David R. Henderson  

One Cost of the Drug War

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We walk the floor. He stops. We stop. "You know what is stupid?" he says. "I see murderers. I see rapists. I see robbers. And then I see, the vast majority is in here for bein' stupid enough to smoke a joint too close to a school. Twenty-five years, federal mandatory. Then you got somebody that slaughtered a whole f**king family gets 25 to life and he's out in six to eight." (About one-fifth of Winn inmates are in for drug-related crimes. Getting busted with a joint near a school will typically land you about six years, not 25.) Edison's indignation about drug criminalization surprises me. "Now, where's the f**king justice in that? And we're paying how much per inmate per day?"
This is from Shane Bauer, "My four months as a private prison guard," Mother Jones, July/August 2016.

I read the whole piece and it's long. I recommend it. It's riveting, for way more reasons than the excerpt I cite above. Once you read it, then, if you're a fan of private for-profit prisons, I predict that you will be less of one. It would be interesting to see someone do the same for a government-run prison. Whatever bottom line you come to about private vs. government, one partial solution is to have fewer peaceful people go to prison. That's why the quote above is relevant. We often hear that almost no one goes to prison simply for using marijuana. Edison, quoted above, may have exaggerated with that number as he did with the length of the prison sentence, but it does appear that some people who smoke joints near schools do go to prison.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime




COMMENTS (16 to date)
Richard writes:

What percentage of the federal or state prison population is there for simple possession of drugs?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Richard,
What percentage of the federal or state prison population is there for simple possession of drugs?
By “simple possession,” I don’t know.
Of course, the note above was not about simple possession but about two things beyond: (1) actually smoking it and (2) doing it near a school.
And I don’t know the numbers for that either.

anomdebus writes:

He who pays the piper calls the tune. If the piper goes off script and the patron does nothing, whose fault is it?

Floccina writes:

If we cannot at this time get full legalization perhaps we could at least reduce the punishment to be more in line with the crime. A fine for or community service (like picking up litter) for smoking a joint near a school. Pay restitution for theft.

ThaomasH writes:

With due respect to these costs of incarceration in the US, the real cost are in the drug generated violence in Mexico and Central America.

David R. Henderson writes:

@ThaomasH,
With due respect to these costs of incarceration in the US, the real cost are in the drug generated violence in Mexico and Central America.
Not “the,” but “some.” There are real costs here too. But I chose the title of this post carefully.

Roger McKinney writes:

I have heard on NPR that 25% of prison population was convicted for mere possession.

According to the US general responsible for Latin America, drug gangs are the major cause of immigration to the US. People are fleeing the violence.

ThaomasH writes:

Agreed. Your costs are surely "one" and not insignificant. Still, I do think the costs in lives and violence abroad are much greater.

Graymerica writes:

In addition to the cost of prison for minor drug users/ dealers, is the fact the possession may have caused them to violate parole, being a felon keeps them from getting good jobs, and the whole cycle repeats

The harm caused by drug laws far out weighs the Harm of the drugs themselves.

Richard writes:
I have heard on NPR that 25% of prison population was convicted for mere possession.

I did a bit of googling, and found this anti-drug war website.

Federal: "Fifty percent (95,800) of sentenced inmates in federal prison on September 30, 2014 (the most recent date for which federal offense data are available) were serving time for drug offenses (table 12, appendix table 5)...

According to the Justice Department, 5.3% of drug offenders in federal prisons are serving time for possession; 91.4% are serving time for trafficking offenses; and 3.3% are in for "other."


http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Prisons_and_Drugs#sthash.0BDXHGNd.dpbs

So .05*.5 means that about 2.5% of those in federal prison are there for possession.

In state prison, it appears that the number is about 4%.

No way of knowing how much of those are individuals who pleaded down from something else, or were just repeat, habitual offenders who were a blight on society anyway.

Maybe legalization is a good idea, but it seems a myth that the drug war is responsible for mass incarceration.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Richard,
it seems a myth that the drug war is responsible for mass incarceration.
I agree.

Paul T writes:
Maybe legalization is a good idea, but it seems a myth that the drug war is responsible for mass incarceration.

Why does trafficking vs. possession matter here? Many (I suspect most) of those in jail for trafficking wouldn't be criminals if drugs were legalized.

Richard writes:

Paul,

I guess you're right, although I don't really feel bad for traffickers, as they know they kind of business they're getting into. That's why criminal reform activists tend to not focus on dealers, but would like us to believe that the jails are filled with otherwise decent people who only wanted to smoke a joint.

But even if you total up possession and distribution, you only get to 14% of total prisoners, federal and state. Mass incarceration is overwhelmingly the result of the dysfunctional subcultures we have in the United States and the non-drug crimes that they commit. If you released everybody in prison for a drug offense, we're still way ahead of Europe in incarceration.

sarah writes:

Check out this article about the present state of bills around the US pertaining to the War on Drugs and another overview of the issue. It gives great context to the current state of this war in US legislation.
https://www.billtrack50.com/blog/civil-rights/the-war-on-drugs-americas-number-one-public-enemy/

Jacob A Geller writes:

* 2016, not 2006

:-)

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Jacob.

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