Thus, these law-enforcement officials were able to avoid any technical wrongdoing while lobbying for an increased legislative arsenal — feathering their own nests at the expense of liberty and sensible public policy.

Bear in mind, though, that our First Amendment protects not only speech, but also "the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." So state and local law-enforcement personnel, like other citizens, do have the right to lobby voters and even members of the legislature to promote more expansive criminal laws and stricter penalties. But self-serving lobbying and public-relations offensives, disguised as seeking protections for society, should be treated with exceptional scrutiny and skepticism.

Though disheartening, their actions are an age-old fact of life best described by Charles Dickens in his classic 1853 novel Bleak House: "The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself."

Coke vs. crack
A similar battle waged in Massachusetts last summer, when law-enforcement groups sought once again to thwart criminal-justice reform. At the time, a legislative effort to help nonviolent offenders find employment opportunities by changing Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) laws was brought before the State House of Representatives — and, thanks to the efforts of state Attorney General Martha Coakley and other law-enforcement officials, essentially squashed.

The proposed bill would have restricted the type of personal information that some employers receive, thereby assisting the many individuals saddled with CORI records who struggle to find employment and end up back behind bars.

Massachusetts's recidivism rates are nearly 40 percent, according to a study by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center. And the CORI law's branding of even the most innocuous offender is, by all accounts, partly responsible for this dismal situation. So advocates of the bill asserted that changing CORI could ease the massive overcrowding at the state's prison system, which the Department of Corrections recently estimated to be operating at "144 percent of capacity." (Currently, there are 12,000 inmates imprisoned — a disgraceful state record.)

Another aspect of that same failed bill would have reduced mandatory-minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, which advocates said also contribute to overcrowding.

As the law stands, anyone convicted of selling drugs within 1000 feet of a school zone automatically receives a two-year prison term — leaving no room for judicial discretion. That means a first-time offender with no record could receive more prison time than, say, an armed robber. And the mandatory nature of these sentences eliminates the possibility of parole.

Because of the numerous schools in dense urban areas, poor, black, and Hispanic populations are at a greater risk of facing the mandatory-minimum measures, according to a recent Prison Policy Initiative study.

Yet despite the clear inequalities in the current law, as well as the benefits that reform holds out to both taxpayers and public safety — not to mention liberty — the legislative term ended in July with no action taken on the reform legislation.

This problem with drug sentencing is nothing new. For more than two decades, prison-reform supporters have condemned the federal sentencing disparities for the mostly middle and upper-class defendants caught using cocaine, and the mostly lower-class, inner-city habitants caught with cheaper crack cocaine.

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Related: Are doctors complicit in prison torture?, Advocates renew challenge to punitive probation practices, Prison in turmoil, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Deval Patrick, U.S. Government, Cynthia Creem,  More more >
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