March 16,1997 -- In the first-ever report on the human rights impact of drug sentences for low-level offenders anywhere in the United States, Human Rights Watch charges that the disproportionately long sentences in New York state contravene basic rights protected by international law. In Cruel and Usual: Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders, released today, Human Rights Watch finds that New York's laws are constructed in such a way that lengthy prison terms are mandated even for minor drug offenses. Such sentences violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment and Punishment.
In the past decade, the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures have established harsh criminal penalties for a wide range of drug offenses, often using the vehicle of mandatory minimum prison sentences. As a consequence, drug offenders in the United States face sentences that are uniquely severe among constitutional democracies. Supporters insist that severe mandatory sentences guarantee serious drug offenders are put behind bars, offer prosecutors leverage for securing cooperation from drug traffickers, deter prospective offenders, and enhance community safety and well-being. Opponents point to data showing the laws have had little impact on the demand for or the availability of drugs. Instead, they have resulted in the unnecessary confinement of low-level nonviolent offenders (most of whom are poor African-Americans and Hispanics), a staggering growth in prison populations, and a waste of public resources. Judges decry the excessive and unfair sanctions that mandatory sentencing laws can require in individual cases. Missing from the debate over drug sentencing laws, however, has been a critique of their human rights impact.
The summary and recommendations of this report can be viewed at http://www.hrw.org/summaries/s.us973.html on the web. Copies can be ordered for $6.00 including shipping and handling from Human Rights Watch, Publications Department, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6104, (212) 972-8400, or Global Book Marketing, Representation & Marketing Services, 38 King Street, London WC2E 8JT UK, +44(0)171 240 6649. Read about HRW's Drugs and Human Rights project at http://www.hrw.org/about/initiatives/drugs.html.
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