April 24, 2024

Too Many Americans Behind Bars

KHOU in Houston reports that over 1% of the adults in America are in prison – more than China and, tellingly, more than Iran.  America is supposed to be the land of the free.  So why are so many of our citizens in the pokey?

Drugs, in a word.

KHOU says:

“After 15 years in the justice system, I can tell you undoubtedly what’s driving the train in our incarceration rates are drug offenders — and a lot of that is low-level drug offenders,” [District] Judge [Caprice] Cosper said.

Consider this, of the 50,000-plus felony filings in Harris County courts last year, 20,500 were drug possession cases.

“Of the 20,500 cases, about 12,500 cases were for possession of less than one gram of penalty group one controlled substances: crack, heroine, meth,” the judge said.

Boiling those numbers down, about 25% the felony cases in Harris county, which contains Houston, the largest city in Texas, are targeting nickel-and-dime drug users.

Presumedly these cases are rather simple to prosecute, which causes me to believe that they account for something less than 20% of the money spent by the county prosecuting felony offenders.  Still, it’s not chicken feed – some estimates put the national direct cost of drug enforcement laws at nearly $48B.

So why are we doing it?

There’s a long-standing notion in this country that precedent is as important or more important than current values when it comes to applying the law.  Drug possession is illegal, so we need to prosecute it, per prior precedent.  Obviously this assumes that decisions made in the past are correct.  In this case I don’t believe that’s true.

Instead of simply following along with the laws as they exist today America should question the past decisions that got us to this point as we do in regard to other issues.  What are the objectives of these laws?  Are those objectives truly desirable?  And are there better ways to achieve them?

Barack Obama previously suggested that very thing.  Unfortunately, he came at it from a racial angle, saying:

…let’s not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference is where the people are using them or who is using them.

Actually, the real difference is the danger of the drug, making Obama’s statement rather silly, particularly when uttered by the Great Uniter.  If drug laws are to exist, it makes perfect sense to require stiffer penalties for harder drugs.  But must we have them?

It’s clear that drug laws exist primarily to protect people from their predilection to abuse their bodies in return for a brief, pleasurable high.  Why is this important?  If this goal is examined rationally, I would suggest that it’s not important and that these laws exist on inertia alone.  If that’s true, these laws should be dispensed with.

If I’m wrong, are we going to start criminalizing other self-destructive behaviors, alcohol being the obvious example?  What about smoking?  Should this foul habit be made illegal as part of a Democrat’s universal health plan?  Or pre/extra-marital sex, a behavior that directly leads to a dysfunctional society?

I don’t think we should go there, for it seems to me that we’re already paying too high a price for attempting to protect people from their own self-indulgences.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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