Under current federal guidelines, the sentence handed down last week for former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel for distributing cocaine seems fair. The larger question, however, is whether the justice system can come up with more creative ways to deal with non-violent drug offenders such as Ravenel.
Ravenel, who resigned as treasurer soon after his arrest in June, will spend 10 months in federal prison, pay a $250,000 fine and repay the state the $28,000 cost of electing his successor. Ravenel initially was charged with distributing up to a pound of cocaine, but in a plea agreement, both sides settled on distribution of less than 100 grams, or about a fifth of a pound.
That made him eligible for a lighter sentence. He could have received up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, although the recommended punishment under federal sentencing guidelines is 10 to 16 months behind bars and a $250,000 fine.
In announcing the sentence, U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson cited evidence that Ravenel had thrown at least 30 parties where he handed out cocaine to friends and used it himself.
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"I'm not going to treat him any better than anyone else nor ... worse than anyone else," Anderson said at the hearing.
Before sentencing Ravenel, the judge gave codefendant Michael L. Miller -- a 26-year-old self-employed disc jockey from Mount Pleasant who allegedly sold Ravenel cocaine at least five times -- the same 10-month sentence. No fine was assessed because, Anderson said, Miller was too poor to pay it.
Miller may end up doing more time. He was arrested three days after his plea on charges of assaulting a Mount Pleasant police officer. That case still is pending.
Nonetheless, the evenhanded sentencing of the wealthy scion of a Charleston political family and the man who sold him drugs is appropriate. While Ravenel didn't sell cocaine, he bought and distributed large amounts of it, which is not far removed from dealing.
But is society best served by putting Ravenel in jail? A recent report by the Pew Center on the States found that the United States has the highest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world. More than 2.3 million Americans are behind bars at a cost to the states of about $50 billion a year. And many of those prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders like Ravenel.
Judge Anderson offered what may be the best rationale for sentencing Ravenel to prison: Respect for the law. He argued that the public would have perceived a miscarriage of justice if Ravenel, with his wealth and social standing, had not been given a prison sentence.
But the argument for more inventive sentencing applies not only to the privileged but also to the low-level offenders on the street. Why not offer both a closely supervised probation program with public service and mandatory drug treatment? For those who lack skills to find a job, include education and job training.
Anderson is right in saying that Ravenel deserves no special treatment. But Ravenel is a good example of a defendant likely to mend his ways and become a contributing member of society again -- even without a jail sentence.
Taxpayers will spend about $15,000 a year to house and feed Ravenel in a federal prison. We question whether that is money well spent.
Is society best served by sending Ravenel and other nonviolent drug offenders to prison?
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