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How a basketball player’s drug overdose led to today's mandatory minimums

The drug laws written to help people like Len Bias have instead put thousands of nonviolent offenders in jail

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the heroin epidemic reaches unprecedented levels, the country seems poised to take a softer approach to dealing with drug crimes, calling for more treatment instead of jail time.

That represents a large shift in drug policy for the U.S., which responded to the crack cocaine epidemic of the ‘80s by imposing harsh drug sentences, known as mandatory minimums. For decades, tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders, many of whom were black men, were imprisoned under the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

Now, mandatory minimums, acknowledged as a major contributor to racial bias in sentencing, are up for debate in Washington. Many also point to the primary demographic of heroin users – coming mainly from white, well-connected, suburban families – as one reason for the country's changing approach to drugs.

But what’s often forgotten in the debate is the basketball player who sparked the rush to create tougher laws: Len Bias.

He was a powerhouse on the hard court, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year at the University of Maryland and a two-time All-American player. He’s been called the greatest player to never play in the NBA, but his legacy would transcend basketball.

In 1986, the Boston Celtics drafted Bias as its No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft (he was second overall in the draft). But before the celebrations ended, Bias was dead, due to a cocaine overdose.

It didn’t take long for Congress to spring into action. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat from Boston, returned to Washington, D.C. after a recess and demanded an immediate overhaul of the current drug laws.

Eric Sterling, counsel to the House Judiciary Committee at the time, helped write what became the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which introduced mandatory minimum penalties, among other things.

“No one was slowing this train down,” said Sterling, who called the law a “rush job,” and says it was politically driven to help the Democrats look tough on crime and win the midterm elections.

He added: “We would not have had mandatory minimums if it had not been for Len Bias, because that changed the whole political equation.”

But mandatory minimums, intended to target major drug dealers, instead netted low-level offenders, many from neighborhoods just like the one where Bias grew up.

Sterling says the law was never a deliberate attempt to target minorities, but that the rushed legislation made it easier for police and prosecutors to go after small time dealers instead of high-level traffickers.

America Tonight looks at the life and legacy of Bias and traces the history of one of the most controversial policies of today.  


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