Pete Wehner makes a compelling case against legalizing marijuana. As a parent I’m easily amenable to the argument that legalization sends the wrong message to children. That said, a criminal justice system that locks up nonviolent drug offenders is ultimately unsustainable. So what to do?
Two ideas hold the most promise and would be more cautious steps than throwing the floodgates open for legalized pot use.
The first comes from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In July he signed a bill for mandatory drug treatment instead of jail time for nonviolent crimes. A report explains:
According to a 2010 report on New Jersey’s drug courts, 8 percent of program graduates later return to prison, a small number compared to the 43 percent reconviction rate of prison system’s general population. In its voluntary form, New Jersey’s program accommodates just 1,400 new participants each year, while failing, according to the governor’s office, to overcome the biggest hurdle to treating drug abuse: denial.
Under the new law, non-violent drug addicts could be sentenced to drug court regardless of whether they apply to the program. Judges would be given ultimate authority over whether offenders pose a threat to society, in which case they would not be sent to drug treatment.
“By expanding on the success of the voluntary drug court program and reaching even more people through mandatory treatment in their sentencing, we can save taxpayer dollars and, more importantly, help these individuals get their lives back,” Assemblywomen Bonnie Mercer, a Democrat, said in a release.
This, at the very least, prevents the nightmare scenario in which nonviolent drug users get transformed into hardened criminals in prison.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been portrayed of favoring drug “legalization,” which is not accurate. He is however concerned with prison sentences disproportionate to the offense. (“There are people in jail for 37, 50, 45 years for nonviolent crimes. And that’s a huge mistake. Our prisons are full of nonviolent criminals.”)
He does, however, urge review of federal mandatory minimum federal sentences, which take discretion away from judges. He writes in an op-ed:
In the last 30 years, the number of federal inmates has increased from 25,000 to nearly 219,000. That is nearly a 10-fold increase in federal prisoners, each of whom cost the taxpayers $29,027 a year to incarcerate. The federal prison budget has doubled in 10 years to more than $6 billion.
Half of the people sentenced to federal prison are drug offenders. Some are simply drug addicts, who would be better served in a treatment facility. Most are nonviolent and should be punished in ways that do not require spending decades in a federal prison, with meals and health care provided by the taxpayers.
He is introducing legislation to give discretion to judges to depart from mandatory minimums. This too would get at the prison overcrowding and the inappropriate incarceration of nonviolent drug users.
It would seem that many of the objections to drug laws (disproportionate impact on African Americans, prison overcrowding, criminalizing errant youths) can be solved while still maintaining the deterrent to drug use by keeping laws on the books. That seems to be fertile crowd for compromise between those legitimately concerned about increased drug addiction that would be spurred by legalization and those distressed with the current criminal justice system. Sometimes good policy does correspond with good politics.