by Michael Kiroff
In August of 2015, I was arrested and received multiple felony drug charges. I was facing one to 20 years in prison, but I was given a second chance and was given the option of doing drug court. If completed, all my charges will be dropped. Unfortunately however, many people aren’t so lucky. If I would have been charged federally, I would have received a five year mandatory minimum sentence and I would of had to serve 87% of that sentence. Also, if I were ineligible for drug court, which is much harder to get into in some counties, I would have been stuck with multiple felonies for the rest of my life.
Going through the legal system has opened my eyes to many things. I’ve seen how it can positively affect people and how it can negatively affect people. I’ve seen drug court help people as well as make people’s lives miserable. Some of the people on drug court right now used to be hardcore addicts who were going nowhere and have turned their lives around. However, there are many others who are on drug court for small scale weed, prescription drug or cocaine crimes and drug court has made their lives absolutely miserable. This experience has shown me that the US needs to decriminalize drugs and get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses.
The US government needs to stop treating drug use as crime. We need to start migrating to a more liberal approach on drugs. Harm reduction and education has proven itself, time and time again, to be more effective than prosecution. Some people think that legalization and regulation would be the best way to deal with drugs. However, there are way too many people in this country who are extremely against drug use and have such a narrow minded view on drugs that it would not be feasible to make that proposal at this time. Also, some of the drugs out there are much more dangerous than others and it would be very hard to argue which ones should be legalized and which ones should remain illegal. Therefore, I am going to keep things simple and just argue for decriminalization. Which means, drugs would still be illegal, but would be treated as a civil infraction rather than a criminal charge. Drug dealing, however, would still be a prosecutable offense in my proposal. However, there would be no mandatory minimums for those kind of crimes, so the sentences given out for drug dealers would be much less draconian than they are now.
The opposition argues that drug use and criminal activity would increase if drugs were decriminalized. However, the country of Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and that didn’t happen.. If you are caught with drugs there, you will be sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. They’ll decide to either have you go to treatment, give you a minor fine or send you off without any punishment. Portugal had a bad period of rampant drug use after it transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy in 1974. They originally tried to fight drug use by vilifying drug users and enacting harsh laws. This did little to solve the problem. Since decriminalizing drugs in 2001, frequent drug usage, overdoses, and HIV infection rates have all gone down (Aleem). The incarceration rate has also gone down as well. Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent and co-author of the aforementioned criminology article, said, “The main lesson to learn decriminalizing drugs doesn’t necessarily lead to disaster, and it does free up resources for more effective responses to drug-related problems” (qtd. In Aleem).
The US currently makes up around 4.4% of the world population, but it makes up approximately 22% of the world’s prison population. We currently have the highest incarceration rate in the world and roughly half of them are incarcerated for drug related offenses. Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, pointed out that the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980, while the US population has only risen by a third (Silvestrini).
A mandatory minimum sentence is a the absolute minimum prison sentence that can be given out for a certain crime. The current federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that we know today were put in place by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law enacted harsh penalties for a variety of different drugs. These are the sentencing guidelines that the law put in place:
Source: Sterling, Eric E. “Drug Laws and Snitching: A Primer.” PBS. N.p., Jan. 1999. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
As you can see, these laws are not only harsh, they are discriminatory. Crack cocaine, which is most popular in African American communities, is treated on a scale of 100 to one compared to powder cocaine. Five grams of crack would get you as much prison time as 50 grams of powder cocaine. The Obama administration changed the sentencing guidelines to a more reasonable (still not reasonable) 18 to one ratio. That’s the only federal mandatory minimum sentencing guideline that’s changed since 1986.
In 1994, a “safety valve” was created for people who were charged but provided substantial assistance to the case. These people could be sentenced for prison terms less than the mandatory minimum. However with the way conspiracy laws were set up, it caused many more people to get lengthy mandatory minimum sentences. Conspiracy laws work like this: “If a defendant is simply the doorman at a crack house, he is liable for all the crack ever sold from that crack house… he is liable for all of the crack ever sold by the organization that runs the crack house” (Sterling). So in a sense, the “safety valve” idea backfired. It ended up sending more people to prison for lengthy terms because when people would turn information over to the police in order to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence, they would tell on everybody even remotely involved and they would all be federally indicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
Source: Sterling, Eric E. “Drug Laws and Snitching: A Primer.” PBS. N.p., Jan. 1999. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
The current system in place dooms many drug offenders for the rest of their lives. The jails and prisons in our country seriously lack the resources for inmates to learn skills and trades that they could use on the outside to find work. This, coupled by many companies’ overly uptight human resource departments who make it almost impossible for convicted felons to find decent jobs, plus the fact that felons are ineligible for student loans, makes it almost impossible for felons to have a stable life after prison. And with all of their newly made criminal connections that they made behind bars, going back to a life of crime is almost impossible to avoid for most of them. Also, many of them were not well off to begin with and come from bad neighborhoods and poor families. Selling drugs for many of them is not a way to make some extra cash, it’s a means of survival. Michael Jacobson, who ran New York City jail system in the 90’s and now directs a nonprofit organization called the Vera Institute of Justice said:
“Look at the people who are coming out of prison — drug-addicted, mentally ill, no stable housing — of course they’re going to fail parole… The system is set up for failure. The institutional mind-set is, ‘We don’t have enough money to deal with your issues, but we have enough money to catch you.’ It’s like shooting fish in a barrel” (qtd. in Katel).
Not only are the prisons systems failing to rehabilitate prisoners, they are costing taxpayers an insane amount of money. A study was done and it found, from data used from 40 states, that each inmate costs taxpayers on average $31,286 a year per inmate (Santora). And with more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US, that comes out to around $69 billion a year total and that’s probably low-balling it. Over 45 percent of those inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes, so if we could even cut that number in half that would save taxpayers over $15.5 billion annually. Glazer points out that “in the past two decades, the amount of money states have spent on prisons has risen six times as fast as the amount spent on higher education” (“Sentencing Reform”).
Drugs courts and SSAS (Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision) probation have been greatly increasing in population over the past decade. And although they are a much better alternative than prison, I’ve seen them make people’s lives completely miserable. It’s basically adult timeout. These types of probation are designed for people seriously addicted to drugs and many people on these types of probation only had very minor drug charges. A 21 year old who’s caught with 3.5 grams of cocaine doesn’t deserve to be put through multiple years of intensive probation, however that happens many, many times. Also, people who receive federal drug charges aren’t given the option of participating in SASS probation or drug court instead of going to prison, so they are pretty much completely out of luck.
All of the money and resources that our state and federal governments are spending on catching and locking up people involved in drugs could be spent on other things that would help better the community. Decriminalizing drugs and getting rid of mandatory minimums for drug crimes would free up tons of resources for us. We could spend more money on treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts and actually make an effort to solve the problem instead of putting them in a cell, locking the door, and throwing away the keys. This country is supposed to be the land of the free, but our current drug policies go against that principle. It’s time we wake up and make a change.
Aleem, Zeeshan. “14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like.”
Mic. N.p., 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2017. <https://mic.com/articles/110344/14-years-after-portugal-decriminalized-all-drugs-here-s-what-s-happening#.0FbWz9u8k>.
Glazer, Sarah. “Sentencing Reform.” CQ Researcher. CQ Press, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 Apr.
Katel, Peter. “Prison Reform.” CQ Researcher. CQ Press, 6 Apr. 2007. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.
Santora, Marc. “City’s Annual Cost Per Inmate Is $168,000, Study Finds.” The New York Times.
The New York Times Company, 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/nyregion/citys-annual-cost-per-inmate-is-nearly-168000-study-says.html>.
Silvestrini, Elaine. “Mandatory minimums keep many nonviolent people behind bars.” TBO.com.
Times Publishing Inc., 17 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2017. <http://www.tbo.com/news/crime/mandatory-minimums-keep-many-nonviolent-people-behind-bars-20130817/>.
Sterling, Eric E. “Drug Laws and Snitching: A Primer.” PBS. N.p., Jan. 1999. Web. 25 Apr.