A report and editorial in the New York Times this week detail some of the unfortunate consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing, a policy in which judges are severely constrained in what sentences they are required to mete out to offenders. The editorial, titled "An Invitation to Overreach," discusses how mandatory minimums undermine the judicial process:
A Times report this week shows how prosecutors can often compel suspects to plead guilty rather than risk going to trial by threatening to bring more serious charges that carry long mandatory prison terms. In such cases, prosecutors essentially determine punishment in a concealed, unreviewable process -- doing what judges are supposed to do in open court, subject to review.
And mandatory minimums don't make sentences more even across different cases or for different types of people, an argument that is sometimes made. In fact they have made disparities worse, by transferring power from judges, who theoretically at least are neutral, to prosecutors, who effectively decide what the sentences will be because they determine what charges to bring:
These laws were conceived as a way to provide consistent, stern sentences for all offenders who commit the same crime. But they have made the problem much worse. They have shifted the justice system’s attention away from deciding guilt or innocence. In giving prosecutors more leverage, these laws often result in different sentences for different offenders who have committed similar crimes.
Other issues discussed by NYT including racial disparities in these laws' application, and their severe cost-ineffectiveness. Here's another reason to get rid of mandatory minimums: They are immoral and indecent.
The War on Drugs, which is celebrating its 40th year, has been a colossal failure. It has curtailed personal freedom, created a violent black market, and filled our prisons... While we would support the total demise of federal marijuana laws, this bill simply constrains the federal government to its proper role [of regulating interstate commerce].
But they would celebrate the bill's passage as progress, if it could happen -- partly because of how it would help medical marijuana:
In addition to bringing federal pot laws in line with the Constitution and allowing states to pass reasonable marijuana policies, this law would eliminate the frightening discrepancies between state and federal policies regarding "medical marijuana." In a society under the rule of law, a citizen should be able to predict whether the government will deem his actions illegal. And yet in California and Montana, businesses that sell medical marijuana — an activity that is explicitly sanctioned by state law — have been raided by federal law-enforcement officers.
A good reminder that support for legalization spans the ideological spectrum -- it's not just a liberal issue, it's an issue of good sense.
In one particularly interesting column, "The Crime Rate Puzzle," Radley Balko (recently hired away from Reason by the Huffington Post) examines what academics think about the causes for the much-touted drop in crime of recent years. "Did incarceration reduce the crime rate, or did it get in the way?"
Sam Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska and one of the top scholars of policing, tells Balko:
Conservatives say the crime drop was because of incarceration. Liberals say it was programs like community policing. I don't think there's much convincing evidence for either."
Academic consensus, according to Balko, exists for just two factors: the ebbing of the crack trade after its peak in the late 1980s, and the growth in the economy since 1992. In this understanding, part of the drop in crime is due to the previous rise having been an aberration -- the new drug crack, shorter acting and marketed in poor neighborhoods, brought in a larger number of transactions each day and new fighting over turf. When the trade restabilized and the use of crack diminished, violence went back down to more normal levels. And over the longer term, a big part of the drop in crime is the growth of the economy, leading to lower unemployment, more jobs in the licit economy, less desperation, etc. "[I]t seems that as we live better... we live better," writes Balko.
Balko's willingness to question whether imprisoning more people has really reduced crime is especially important in light of the willingness of some academics to oversimplify that very question. In a generally insightful column published last month, sociologist James Q. Wilson was willing to question how much of the drop in crime was accounted for by the increased in incarceration, and even whether some types of incarceration really do address violence, low-level drug dealers in particular. But overall it is as simple to Wilson as to say "when prisoners are kept off the street, they can attack only one another, not you or your family."
Of course it's not that simple. The prisoner kept off the street may have a younger brother who becomes embittered by his sibling's absence, and is driven to crime for that reason. The money spent to incarcerate that person might instead have funded an after-school program serving dozens of at-risk youths, possibly preventing a number of criminal careers from ever beginning. Ultimately such questions can only be answered by research. Wilson's willingness to entirely omit such questions from his discussion makes it less likely to shed light on that particular point, and it ignores research calling the assumption into question. As Balko cites:
In a series of studies published in 2009, the University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld and the SUNY-Albany sociologist Steven Messner found that during the last 15 years, states with lower incarceration rates saw bigger drops in crime, on average, than those with lock-'em-up policies. Moreover, the historic increase in the prison population began in the early 1980S, a decade after the crime rate began to rise and a decade before it started to fall. The incarceration rate increased by more than 100 percent in the 1980s, but violent crime still increased that decade, by 22 percent.
Also omitted by most authors, but not Balko, is the prohibition issue. "[W]ere it not for drug prohibition, we could well be living in the safest era in American history." A good reason not to be complacent about the state of crime and the criminal justice system in America today.
The Exile Nation Project (D.C. Screening)
Time: Wednesday, June 8 · 5:30pm - 8:30pm
Location: Busboys and Poets, 5th & K NW
Go here for tickets: http://enpdc.eventbrite.com/
openDemocracy & The Tedworth Charitable Trust
...in association with Exile Nation Media...
The Exile Nation Project:
An Oral History of the War on Drugs & the American Criminal Justice System
a film by Charles Shaw
Please join us at Busboys & Poets for a screening of The Exile Nation Project. There will be a reception preceding the screening and Q & A to follow with the Director and Eric Sterling (Criminal Justice Policy Foundation), Sanho Tree (Institute for Policy Studies) and others TBA. Hosted by openDemocracy, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Marijuana Policy Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance.
June 8, 2011
5:30pm Doors, 6:00pm Screening
Busboys & Poets
5th & K
Visit us on Facebook:
A limited number of tickets will be available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis, but seating is limited, so advance purchase is recommended:
Recommended Donation: $30 - $10 (sliding scale)
Your donation helps to pay for the space and travel expenses.
View the trailer:
About the project:
The Land of the Free punishes or imprisons more of its citizens than any other country. This collection of testimonials from criminal offenders, family members, and experts on America’s criminal justice system puts a human face on the millions of Americans subjugated by the US Government's 40 year, one trillion dollar social catastrophe: The War on Drugs; a failed policy underscored by fear, politics, racial prejudice and intolerance in a public atmosphere of "out of sight, out of mind."
The United States has only 5% of the world's population, yet a full 25% of the world's prisoners. At 2.5 million, the US has more prisoners than China. 8 million more languish under some form of state monitoring (1 in every 31 Americans). On top of that, the security and livelihood of over 13 million more has forever been altered by a felony conviction. The American use of punishment is so pervasive and so disproportionate that The Economist magazine declared in 2010, "Never in the civilized world have so many been locked up for so little."
The Exile Nation Project is not just one film - it’s an online archive of interviews, short films, and other features that will grow over the next two years. Our foundation grant got us off the ground and helped us make the first film, but we need to raise $7,000 by the end of May so that we can hold screenings in cities and Universities across the U.S. this year, as well as allow us to continue the process of collecting the testimonies that are the heart and soul of the Exile Nation Project.
Please make a donation to our Kickstarter campaign: http://kck.st/dVKDLD
Every little bit helps get the word out to more people.
When the stories hit home, people get involved, and policy can finally begin to change. It is our greatest hope that once these voices find a broader audience, people of the US will feel compelled to pressure the government to change these unfair policies and end the era of prohibition and mass incarceration.
Mexico’s Regional Newspapers Limit Reporting of Drug Trafficking Organizations’ Role in Prohibition Violence
I am heading downtown after finishing this blog post, to join my cohorts in the drug policy contingent at the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" this afternoon. There are hundreds of people we know are joining us, and we're hoping to recruit many more by handing out signs. The picture here is of signs that DPA made up for the occasion, a cartoon version of a recent John Stewart program where he commented that "the 'legalize pot' sign always shows up."
See an Alternet piece written by our friends Yair Tygiel of DPA and Stacia Cosner of SSDP, "Rally to Restore (Drug Policy) Sanity," and if you're in town stop by the StoptheDrugWar.org/SSDP office for pizza and Prop 19 phonebanking today between 3:00pm and midnight. And of course check back here for pictures.
A small but loud group of medical marijuana businesses are in the media claiming that Prop 19, California's "tax and regulate" initiative to legalize marijuana, would make marijuana less available to medical patients. Their arguments are demonstrably false, but the media has mostly given them a pass on it. I have a piece on Huffington Post today that calls them out. Check it out and then comment there and/or here.
While some California TV stations are censoring pro-legalization-of-marijuana ads, at least one Sacramento station has aired what is claimed to be the nation's first TV ad for marijuana itself:
CNN also covered the story.
Give up, prohibitionists. This one is so over.