Most policymakers have moved away from the notion that someone arrested for a non-violent drug crime should be locked up and the key thrown away. Instead, recent history has shown that treating violent and non-violent drug crimes equally only exacerbates the problem for both the offender and the community. Not only is increasing the prison population with inmates who don’t belong there fiscally irresponsible, but putting someone in jail for countless years because they sell drugs to feed an addiction or their family is morally repugnant. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.
But this notion of reform is at odds with how drug czars perceive the epidemic today. They’ll argue that the benefit of getting drug users and dealers off of the street, at all costs, far outweighs the cost incurred with incarcerating offenders.
William J. Bennett and John P. Walters, the czars appointed by George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush respectively, recently penned an op-ed quite literally calling drug dealing a violent crime. The assertion was in reference to The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act currently before congress that has garnered wide support from both Democrats and Republicans.
In the op-ed the duo says, “How can drug trade be victimless when most Americans know a victim? How can it be non-violent when we witness the carnage every night on the local news?”
Unfortunately, they ignore two important aspects: personal responsibility and rehabilitation. More often than not, people willingly buy and abuse drugs, they are not being forced fed. Also important to consider is that while they are willingly buying and abusing drugs many do so because of addiction. The point of sentencing and corrections reform is not to incarcerate more non-violent drug offenders, doing so will just create a void that someone else will fill, but it is to increase access to diversion, treatment, and rehabilitation programs. Policy that truly aims to reform the problem doesn’t support mandatory minimums, which only increase the chance that an offender will reoffend once released.
A sad example of what over-criminalization can do is Sharanda Jones from Terrell, Texas. Jones is a first-time non-violent offender sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole. In August of 1999, Jones was found guilty by a jury in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack-cocaine, but acquitted of the remaining six counts of possession.
Jones was arrested for being the middleman between a drug supplier and buyer, who both have since been released. Because of “sentence enhancements” introduced during the height of the drug epidemic, Jones was assigned numbers to offenses and enhancements. Sentence enhancements allow the sentencing judge to increase or “enhance” a sentence depending on the circumstances.
After all was said and done the judge had one punishment option, “Under the guidelines, that sets a life sentence, mandatory life sentence.” To be fair, after serving 16 years President Obama recently commuted her sentence. Also, since Jones’ arrest and conviction there have been advancements in federal sentencing guidelines and she probably wouldn’t receive the same sentence today. But her case is just one of many that get dealt a punishment that far outweighs the crime.
Bennett and Walters’ point of view is arguably out of step with the way society currently views the drug epidemic. Most would agree that while Jones did indeed commit a crime, that crime doesn’t warrant life in jail. Bennett and Walters would probably disagree.
Their way has been tried time and time again and data shows that treating non-violent drug offenders as violent criminals introduces them to a life that they cannot escape.