Doing Life for Marijuana: A Case Study in Waste

Monday, May 23, 2011

Earlier this month, a Louisiana judge sentenced a 35-year-old man to prison for the rest of his life—for marijuana. According to the Times-Picayune, Cornell Hood II was charged with one count of possession with intent to distribute after law enforcement found approximately two pounds of marijuana and $1,600 in cash in Hood’s home. The jury convicted him of a lesser charge, but the prosecutor used Hood’s prior convictions to seek a life sentence anyway, arguing Hood was a “career criminal.”

What were Hood’s prior convictions? In 2005 and 2009, he pled guilty to selling marijuana. Obviously, Hood has been making his living selling marijuana for the past half-dozen years, and selling marijuana for recreational use is still a crime in this country. But Hood’s offenses involved no violence, no damage or theft of property. He was sentenced to probation in each of his prior cases.

Setting aside the question of whether jailing a person for life for marijuana can be ethically justified, let’s look at whether it’s smart.

In 2003, the Louisiana Department of Corrections estimated an average annual cost per prisoner of $30,000, but also explained that costs can balloon to $70,000 per year for prisoners over the age of 50 due to medical expenses. So, Hood’s life sentence could easily cost the taxpayers of Louisiana upwards of $2 million—and that’s without taking into account the rising cost of health care.

What kind of return is Louisiana getting on that investment? According to the 2009 report One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections [pdf], published by the Pew Center on the States, researchers have learned that “deterrence is more a function of a sanction’s certainty and swiftness than its severity.  This means that the 36th month of a three-year prison term costs taxpayers just as much as the first month, but its value as a deterrent is far less.” Moreover, the “replacement effect” that applies to crimes that are part of a market, “most notably, drug transactions,” further diminish the potency of incarceration in reducing crime. “Once incarcerated, drug dealers tend to be quickly replaced by new dealers.”

So, Louisiana taxpayers are going to spend a lot of money to warehouse a nonviolent marijuana seller for the rest of his life. Does anyone seriously think it will be harder to buy marijuana in Louisiana? We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the “War on Drugs” declared by President Nixon on June 17, 1971, and we have bloated our prisons with nonviolent offenders sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences that exceed sentences for violent crimes like rape and assault. The result? According to Office of National Drug Control Policy director Gil Kerlikowske, “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified. … We’ve never worked the drug problem holistically. We’ll arrest the drug dealer, but we leave the addiction.”

Stated another way, U.S. drug policy heavily invests in supply-side strategies aimed at trying to take dealers out of circulation, and shortchanges demand-reduction strategies that would have a more profound impact on the drug market. Preventing and treating addiction are much more cost-effective than punishing it.

Government budgets are a zero sum game. Every dollar spent arresting, prosecuting, and jailing a person for drug use is a dollar that could have been spent on a school, family support services, community development, or basic health care. And we know several proven, evidence-based prevention strategies that strengthen families and individuals through community- and school-based support and intervention programs. These are strategies that protect families and individuals from the risk factors that we know contribute most significantly to substance abuse: stress, separation, poverty, and loss.

Will policymakers catch on?

There is reason for hope. Cities like Seattle have employed a number of new strategies for responding to street-level drug crime that focus more on expanding the role of public health and community support than the criminal justice system. This fall, Seattle and King County will be collaborating in the launch of a novel pre-booking diversion pilot program that will allow police officers to divert low-level drug offenders directly to services instead of jail.

On the other hand, Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, a state that consistently ranks in the top five for incarceration rates, just signed a law into effect that allows a judge to sentence someone to life in prison for making hash from marijuana.

Some habits are hard to kick.

Cross-posted to Open Society Foundations.