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May. 19 2010 - 3:10 pm | 122 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Non-violent offenders and the drug war

Andrew’s reader is mistaken on a couple of points in response to my ‘great, passionate rhetoric’:

Great, passionate rhetoric, and yet hopelessly flawed.  People in the U.S. ARE NOT incarcerated for “smoking marijuana.”  I would encourage you to read the annual report compiled by the Bureau of Justice Assistance which details demographic information about prisoners.

As you can see on pages 37 and 38, the majority of offenders in state prisons are there for violent offenses (50%). Another 20% are there for offenses that, while non-violent, take a significant financial and emotional toll on victims (burglary, fraud, etc.).  Another 10% are there for “public order” offenses, which sound innocuous, but which mean things like driving under the influence.  Is there really anyone out there who is going to argue that drunk drivers should be left out on the streets?

The last 20% are there for drug offenses.  But, they aren’t there for simple possession.  They are there for possession with intent to distribute or trafficking charges that require possession of drugs in greater quantities than the average user is going to have on-hand, and often coupled with weapons possession or other charges.

People who get busted in possession of small quantities of drugs, such as a single joint, almost 100% of the time are going to be slapped on the hand, pay a fine, or do community service.  In a worst-case scenario, they may get probation, but that will usually only occur if the possession charge occurs in the same incident as other offenses or if the offender already has a criminal history and is on probation/parole.

I’ve worked in the field of gangs for close to 20 years.  I’ve never yet, even out of hundreds of gang members that I’ve known and worked with, seen a person locked up for possession.

We simply do not have the jail/prison space anywhere in the U.S. to house offenders for low-level offenses like that.

Simple possession, 99% of the time, isn’t even going to result in an individual going to the local county jail.

I see the reader has cited some stats on the make-up of prison populations, which is great, but where he gets the 99% figure is beyond me. Until very recently, even my very liberal home town if you got caught with anything on you you were going to jail for the night. A lot of places have moved this down to a fine. That’s a step in the right direction, of course. In other places, you’ve got SWAT teams breaking down your door.

A few points:

First of all, simply having a record – even if it’s just an arrest or a misdemeanor – can seriously dampen someone’s job prospects, their ability to rent an apartment, and other similarly mundane but important things in their day to day life. This is especially true for people in lower economic classes who may not be able to afford an attorney and who have much less stable economic situations.

Second, a number of cities around the country have three-strike laws. This means that you could get busted for smoking pot three times and then spend years or even decades in jail.

Third, remember that drug bust Radley Balko posted?  The SWAT team found a small bag of pot. I don’t know if the guy went to jail or not, but his dogs were killed, his wife and kid traumatized, and he was humiliated by pseudo-military police in front of his family. As Balko noted at the time, this happens 100 to 150 times a day in America. My point may be little more than ‘great passionate rhetoric’, but I hardly think it’s unjustified. Maybe the vast majority of people in prison aren’t just non-violent pot-smokers – but what’s the difference? The war on drugs is at the root of the violence and the incarceration of violent offenders, too. If we got rid of the black markets, you’d see a huge drop in the number of violent and non-violent offenders in prison. You’d get rid of dealers who, according to this reader, make up around 20% of the population of inmates.

Most of the people locked up during alcohol prohibition weren’t just regular drinkers either. That didn’t make the efforts to ban alcohol any less futile, pointless, or in the end bloody and tragic.


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