April 1997

HEADLINE: Prison sentences of the politically connected: justice has a double standard; The Playboy Forum; Column

BYLINE: Bovard, James

Justice has a double standard

God bless the war on drugs. It has given us rhetorical overkill: politicians calling for drug users to be taken out and shot. Who can forget when former drug czar William Bennett endorsed the beheading of drug dealers?

It has also given us a new scheme of family values and tough love: Uncle Sam--not father--knows best. If you can't keep your kids off drugs, the government will. Washington has churned out law after law mandating harsher penalties and longer prison terms for anyone involved with illicit substances. The war on drugs has resulted in the imprisonment of more than 300,000 people during the past decade. In 1995 the average federal sentence for "low-level" drug-trafficking offenders, according to the Department of Justice, was 70.5 months (of which a prisoner will typically serve nearly five years). The war on drugs has destroyed families across the nation or, should we say, it has destroyed some families.

For all the tough talk and tough love, what happens when the wayward sons, daughters and spouses of politicians run afoul of the law? As many well-connected Washingtonians suddenly remember, sometimes the highest element of justice is mercy.

* In June 1993 Richard Riley Jr., son of Education Secretary Richard Riley, received a sentence of six months' house arrest for conspiring to sell up to 25 grams of cocaine and 100 grams of marijuana. Seven months earlier Riley had been indicted by a federal grand jury in Greenville, South Carolina and charged, along with 18 others, with distributing cocaine and marijuana, conspiring to possess cocaine and marijuana and conspiring to possess those drugs with the intent to distribute them. The initial charges carried a penalty often years to life in prison. Riley's light sentence allowed him to continue his work at an environmental consulting firm, helping to do good deeds and save the world. Riley Sr. has since become one of the most prominent antidrug spokesmen of the Clinton administration.

* In June 1990 Gayle Rosten, the daughter of then-House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-III.), was busted and charged with possession of 29 grams of cocaine with intent to deliver. Rosten could have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, but she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and instead was sentenced to three years' probation and 20 hours of public service. She paid a fine of $2800 and forfeited the car in which the cocaine was found when she was arrested.

Three years later Rosten was busted again after police found a gram of cocaine in her possession; her car had been searched after she allegedly ran a stop sign. Since Rosten was still on probation from the earlier conviction, she could have been sentenced to up to three years in prison. Chicago Narcotics Court Judge Oliver Spurlock dismissed the charge against Rosten, giving no reason for his decision to set her free. The charge was reinstated after Rosten was indicted by a county grand jury. On April 12, 1994 Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Toomin ruled that the search of Rosten had been illegal, yet ruled that packets containing cocaine supposedly "dropped" by two passengers in her car was admissible evidence--against the passengers. Rosten walked again.

* Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), admitted stealing Percocet and Vicodin from the American Voluntary Medical Team, an organization that aids Third World countries. Percocet and Vicodin are schedule 2 drugs, in the same legal category as opium. Each pill theft carries a penalty of one year in prison and a monetary fine. McCain stole the pills over several years. She became addicted to the drugs after undergoing back surgery.

But rather than face prosecution, McCain was allowed to enter a pretrial diversion program and escaped with no blemish on her record. McCain did suffer from the incident, though: Shortly after the scandal broke, a Variety Club of Arizona ceremony at which she was to receive a humanitarian of the year award for her work with the medical team was canceled because of poor ticket sales.

As one editorial writer in The Arizona Republic noted: "Conservative Republicans seemed to achieve some sort of drug-rehab epiphany when Ms. McCain made her announcement. Politicians who had never uttered a single positive sentence about drug-prevention, -rehabilitation or -diversion programs suddenly thought they were just fine. Newspapers that often used words such as drug addict and thug as describing the same person suddenly had a new sensitivity to the problem. It seems that when Bill Clinton proposes significant drug rehabilitation and diversion, it is called a failed social program of the Sixties. When Cindy McCain needs one of those programs, they suddenly became an essential ingredient in fighting drug use."

* Dan Burton II, the 18-year-old son of Representative Dan Burton (R-Ind.), was busted in January 1994 in Louisiana on charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute while allegedly transporting seven pounds of pot in a car from Texas to Indiana. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, Burton and a friend "[allegedly] told agents that they heard marijuana was cheap in Houston, where they allegedly purchased the pot. The pair were coming from Houston, where they paid $6000 for the drugs." Even though Burton was involved in an interstate crime, his case was handled solely by officials in Louisiana. He pleaded guilty to felony charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and, instead of facing ten to 16 months in federal prison, Burton was sentenced to only five years' probation, 2000 hours of community service, three years of house arrest and random drug screening. After the arrest was made public, Congressman Burton declared: "Any time one of your children gets into this kind of trouble, it's horrible for the parents and for the whole family." Five months later young Burton was busted again after police found 30 marijuana plants in his apartment in Indianapolis. They also found a shotgun. Under federal mandatory-minimum rules, that should have guaranteed him at least five years in federal prison, as well as a year or more for his arrest while on probation for a previous drug charge. However, the case was again processed in the state system, where the penalties are significantly lighter. In a federal case, 30 pot plants are the equiva- lent of three kilograms of dope. State prosecutors decided that the total weight of the marijuana from the 30 plants was 25 grams, thus reducing the charge to a misdemeanor.

Under an agreement whereby Burton pleaded guilty to the charges in Louisiana, an Indiana prosecutor threw out all charges against him, saying, "I didn't see any sense in putting him on probation a second time." Once again, Dan II walked--unlike the roughly 37,000 other Americans in prison for marijuana crimeS.

* In 1993 John Murtha, the 35-year-old son of Representative John Murtha (D-Pa.), received a sentence of 11 to 23 months in jail after pleading guilty to selling a gram of cocaine to a narc. Murtha had been busted for two burglaries in 1980 and for armed robbery in 1985. He had served four years in prison and was on parole at the time of his arrest. He could have faced more than ten years in prison if he'd been prosecuted under federal guidelines. Had the crime occurred in a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" state, he would have faced life imprisonment.

According to the Pittsburgh PostGazette, the judge allowed Murtha to temporarily withdraw a plea bargain and resubmit it at a later date so he could enter the jail's school-release program and continue his education. The judge felt that a college degree would offer Murtha a Better chance at rehabilitation.

* On August 16, 1991 Susan Gallo, the 33-year-old daughter of Representative Dean Gallo (R-N.J.), was busted for her supposed role in a drug ring that sold $16,000 worth of cocaine to narcotics agents. Gallo was charged with five counts of cocaine possession, five counts of intent to distribute, five counts of distribution and five counts of conspiracy. Each charge could have carried a sentence of five to ten years in prison. In December 1991 she pleaded guilty to one count of distribution and one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. At the same time, her father announced she had just completed a drug-rehab program and was living in a halfway house. The congressman announced, "I'm very proud of her effort to rehabilitate and her acknowledgment of the seriousness of her problem." She was sentenced to five years' probation in September 1992.

* Warren Bachus, the 19-year-old son of Congressman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), was busted on June 19, 1993 for second-degree possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. Rather than being convicted and sentenced to jail, he was set free in a "pretrial diversion remedy." Bachus had to pay $56 in court expenses and was required to submit twice to drug testing in the following six months.

* In 1993 Josef Hinchey, the 26-year-old son of Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), was busted along with more than a score of accomplices for allegedly running a drug ring in upstate New York. Hinchey was accused of possession with intent to distribute individual cocaine doses, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison Hinchey pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to 13 months in prison, with the term suspended until he completed a drug-treatment program.

* Perhaps the most special treatment was granted to the son of Vice President Al Gore. It was reported in the foreign press that 13-year-old Al Gore III was caught smoking what appeared to be marijuana by school authorities at the exclusive St. Alban's School. Al III was suspended as a result of the offense while his father managed to suppress the story. The Daily Telegraph of London noted: "The crusading American media and Washington's political elite have closed ranks to protect Vice President Gore from embarrassment over his teenage son's indiscretion." If what young Gore was smoking was indeed marijuana and he had been busted for possession, that could have resulted in fingerprinting, mug shots and a drug-possession conviction on his juvenile record.

If we are going to fight a war on drugs, we should at least demand fairness. Let the children of the poor be judged by the same standard as the children of the rich and powerful. Instead of sending regular citizens to jail under harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, let every citizen qualify for house arrest, pretrial diversion, work-study programs, community service and probation. Or hang all of them. All politicians, that is.