Interview: representative bill mccollum

Representative Bill McCollum
Republican Congressman from Florida's Fifth District, Chairman of the House Crime Subcommittee.

I am much more concerned about the loss of life to drugs and to the crime that's going on out there and the need to stop it and protect our innocents and our citizens than I am about anybody's concern over informants... How is the war on drugs doing?

Well, I don't think it's doing as well as it should be doing, because it's not seeing the leadership from the top, especially from President Clinton, that it deserves. We have a larger quantity of drugs on the streets today than we've had in the history of this nation, and they're cheaper in terms of price. We have teenage drug use in the country that's doubled since 1992, and the resources that were being used--that is, the ships and the planes and the military as well as many other resources in interdiction--have dissipated, ... have been sent overseas to Bosnia or the Middle East or whatever ... .

We see parents not as concerned perhaps as they should be. A whole generation who grew up with marijuana smoking, who don't realize maybe that marijuana is 10 times more potent today in many cases than it was when they heard about it in the 1960s. I think there is a general laxity in society on use. And there's no leadership, so it's in bad shape in that sense and it needs to be jumpstarted, in my judgment.

Even though we've spent billions of dollars and have thousands in jail?

Well, there are a lot of people in jail today. Most of those who are in jail in our prisons in the United States for drug involvement ... are either violent criminals or multiple drug offenders. ... We need to have criminals who traffic locked up and the key thrown away. But ... you can't expect law enforcement to provide the solution to the drug problem. ... I think what we're doing in law enforcement is the correct message and the correct way of going about it. What I think we need to be doing is more efforts to stop drugs from coming into this country in the first place ... .

What is the correct message?

There are a lot of messages that need to be sent to the criminal who is out there dealing in this on the streets of the United States. We need to send the message of swiftness and certain punishment. We need to take the big cocaine dealer and lock him up and throw away the key for as long as we can, and if he deals in large enough quantities we need to give him the death penalty which federal law provides. ...

Why do prosecutors go after small dealers?

There are actually very few small dealers that are being prosecuted. You got people in the law enforcement community today who occasionally, and not very often, but occasionally are trying to get deals to find the big guys, and so they offer a deal to somebody to testify. It's the only way they get the case made against the big guy, and sometimes, once in a while, the small runner doesn't cooperate and they wind up getting an extraordinarily long sentence because the law permits that. ... But I can tell you, I'm not very sympathetic to that. I'm sympathetic to the kids on the streets who are losing their lives to these drugs, and to the effort we need to be expending to correct the problem. The minimum mandatory sentence is not nearly the problem today that the drug issue is itself and the loss of life connected with that. ...

So you agree with the current domestic enforcement policies?

I have no problem with the judicial system in regard [to] what we're doing. We're trying to lock up people, most of them very bad people who are causing a problem. Ninety-three percent of those who are in our state prisons for drug dealing are there because of violent offenses or they're there for multiple offenses, and almost all of the people who are there in the system for cocaine trafficking are there for large quantities; in the federal system it's an average of 183 pounds on the person, not some little pocket change amount. So I think we're doing the right thing by what we're doing in our federal law enforcement system. The problem is that we're having them inundated. They're being swamped. They're having to arrest everybody they can because we have this huge quantity pouring into the country and a president and an administration that is not doing what it's required to do and should do to stop that quantity from getting here in the first place. ...

Are there many small-time dealers in prison who were convicted on conspiracy charges?

There are very few people in jails today in the United States [who] didn't deal in large quantities of the drugs. You've got people who are involved in major drug dealing who are the vast, vast majority of those who are in our prisons today ... . Occasionally you'll run into somebody that's in there on a conspiracy charge because that's the easiest way to get them convicted, but that doesn't mean they haven't convicted multiple offenses. They're violent offenders with a long track record--look at their histories. When they put out the statistics that seem to show these poor innocent people who are involved, they're not poor innocent people. They're people who have long histories and the judges have probably sentenced them to long sentences in large measure, or they're getting the minimum mandatories because they are repeat, multiple offenders. There are very few people out there who [did not have substantial] drug trafficking histories before they were ever put away, and for those that are there, they're there usually because the prosecutor has tried to get them to cooperate and they've refused to squeal on somebody who is higher up. Now I don't necessarily condone that process for those handful, but I'm going to tell you, the problem isn't with these people. These aren't the innocents. The innocents are the drug victims. The newborns that are born drug addicted because these guys are selling the stuff on the street.

Do you respect squealers?

I don't care whether I respect them or I don't respect them. I respect a system that says we're going to put every bit of pressure on anybody we have to put it on to get to the drug dealer who is bringing his poison into the country. I think Americans want to see that happen, they want to see people locked up who are the bad drug dealers who are dealing in these huge quantities. ...

You have no problem with informants?

I have no problem with informants whatsoever.

But isn't there a tremendous incentive for them to lie?

I am much more concerned about the loss of life to drugs and to the crime that's going on out there and the need to stop it and protect our innocents and our citizens than I am about anybody's concern over informants. Good Lord. Informants are the way of life in American justice, whether it's a drug issue or not. It's part of our judicial system. It's a good system, if it's run properly.

Now you have to have a check on law enforcement, and that's why we can't have coerced confessions. You have lots of other constitutional protections. And everybody who gets a trial gets the right under our system to appeal if any of their constitutional rights have been abused, but let me tell you, informants are one of the [best] ways of getting information and the other way is to get it through wire taps. It's about the only way you can get at organized criminal behavior in this country today. When you get a lead, you follow that lead and the most important part of it is you're getting at somebody really bad, nine times out of 10 [someone] higher in a really major drug trafficking operation. ...

But most drug busts aren't major.

Most busts lead to major ultimate results. ... I know what Rudy Giuliani's done in New York is terribly impressive in reducing the rate of violent crime and heavy crime in his city, because he's gone after the lower level of crime. He's proven by what he's done that by community policing, and that means getting at misdemeanor crimes, getting at low level drug traffickers, he has gotten at the big guys more effectively than he would otherwise, because one leads directly to the other. The bottom line is that most of the efforts that go on into turning people into jail for any lengthy jail time, minimum mandatory sentences and so forth, deal with major traffickers, deal with people who are dealing with multiple offenses and violent crimes and long histories or some combination thereof.

So most people in jail are big dealers?

You bet they are. Most of them are those kind of people and if you see a study that shows you something different, you got to look at the details of that study because you probably missed the fine print and the fine print's going to tell you that the criminal histories of these people is horrible and they're there for a reason. There are rare cases somebody can cite ... but you're not going to find a consistent pattern of people who are there who are dealing in very small quantities that have no criminal histories and are really innocent. Most of those who are there are really the bad people that should be there.

You have no problems with snitches?

I have no problems with informants because while they may not always be reliable, they give us leads and you go on and find other proof and when you go to try somebody in court, you have to prove they're guilty to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, and if you can gain information from informants or snitches, that's fine. That's not what necessarily convicts somebody. That would be just one piece of evidence. But it does give you a lead. And you need that lead. How else are we going to find the bad guy? If you don't have informants and you can't eavesdrop, law enforcement would never be able to protect society from these major criminal enterprises.

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