On Monday, July 13, 2015, President Obama commuted the prison sentences of 46 drug offenders whose punishments did not match the crimes committed. Obama said this was part of a larger effort to reform the entire criminal justice system, which would include a review of sentencing laws and a reduction of punishment for nonviolent criminals.
Out of the 46 people commuted, 13 were sentenced to life in prison. Obama, in a letter written to each of these individuals, said that they had demonstrated that they were worthy of a second chance. He also said there are going to be many doubters, and it’s up to them to prove everyone else wrong. Broadly, Obama has called for a reduction in mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders.
This is a good start to reducing the absurd number of people we have locked in jail. While the United States accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, we account for 25% of the world’s prisoners. There were nearly 1.6 million people behind bars in the United States at the end of 2013, and generally, it costs us over $60 billion every year to keep people locked up.
Most people agree that we need to keep violent criminals locked up. But most people would also agree that we shouldn’t be locking people up for simply using drugs. Drug abuse is a medical condition and not a criminal concern, and we are wasting billions every year keeping these individuals locked up.
Commuting Sentences for Nonviolent Offenders Saves Money
It’s no secret that incarcerating an individual costs the country a lot of money. According to the Vero Institute of Justice, that figure is roughly $31 thousand per state prisoner. From the data of all 40 states surveyed by the Vero Institute, it costs $40 billion per year to house prisoners in those 40 states. CBS News estimates that when including the other states as well as the costs of federal prison, the entire industry costs us $63.4 billion per year.
The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that 1.5 million people every year are arrested on nonviolent drug charges. Out of those 1.5 million people, nearly half were arrested for violating marijuana laws, and 88% of those arrested for violating marijuana laws were for simple possession only. Moreover, 50% of people in federal prison are there for drug offenses. 16% of people in state prisons are there for drug offenses. In total, there are roughly 300,000 people in prison right now for nonviolent drug crime.
Assuming an average cost of $31 thousand per prisoner, the United States could save $9.3 billion every year by releasing these nonviolent drug offenders. This savings also doesn’t include the price of arresting these individuals to begin with. If we reformed our laws and didn’t arrest people for possession or distribution of marijuana, the ACLUestimates that we could save an additional $3.6 billion per year.
Criminalizing a Health Issue
In the United States, we have made drug use a felony. An individual’s addiction to illicit substances can result in incarceration. Logically, how does this make any sense? Prisons and jails are supposed to protect the general public from dangerous individuals: killers, rapists, murderers, thieves, etc. Drug users don’t fall into any of those categories. They are only hurting themselves.
If you want to make the argument that individuals shouldn’t have a right to hurt themselves, then we should outlaw cigarettes and alcohol immediately. And if you believe that people under the influence of illicit drugs pose a threat to others, then we really should outlaw alcohol immediately. Alcohol has been clinically proven to make individuals more violent, confrontational, and more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior or commit sexual assault.
Should we Reform Incarceration of Drug Dealers as Well?
Taking the argument one step further, is it truly wise to be incarcerating drug dealers to the degree that we do right now? Most people automatically assume drug dealers need to be imprisoned because they are pushing dangerous substances onto vulnerable people. But to put it in perspective, think about someone dealing alcohol on the black market (i.e., somebody who makes their own alcohol and sells it to others). Should we be throwing that individual in jail for years? Does our culture treat that person as a grave threat to society?
There is a distinction to be made here, before proceeding any further. Marijuana dealers should not be criminalized, in my opinion. They are dealing a substance that has been proven to be less dangerous than alcohol. So, just as imprisoning an individual dealing liquor on the street makes no sense, it makes even less sense to imprison an individual dealing marijuana.
For other more serious drugs, there are legitimate concerns about the societal tolls. Heroin, crack, meth, cocaine, and MDMA have all been shown to have very damaging health effects on the individuals who use them. But when compared to the damaging effects of the most popular drug (alcohol), the results are quite surprising.
In a widely cited study from the UK published in 2010, a panel of experts used a scale to weigh the impact that drugs have on the individual and society in general. While heroin, crack cocaine, and meth are all more harmful to the individual, the study found that alcohol, when you combine the effects it has on the individual and on society as a whole, was actually the most dangerous drug. The societal harms from alcohol were more than double the harm caused by heroin, meth, or crack. Granted, alcohol is a very widely used drug, while the others are much more targeted to a smaller group of people. It’s possible that once these drugs are legalized, the negative effects against society will be more pronounced.
The point though is that these drugs that have created so much fear and angst among public officials are not as bad as we thought, and some of the mandatory sentences for dealers of these substances are expensive, harmful and absurd. For example, do we really think that the person who’s dealing an ounce of cocaine needs to go to prison for a minimumof FIVE years? Or that the person selling hallucinogens like LSD or Magic Mushrooms can face up to fifteen years in prison? These laws are in place in Connecticut right now, and laws in many other states aren’t too different.
Ultimately, it comes down to a question of what we believe our prisons are for. Most people like to believe that they are used to keep dangerous people off of the street. In reality though, our society uses them to punish people who demonstrate behavior that the state deems as unacceptable. If we were really trying to keep dangerous people off of the street, we would be cracking down on the rampant abuse of alcohol. We aren’t though, because the government has deemed the copious consumption of liquor as an acceptable behavior, as long as you are over the age of 21. There is a fundamental inconsistency in the way we handle drugs. As a society, we should demand that the government treat the use and sale of drugs differently than they do now. Maybe then, we can reduce the size of our ballooned prison population.
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