George W. Bush has forgiven himself for any "youthful mistakes" he made in his past, and according to recent polls, most Americans forgive him too. Now it's Bush's turn to return the public's forgiveness. He can start by fixing the criminal justice system he oversees in the state of Texas and, if he gets the chance, the federal system, which prescribe lengthy sentences for young drug offenders that are neither tempered by forgiveness nor made compatible with "second chances."
Even if the lingering question of whether Bush used cocaine or other illegal drugs is irrelevant, the fact that he did something he now considers "irresponsible" and "irrelevant" between the ages of 18 and 28 is utterly relevant. According to Justice Department statistics, 55 percent of those imprisoned under federal drug possession charges fall within a very similar age range. Unfortunately for these hundreds of young adults, they will never have Bush's luxury of saying, "What I did 20 or 30 years ago is irrelevant."
Brenda Valencia is someone who will never be able to say that. At the age of 19 she was arrested after she had driven her aunt to Palm Beach, Fla., where her aunt sold seven kilos of cocaine to a local man. Brenda didn't have anything to do with the sale, and prosecutors didn't try to make it look as if she did.
Relying solely on the testimony of the man who had bought the cocaine, they were able to charge her with the vague crime of conspiracy. The man told prosecutors that Brenda had made two statements implying that she knew the cocaine had been in the trunk. Despite the fact that she had no prior arrests, she received a mandatory sentence of 12 years and seven months in prison. She will serve at least 85 percent of her sentence, because parole in the federal system has been abolished.
The sentencing judge in this case was rendered powerless and voiced the sentiments of most federal judges. "This case is the perfect example of why the mandatory minimum sentences are not only absurd but an insult to justice," he said. "It's absolutely ridiculous to impose this sentence in this case, considering the degree of participation that this defendant had in this crime."
Lamont and Lawrence Garrison are young twin brothers who also haven't been blessed with much forgiveness by the criminal justice system. The two were arrested at age 25 just months after their graduation from Howard University. Both had worked part-time for five years to pay their tuition, and both were excellent students planning on becoming lawyers. Their bright futures were soon derailed.
According to the twins, their only contact with Tito Abea, the known drug dealer who testified against them, had to do with his legitimate business; Abea was a mechanic and was doing work on their car. Although no drugs, paraphernalia or other evidence of drugs were ever found on the Garrisons or in their house, the testimony of Abea and other known drug dealers was enough to land them both in prison for 15 years.
So what kind of future awaits Brenda Valencia, Lamont and Lawrence Garrison and the thousands of other young people just like them who are released after years of incarceration? How will they fare 20 or 30 years down the road? Former prisoners say that prison never really leaves you -- that its place in the soul is permanent. Add the fact that society's attitude toward ex-felons is less than forgiving and the stage is set for failure.
There are better solutions for dealing with drugs than building more prisons to warehouse nonviolent drug offenders. According to a recent Rand Corp. study, treatment is eight times more cost-effective than long sentences in reducing demand for illegal drugs.
In our quest to deter would-be drug users and dealers, we have ruined or dimmed the prospects of thousands of bright Americans. Most of these incarcerated young people would have eventually outgrown their risky and rebellious behavior, and some might have moved on to, become, say, president of the United States. But long mandatory sentences make such dreams impossible.
Now is the perfect opportunity for George W. Bush to embrace the public's inclination to forgive him for his past. This should embolden him to take a moral stand against sentencing laws that deny young adults a second chance at success.
The writer is general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national organization working to change mandatory sentencing laws.