October 22, 1999


We've all heard occasional news stories about how some of the drug laws enacted in the last 15 years may have gone too far. First time offenders get locked up for decades. Judges—even Republican appointees—say that mandatory minimum sentences prevent them from making fair rulings. But have sentences really gone too far? This hour examines the areas where a consensus is growing on the problems in federal drug laws, and it explains the areas where drug laws seem to be administered fairly.

From Chuck Coker.


Host Ira Glass with former Congressman Daniel Rostenkowski. When Rostenkowski began a term in federal prison, he met for the first time people who'd been locked up under harsh drug laws that he'd voted for himself. "The whole thing's a sham," he declares. He confesses that he didn't really understand the mandatory minimum sentences he voted for in the 1980s; he just followed the lead of colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, which drafted the laws. (6 minutes)
Act One

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The story of how a person could be sentenced to 19 years for drug possession—even if police found no drugs, drug money, residue or paraphrenalia—even if it's a first offense. Dorothy Gaines was an Alabama nurse with no prior record and no physical evidence of any drugs who was sentenced to 19 years. The only evidence against her was the testimony of admitted drug dealers who received reduced sentences in exchange for naming co-conspirators. (14 minutes)

Act Two

How We Got Here

We hear the history of why these drug laws were enacted from a firsthand witness. Eric Sterling was the lawyer in charge of drug laws for the House Judiciary Committee during the 1980s, when mandatory minimums were put in place. He tells the inside story of how the laws were rammed through Congress—with no input from judges, prison wardens or police officers—as part of a frenzy of get-tough posturing led not by Republicans, but by Democrats. (15 minutes)
Act Three

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Judges give their opinions of the drug sentencing laws. Terry Hatter is the Chief U.S. District Judge for the Central District of California. He says that under the current federal guidelines, 20 percent of the time he can't give the sentence he thinks will be fair. Judge Morris Lasker, of the Southern District of New York, a veteran of over 30 years on the bench, stopped hearing drug cases for several years. Eighty-six percent of federal judges believe the current guidelines need to be loosened. (6 minutes)
Act Four

A Night In Drug Court

Before this show ended we wanted to know—how typical are the horror stories? What happens in a typical drug case? To find out, reporter Nancy Updike spent nine hours in Night Narcotics Court in Chicago. What she discovers is that the system is working as fairly as one could hope or expect, with one caveat: Nearly all the defendants are African-American, even though the jurisdiction contains an equal number of white drug users. (15 minutes)