Sandra Parshall

Did you know that one out of every 31 adults in the U.S. is either in prison/jail or on supervised release from incarceration?

That startling statistic is in an article by Senator James Webb of Virginia that appeared in last Sunday’s Parade Magazine. I don’t usually regard this newspaper supplement as a source of sociological wisdom, but Webb’s piece is worth every citizen’s attention. Reform of the criminal justice system and our overburdened prisons is one of his keenest interests, and he has the facts, supplied by the Department of Justice, to back up his call for change.

The prison population in this country is up to 2.3 million. Another 5 million adults are on probation, parole, or other correctional supervision. The U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its prisoners – 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, almost five times the worldwide rate of 158 per 100,000. As Webb says, “Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different – and vastly counterproductive.”

What we’re doing differently is putting a lot of people in prison for relatively minor and nonviolent offenses. According to the DOJ, fully one-third of all prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses. Almost half of all drug arrests in 2007 involved only marijuana. Almost 60% of those imprisoned for drug offenses have no history of violence or involvement in major drug sales. Four out of five drug arrests are for possession; only one in five is for dealing. While marijuana users are serving prison sentences, the Mexican cartels that bring drugs across our borders and into our communities, at an estimated annual profit of $25 billion, flourish unimpeded, and gangs from other parts of Latin America, Asia, and Europe are getting in on the action. Imprisoning users does nothing to stem the drug trade.

Our prisons are overcrowded and dangerous. People who commit offenses that other countries would treat as medical, mental, or social problems are thrown into institutions where violence is a constant threat and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis are rampant. Being caught with even a small amount of an illegal drug is enough to ruin a person’s entire future, if he survives prison. According to the DOJ, more than 350,000 adult prisoners are mentally ill. This is some of what we’re getting for the $68 billion we spend on corrections in this country every year.

Some state governments are beginning to realize that their corrections systems have to be fixed – if only because state budgets can’t continue to fund ever-increasing prison populations. Last week, Gov. Patterson of New York announced plans to roll back harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses. Across the country, politicians are pushing sentencing reform to reduce prison populations and costs. Of course, opponents claim that this amounts to coddling criminals and that we should be building more prisons.

Senator Webb proposes a national commission that would take a comprehensive approach to corrections reform and provide guidance to states dealing with overburdened prisons and court systems. Like so many other problems we face in this country, the chaos in our prisons seems overwhelming, and plenty of people will throw up their hands and say it can’t be fixed. But it must be fixed, whether at the federal level or state by state. We can’t look the other way and allow this mess to get worse.

What approach do you favor? Do you believe nonviolent offenders should be given lighter sentences, or probation and community service instead of prison terms?

Do you believe nonviolent offenders should be incarcerated with those convicted of violent crimes?

Do you think drug use should be treated as a crime or a medical problem?

Do you believe marijuana use should be decriminalized?

Read Senator Webb’s article here:

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Comment by Dana King on April 4, 2009 at 4:07am
Jon's comment brings to mind another argument to counter the "gateway drug" theory revolves around the old "the sun rose because the rooster crowed" argument. (Or, as George F. Will would say, Post hoc ergo propter hoc. I just love throwing that in.)

Do alcohol and tobacco use lead to stronger drug use, or are people who are incling to abuse stronger drugs also likely to use those as well? To me it's similar to the Serial Killer Triad. Almost all serial killers showed bed-wetting tnedencies beyond the age where it's acceptable behavior, and had histories of animal abuse and fire setting. Doing those three things doesn't make someone a serial killer: there are a lot more bed wetting, animal abusing fire setters than serial killers. But just about all serial killers have done those things before moving up to the big leagues. They're symptoms o the greater problem to come, not causes.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 4, 2009 at 3:21am
The counter to the "gateway drug" argument is that alcohol and tobacco are also gateway drugs, in the sense that their use in teens is a strong indicator of future drug use. And yet they're still legal for adult consumption.
Comment by John McFetridge on April 4, 2009 at 1:19am
The other thing to consider is the "gateway drug" label that's often applied to marijuana. Although it's very rarely a gateway drug for the user, it's almost always a gateway drug for the seller. That is, once someone gets into the illegal drug business it includes all illegal drugs. So, millions of people use the almost completely harmless marijuana but (unless they grow their own) they help to finance the importation and manufacture of every other illegal drug.

The "retail outlets" may be different, but most drugs come from the same wholesale suppliers.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 4, 2009 at 1:05am
driving under influence is dangerous and as far as I know there are good scientific evidences that usage of marijuana damages the brain.

Driving under the influence of over-the-counter cold medication is dangerous: that doesn't mean we should send people to jail for taking Nyquil. I'd like to see a link to any serious study that shows that marijuana damages the brain--I don't think there are any. There's some evidence that suggests that it can trigger psychotic episodes in psychotic people, but that doesn't seem like a good enough reason to throw tens of thousands of people in jail--not to me, anyway. Here's a fact that people tend to overlook: there is no recorded case in human history of a human death due to marijuana overdose. Here's another one: unlike alcohol and tobacco, its consumption is not linked to any known serious illness or disease. Unlike alcohol, it doesn't make people violent--it makes them want to order a pizza. The thing that ultimately brought down the Tommy-gun toting rum-runner gangs of the 1920s was, of course, the end of prohibition. Legalize pot and you'll knock the legs out from under the illegal drug trade. Legalization is probably the only way to do it, in fact.
Comment by B.R.Stateham on April 4, 2009 at 1:00am
Benjamin's comments about taking organized crime's money is dead-on accurate. Recently some remark was made by a DEA agent which said the same thing. Take the money away from the drug gangs, and the gang usually disappears.

But throwing more people in jail is not the answer. We ruin too many lives already with our Puritan ethic left-over righteousness.
Comment by Bernd Kochanowski on April 3, 2009 at 9:11pm
I don't think marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol --it's less so

Sandra, I don't think that marijuana is less harmful, driving under influence is dangerous and as far as I know there are good scientific evidences that usage of marijuana damages the brain.

Anyway, on my blog I linked to the article on Poe's Deadly Daughters and one of my readers mentioned Wacquant. And this one gives the question a quite different spin:
On any given day, upwards of one third of African-American men in their twenties find themselves behind bars, on probation, or on parole. And, at the core of the formerly industrial cities of the North, this proportion often exceeds two thirds.
Comment by Benjamin Sobieck on April 3, 2009 at 1:40pm
The best way to fight organized, illegal trade is to hit them in the pocketbook. Economics has and can win wars, including the "Drug War." Remember Al Capone? It wasn't a flurry of bullets that brought him down. It was taxes.

Decriminalize illegal drugs and you take money from violent cartels. They will go broke. If I could find the dang link, there was an article recently about how a major drug lord in Mexico supported the U.S. War on Drugs. It kept him rich.

Blast, I can't find the link. But you'll have to take my word for it.
Comment by Dana King on April 3, 2009 at 12:31pm
Jon, you're right. I agree completely. I think we have to make enforcement a little more even handed. Put some white suburbanites away with the city boys, see if we can kill off some of the non-addict traffic. Right now some of these guys aren't really worried about prison. Community service, a fine, maybe probation, while the city kid goes away. If DeAngelo has to do time for possession, then so should Biff. Just to see if it makes a difference. I'm not married to the idea.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 3, 2009 at 11:29am
Cracking down on demand hasn't worked out all that well.
Comment by Dana King on April 3, 2009 at 11:11am
You're right, but...
Drug gang wars are a logical consequence of the profits to be made because of the high demand for illegal drugs. Cracking down on demand, either through treatment or stricter enforcement against users, regardless of their environment, will reduce the amount the amount of drug gang warfare.

The fact also remains that, especially for drug crimes, a black from the city is far more likely to do time than is a white from the suburbs for the same offense.

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