Scott Sumner  

Legal in some states, life imprisonment in others

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Defenders of the War on Drug Using Americans often tell me that people almost never go to jail for mere possession, rather it is the evil "dealers" who are imprisoned. (I must admit that I don't see why one side of a voluntary transaction is more evil than the other.)

Tyler Cowen linked to this Wonkblog post:

Police arrest more people for marijuana use than for all violent crimes -- combined

On any given day in the United States, at least 137,000 people sit behind bars on simple drug-possession charges, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.

Nearly two-thirds of them are in local jails. The report says that most of these jailed inmates have not been convicted of any crime: They're sitting in a cell, awaiting a day in court, an appearance that may be months or even years off, because they can't afford to post bail.


And as in so many areas of our society, there are racial disparities:

The report finds that the laws are enforced unequally, too. Over their lifetimes, black and white Americans use illicit drugs at similar rates, according to federal data. But black adults were more than 2½ times as likely to be arrested for drug possession.

Many of the prison sentences seem ridiculous:

The report reinforces its point by noting the lengthy sentences handed down in some states for possession of small amounts of drugs.

For example, it sketches the history of Corey J. Ladd, who was arrested for possessing half an ounce of marijuana during a 2011 traffic stop in New Orleans. Because he had convictions for two prior offenses involving the possession of small amounts of hydrocodone and LSD, he was sentenced in 2013 to 17 years in prison as a "habitual offender." He is currently appealing the sentence to Louisiana's Supreme Court.


And it gets even worse:

But Ladd's treatment is far from the harshest drug-possession sentence uncovered by ACLU and Human Rights Watch researchers, who conducted analyses of arrest and incarceration data from Florida, New York and Texas.

In Texas, for instance, 116 people are currently serving life sentences on charges of simple drug possession. Seven of those people earned their sentences for possessing quantities of drugs weighing between 1 gram and 4 grams, or less than a typical sugar packet. That's because Texas also has a habitual-offender law, allowing prosecutors to seek longer-than-normal sentences for people who have two prior felonies.

"In 2015, more than 78 percent of people sentenced to incarceration for felony drug possession in Texas possessed under a gram," the report found.


Both Trump and Clinton support the war on drugs, which is why neither will get my vote. And that's probably why it doesn't come up in the debate. But the voters have other ideas, as both selling pot and possessing pot is now legal in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, and will likely be legalized soon in many other states, including California. Canada is also expected to follow suit. Meanwhile taxpayer money is spent destroying lives in places like Texas, for possessing a single gram of illegal drugs.

And yet despite these horrific statistics, the War on Drugs gets less attention in the media than the question of which bathrooms various genders should be using.

PS. This source suggests that 12.4% of federal drug prisoners are in for marijuana violations, and 44.3% of those had minimal criminal histories (no previous time in prison.) About 85% were not carrying a firearm.

PPS. I will be a a panel at Boston University on Saturday, discussing marijuana legalization. My state is voting on the issue on Tuesday--the only ballot question where a good outcome is even feasible. The info is below.

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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime , Liberty




COMMENTS (13 to date)
Roger Sweeny writes:

Almost everyone in prison in the United States is there because of a "plea bargain." They are charged with a number of crimes but before trial agree to plead guilty to one or more of the less serious charges (thus saving everyone the time, expense, and uncertainty of a trial). Statistics showing "what a person is in prison for" are not terribly accurate. When the statistics say "simple possession," there is almost always more going on.

Of course, that doesn't make the "War on Drug Using Americans" a good idea, and I will be voting on Tuesday for Massachusetts Question Four, "Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana."

GregS writes:

Bravo! Drug prohibition is possibly the worst thing our government does. It’s at least in the top two or three. I wish economists would comment more on it. You and your co-bloggers have certainly been good on this point.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

While I agree that honest drug dealers are no more punishment-worthy than drug users, it shouldn't be difficult to see why people think that they are: because of "exploitation", or for the slightly less emotively inclined, bargaining power disparities. The idea is that the poor addicts can't help themselves, so the dealers have them over a barrel. Not so different from arguments for prohibiting "exploitative" but voluntary labor contracts, or punishing those who purchase sex workers' services even when there is no evidence of coercion.

We libertarians can point out till the end of time that restricting voluntary transactions is a morally dubious and practically terrible way to help those with relatively bad/constrained choice sets, and we'll be right, but if we appear blithely unaware of the popular concern about "exploitation" we will be less effective.

Richard writes:
The report finds that the laws are enforced unequally, too. Over their lifetimes, black and white Americans use illicit drugs at similar rates, according to federal data. But black adults were more than 2½ times as likely to be arrested for drug possession.

Could it be the fact that blacks are several times more likely to commit violent crime, therefore having interactions with law enforcement that could lead to interactions with the police? The same arguments are used against capitalism. It causes racial disparities, it must be bad.

I decided to google Corey Ladd, and within two minutes found this.

Rather, according to the State, the defendant is exceptional only in that his prior convictions were for simple possession, noting that the trial court actually found him to be a “repetitive and unrepentant drug dealer” who was “not committing [his] crimes because he has an addiction,” but because he carried on a “business and an enterprise where he engaged in illegal activities in the City of New Orleans causing [disruption].”

http://cases.justia.com/louisiana/fourth-circuit-court-of-appeal/2016-2015-ka-0772.pdf?ts=1460624851

Keep in mind that this was the case that the ACLU chose to highlight.

Sort of like how Obama was releasing "non-violent drug offenders," who all happened to be crack dealers carrying guns. I don't think you would call crack dealers with guns "non-violent" unless you were doing so for political reasons.

I used to buy into the anti-war on drugs propaganda. Then I started using google to find out more about the very people the soft on crime crowd wants us to sympathize with.

Gwen T. writes:

"And yet despite these horrific statistics, the War on Drugs gets less attention in the media than the question of which bathrooms various genders should be using."

Google trends says that "war+on+drugs" gets an order of magnitude more attention than "transgender+bathrooms".

https://www.google.com/trends/explore?q=war%20on%20drugs,transgender%20bathrooms

Also note that Donald Trump discussed his plans to expand the war on drugs in the second and third debates, but neither candidate discussed transgender bathrooms in any of debates.

Scott Sumner writes:

Roger, I agree. As I said, some of these are bad people. But being a bad person is not a crime. The government is only allowed to imprison people for the crimes for which they've been convicted.

Thanks for voting.

Thanks Greg.

Nicholas. I agree that that is the perception. In fact, dealers are probably MORE addicted to money that pot smokers are addicted to pot. So the disparity is a myth, but yes, it's out there. And as you say, it biases the public's view of many economic issues. People are (rightfully) outraged by racial discrimination by employers, but not racial discrimination by employees.

The comparison with prostitution is interesting. Again, the sellers have traditionally been the one's sent to prison, although in a few places that is beginning to change.

Richard, Have you ever wondered why there is so much "violence" associated with the selling of drugs, but not cigarettes or alcohol? Except during 1920-33, when there was also a lot of violence associated with the selling of alcohol? You seem to be saying that putting people in jail for drugs solves a problem of violence in America. Perhaps we are worsening the problem? Check out what happened to America's murder rate almost immediately after alcohol was legalized in 1933. (It plunged sharply)

You said:

"Sort of like how Obama was releasing "non-violent drug offenders," who all happened to be crack dealers carrying guns."

Last time I looked it was legal to carry a gun in America. I don't doubt some bad people carry guns, but it doesn't seem far fetched that self defense is also a motive---they often work in unsafe areas. I think it's perfectly ethical to sell drugs, and if you carry a gun while doing so I have no problem, unless you use it for non-defensive purposes.

Gwen, Maybe I'm wrong, all I can do is describe what I see in the media--I haven't looked at the data. I'm not surprised that Trump wants to expand the war on drugs--he reminds me of the new president of the Philippines.

The media I read have more articles complaining about the injustice of Guantanamo than the injustice of the war on drugs.

Richard writes:
Richard, Have you ever wondered why there is so much "violence" associated with the selling of drugs, but not cigarettes or alcohol?

I understand that point completely. It's just that given that drugs are illegal, most people involved in the trade are likely to be violent menaces. So most people don't feel sorry for them, and assume that they're probably doing other bad stuff. I tend to think that they're correct.

Last time I looked it was legal to carry a gun in America. I don't doubt some bad people carry guns, but it doesn't seem far fetched that self defense is also a motive---they often work in unsafe areas. I think it's perfectly ethical to sell drugs, and if you carry a gun while doing so I have no problem, unless you use it for non-defensive purposes.

I just don't think that your vision of the moral drug dealer is likely to be based in reality. There may be crack dealers who are otherwise great citizens, but I doubt it, since

1) Moral people are likely to not want to go into an illegal trade that is known for being violent; and
2) In a violent industry of criminals, the honest and upstanding will probably be driven out of business.

john hare writes:

@ Richard

I just don't think that your vision of the moral drug dealer is likely to be based in reality. There may be crack dealers who are otherwise great citizens, but I doubt it, since

1) Moral people are likely to not want to go into an illegal trade that is known for being violent; and
2) In a violent industry of criminals, the honest and upstanding will probably be driven out of business.

3. If it were not illegal, it would not be staffed by criminals.

BC writes:

@Richard: "given that drugs are illegal, most people involved in the trade are likely to be violent menaces"

@john hare: "If it were not illegal, it would not be staffed by criminals."

It didn't occur to me before, but I guess one way of thinking about drug criminalization is that it favors violent, criminal drug dealers over non-violent, otherwise law abiding, drug dealers. Usually, we like to favor non-violent, law abiding people.


@Scott: "My state is voting on the issue on Tuesday--the only ballot question where a good outcome is even feasible."

I thought the charter school expansion question is evenly split between Yes and No?


"And as in so many areas of our society, there are racial disparities"

All the Massachusetts ballot questions this year seem to have a racial or income inequality dimension. Question 1 authorizes one more slot machine parlor license, likely to fail. I believe lower income earners are more likely to want to play slots. Question 2 expands charter schools; favored by non-whites (and Republicans by the way), opposed by whites (and Democrats). Question 3 outlaws "factory farming" of eggs, pork, and veal, even outlawing sale of these factory-farmed products *from other states*. Setting aside the Commerce Clause issues, the resulting increase to egg prices will probably disproportionately impact the poor. Question 4: already covered by Scott. So, all four questions this year seem to be cases of elite whites restricting activity and choices, including food and education, of minorities and the poor.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Scott,

The government is only allowed to imprison people for the crimes for which they've been convicted.

However, the government is allowed to mete out substantially different punishments for the same crime. In fact, sentencing and conviction are two different processes. The sentence is supposed to reflect various things that will inevitably differ between two different people convicted of the same crime.

It's completely possible for one person convicted of simple possession to get probation because it's a first offense and another to get two years because he has a long "rap sheet" and is "a known drug dealer." In a very real sense, that means that the second person is being imprisoned for a crime that he was not convicted of. Perhaps you think that's wrong. But that's what is allowed--and required!

The Original CC writes:

@Roger Sweeney:

I will be voting on Tuesday for Massachusetts Question Four, "Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana."

Am I the only one bothered by the fact that so many people favor expanded freedoms only so that they can tax it?

What if religion were illegal and someone said, "Hey let's legalize religious observance so that we can regulate and tax it!"

Sam Spade writes:

Thomas Pynchon is quoted as having said,

"If they can keep you asking the wrong questions they will never have to worry about answers"

The idea of a "war on drugs" is insane. But government is insanity personified.

Abstain from beans, my dear friends. Quit barking at coyotes. Sam

Sam

N. Joseph Potts writes:

Is it POSSIBLE that (some) judges get commissions, kickbacks, whatever, for imposing long sentences, from the jail operators? Up until I thought of this, I saw nothing wrong with contractor-operated jails (profits are OK with me), but THIS would be a volume builder.

Think about it: does this serve to explain sentences above the mandatory minima?

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