Common Sense vs. Hysteria Based Approaches to Drugs

On June 12th US Representative Mark Kirk, 10th District of Illinois, introduced HR 2848 in the US House of Representatives titled the “High Potency Marihuana Sentencing Enhancement Act of 2009”. This bill increases the penalties for individuals trafficking in high potency marijuana. Kirk’s effort here is to increase the reach of the drug war. Instead, Kirk should be looking at the available evidence from a state that has reduced incarceration while also reducing crime. It is vital that a best practices philosophy be mandated so that policy is made on evidence rather than ideology.

In a recent report titled “Controlling Corrections Costs in Illinois: Lessons from the Coasts” Malcolm Young makes a strong case for legislators to learn from the experiences of both California and New York. Young, Adjunct Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law lays out a strong case that common sense approaches to criminal justice issues including sentencing and incarceration can reduce incarceration rates, expenditures on the criminal justice system, and lower crime rates.

Young delineates the different paths to criminal justice policy that have distinguished both California and New York as leaders in this country. California is the unchallenged leader in how “tough on crime” policies and political propaganda can bankrupt a state. New York on the other hand has definitely been led by a steadier hand less influenced by tough on crime propaganda and media spectacles and thus has managed to reduce crime at the same time they are reducing their incarceration rates and increasing diversion programs to keep people from entering the system. The State of New York is even working to significantly restructure or eliminate their harsh mandatory minimum drug laws called the Rockefeller laws that contributed significantly to increasing their prison population in the 1990s.

Facts from Young’s Report:
From 1995-2007 California increased its prison population by 41,111 prisoners or 31.2% and is rate of imprisonment by 31.2% and the state experienced marked reductions in property and violent crime. However, over the same time period, New York has decreased it prison population by 6,307 or 9.2% and its rate of imprisonment by 14.8%. New York experienced a reduction in property and violent crime greater than California’s.
(Young, 2009, p. 2)

Best practices needs to become the standard for how decisions are made throughout the entirety of the criminal justice system, including at the initial stage of policy making by our elected legislators. The sad note on this issue is that I doubt that Kirk or our other legislators, both at the federal and state level, have any true understanding of what the state of New York has been able to accomplish. Amidst all the propaganda during the 90s and the 00s the state has managed to reduce their prison population while also reducing expenditures and violent crime.
Can and should New York go farther, yes. Does New York, like every state in the union need to address massive disproportionate minority representation, yes. Is New York in a much better position to deal with both in 2009 and beyond than California, you bet. Politicians with political agendas rather than the best interests of their constitutions need to start practicing evidence based policy making and stop pandering to the racist hordes.

Here is the text of US Representative Mark Kirk, 10th District of Illinois, HR 2848 titled the “High Potency Marihuana Sentencing Enhancement Act of 2009”.

Section 401(b) of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 841(b)) is amended by adding at the end the following:

(8)(A) Unless a higher penalty is otherwise provided in this Act, in the case of a violation of subsection (a) involving high potency marihuana such person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than 25 years and if death or serious bodily injury result shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 20 years or more than life, a fine not to exceed the greater of that provided in title 18, United States Code, or $1,000,000 if the defendant is an individual or $5,000,000 if the defendant is other than an individual, or both. If any person commits such a violation after a prior conviction for a felony drug offense has become final, such person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than 35 years, and if death or serious bodily injury result from the use of such substance shall be sentenced to life imprisonment, a fine not the exceed the greater of that provided in title 18, United States Code, or $2,000,000 if the defendant is an individual or $10,000,000 if the defendant is other than an individual, or both. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the court shall not place on probation or suspend the sentence of any person sentenced under the provisions of this subparagraph which provide for a mandatory term of imprisonment.