Twenty years ago, my worry was the corrupting influence of drug trafficking -- not just on the addicts but on sheriff's deputies paid to be somewhere else when the big drop was made, on small-time politicians and judges and, eventually, I feared, on large and small governments.
The big-time drug operators had so much money to throw around (and were so ruthless when it came to those who threatened their riches) that more and more people were being drawn, however reluctantly, into their conspiracy.
I still worry. But it's the corrupting influence of the war on drugs that worries me now. I've just seen what you may have seen a year ago when PBS first broadcast it: a "Frontline" special called "Snitch." The program is a compendium of questionable behavior by people sworn to uphold the law -- decent people corrupted by their desire to jail as many members of the illicit drug business as they can.
Their biggest tool, the show claims, is the snitch: Not some "Huggy Bear" giving valuable leads to TV detectives, but certified crooks who buy their freedom (or at least reduced sentences) by giving up other folk who may or may not deserve it.
If you saw the piece, you will remember Lula May Smith, the Mobile, Ala., motel maid who, then in her late fifties, was arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison for seven years. The strokes she endured while in prison left her crippled.
And here's the truly chilling part of the story: The prosecutor, Willie Huntley, says flat-out that he never believed her to be involved in drugs, never thought she should have been convicted and never wanted her to go to prison. He really wanted her son, Darren Sharp.
But Sharp, knowing he was being sought, took off. The authorities went after Lula May Smith in the belief Sharp would turn himself in to free his mom.
Said the prosecutor: "The jury started reading the verdicts . . . and I think Lula's name was way down near the bottom. . . . And the closer we got to her name, the more I kept hoping, `Please let them say [she's] not guilty.' . . . I'd pray a little bit harder. . . . But . . . they said `guilty' [for her] too. . . . I still say she shouldn't have gone to jail."
Even if you buy the prosecutor's contention that the son was "one of the biggest dealers in the Prichard [Ala.] area," how can it be right to throw the innocent mother in the slammer?
Well, say the law enforcement people who accept that we are in a war on drugs, innocence is a tricky notion. Most of the people who wind up doing serious time are guilty, they say, even if they wouldn't have been convicted without the aid of snitches with information to trade.
But what is startling about these "Frontline" stories is the number of cases in which the prosecutors had nothing but the snitches' word and still managed to get confessions.
The way it apparently works is that somebody gets busted for drug trafficking and, thanks to the mandatory minimum sentences Congress enacted in 1986, he's looking at anywhere from five to 10 years to life. Unless . . .
You see, there's a provision in the law that allows leniency for "substantial assistance" to law enforcement officers. In other words, get yourself a deal by giving up your friends -- or even strangers.
One young man says he was a small-time dealer for three years but had been out of the business when some acquaintances were caught and "started naming names" -- including his. He went to jail for longer than the snitches.
Clarence Aaron, a Southern University student at the time, stupidly got involved with some small-time dealers. He says he never used or sold drugs himself but did arrange meetings between the dealers and potential buyers. When his pals were arrested (with previous convictions they all faced life sentences), they gave up Aaron and got reduced sentences. Aaron, whose record was clean and against whom the only evidence was the word of desperate snitches, is in the federal prison in Atlanta, serving three life terms with no chance of parole.
As one defense lawyer put it, "If I offered a witness a hundred-dollar bill to come down and say it my way, I'd go to prison for that. But yet [the prosecutors] can give . . . something far more precious than money. . . . They can give . . . freedom." It's awfully tempting, in those circumstances, to tell prosecutors what they want to hear.
So what should we do? Obviously I wouldn't want to outlaw the use of snitches, though reliance on the uncorroborated word of snitches whose own freedom is at stake makes me nervous. And I'm still not ready to say just legalize drugs and be done with it.
But I am ready to end this stupid and ineffectual "war" on drugs that puts such a premium on locking people up. And I am more convinced than ever that it's time to rethink "zero tolerance," mandatory sentences and all those feel-good nostrums that are corrupting our judicial system as much as the drug lords ever did.