. 23 on two counts of sales and possession of crack cocaine. They say I sold a $20 rock on two different dates, and the truth is I really don't know if I did or not. But since I've been busted for the same thing quite a few times over the years, they sent me a notice saying they'll seek to enhance me {increase sentencing for repeat offenders}, and if I fight my case, I'll get 60 years for the two rocks.

But there's quite a few facts that will never come to light, but I feel that I have to try and somehow bring it to the attention of all those who are touched by our ongoing drug problem and prison overcrowdedness.

Fact One: In this case of sale and possession -- if in fact I did cop for someone (a cop or an informant) -- the true charge should have been delivery, because most drug users aren't drug pushers. Anyone with any knowledge of the drug world will tell you that an addict will cop for you if he can get a fix, but he's not trying to make a living off dealing drugs. Most of your real pushers never touch the stuff they sell.

Fact Two: Being a drug abuser since 1976 (with the battle scars -- tracks -- to prove it), not once during all my arrests for drugs have I ever been busted where the numbers are on the left-hand side of the decimal point, meaning I've never been busted with even a gram. The arrest amounts have always looked like .01 gram or less. But they tell me I'm so bad that I deserve 60 years.

While on probation in Tampa, realizing I had a drug problem and wanting help, I turned to my probation officer. After reporting to her like she told me to, we called Dacco and other drug programs to find out that they were full, or the ones that weren't wanted money that I didn't have. So all she could do was to tell me that if it became too much for me to handle, then I should call her back. I would have been crazy to call her knowing that all she could offer me then was jail.

Fact Three: Never in all my arrests have I ever been busted with any money on me. If I'm the drug dealer the state's attorney would have you believe, then I'm sure that at least once in the last 15 years I'd have been caught with some money.

Fact Four: In all the years of my arrests and drug abuse years and coming before this or that judge, never once has anyone ever considered recommending drug rehab or treatment. I guess it's because I didn't have a drug problem until I turned 24, and they considered me too old, because there were younger kids that they felt would benefit more. So I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Fact Five: A month or two before these charges were supposed to have happened, I took it upon my own to stop one of our finest (a friend and county sheriff), inform him that I had a drug problem and ask if he could help me find a drug group in my area or somehow help me get one started. He said he gave it a try but couldn't come up with anything to help me.

One more thing. While I was out there on the drug stroll, I still somehow tried to keep some kind of moral values. There's a few people that will testify that I tried helping them by returning lost or stolen property (wallets with IDs, one guy's television, one lady's purse and anything else if I could find the owner).

I know the chances of my getting the 60 years are good because already I've been in jail 10 months, and I've only seen my public defender three times -- and not at all in the last two months. But we're due for trial in two weeks.

They tell me I'm due a fair trial, but they give me a public defender (or should I say public pretender?) that has four times his normal case load. In 10 months I have yet to see my discovery, which I've begged to see. They don't have any way for you to call your PD here, and the requests you send go unanswered. So no matter how I feel or what I think, I'm forced to put all my faith in this public pretender and hope he hasn't sold me out too badly.

In two weeks, the chances of my ever living a full life will be thrown away because I had a drug problem and couldn't afford to get help.

Thank you for putting the facts in print for all who want to see. Even if it doesn't help me, I pray that it will make a difference in the life and time of my nephews and one-month-old grandson. Thank you for hearing me out.