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The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration
June 18, 2010 7:40 AM   Subscribe

The High Budgetary Cost of Incaceration (Full pdf) "The United States currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world. We calculate that a reduction in incarceration rates just to the level we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards) would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year, with the large majority of these savings accruing to financially squeezed state and local governments. As a group, state governments could save $7.6 billion, while local governments could save $7.2 billion."
posted by OmieWise (64 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
But they might get out and smoke a joint. Do you want that on your conscience?
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:45 AM on June 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


blahblahblahWillieHortonblahblahblahToughOnCrimeblahblahblahCommonSenseblahblahblahLibrulsblahblahblah
posted by Thorzdad at 7:50 AM on June 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


I haven't read the full pdf, but this doesn't seem to cover the probable tax income that could come out of having those released inmates working. So the numbers are even higher.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:55 AM on June 18, 2010


Michigan spends $0.20 on every dollar towards incarceration. More than on higher education.

I'd say my peace about all this but I've done it so many times before. I've just lost the will to resist.
posted by Avenger at 7:57 AM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Up here in Canada, our right-wing idiot-in-charge wants to expand our prison system. Because it's worked out so well in the US. Goddamn, but I despise Harper.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:57 AM on June 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Naturally, to keep the government from getting big, these prisons should be privatized. And the Constitution doesn't apply to private entities.
posted by DU at 8:02 AM on June 18, 2010


Wow, thanks, I thought that was really interesting; I wish they'd talked more about the idea that "A system of graduated, intermediate sanctions would give probation and parole officers and the courts authority to impose punishments short of incarceration for minor violations.", because that seems really important. I think that the budgetary issue is noteworthy and it's interesting to see statistics on it and if it helps get people to address this problem then that's great, but the problem isn't just the amount of money being spent, it's also that there are issues with the system and many people seem to think that prison/jail is the only option, even when it's bad for individuals and the community.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:05 AM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


There are now corporations that are paid by government at the federal, state and local level to keep people incarcerated. I think probably they would do whatever they could to make sure the trough stays full.

I'm sure it's happened before, but I'm having trouble coming up with an instance of a government program shrinking, if the shrinkage hurt the private sector.
posted by Mooski at 8:05 AM on June 18, 2010


And yet the people who despise taxes and love liberty never call for the prison doors to be opened.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:05 AM on June 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


Legalize the drugs and most of this goes away. For a failed experiment that involved two Constitutional Amendments, the creation of a violent underclass of criminals, filled prisons, distracted real law enforcement, and accomplished not one damn thing, Prohibition's lesson seems to have not sunk in at all. It astounds me that --as a society- we have decided we would rather have rampant criminality than admit a certain percentage of the population is going to try and get wasted somehow, no matter what steps we take. For fear that some of those will be our children.

Teach your children well and keep your 'Thou Shalt Not's-' to yourself would seem to be a far more economical and reasonable response. And the tax dollars...and the diminishment of the gangs, and the.....ah, never mind. What Avenger said.
posted by umberto at 8:06 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have been commenting on this situation for years (although not on this site). The US obviously puts too many people in prison and spends far too much money doing so. The biggest single error is the War on Drugs. Even though I agree that there are certain drugs which are very dangerous for people to use (including the legal drugs alcohol and nicotine) the social cost of trying to prevent people from indulging in recreational drug use is too high. Society should certainly educate people, and needs to protect children who are not competent to make their own decisions about many things, but beyond that, adults have to be allowed to live their own lives and choose their own risks. It is not clear to me that the drug problem actually would get worse if the War on Drugs were to end, given the tremendously high rate of drug abuse which exists despite all the efforts of law enforcement, but even if the rate of drug abuse does go up in a more permissive society, that is a choice that people must be allowed to make. Drug abuse falls into the realm of the victimless crime. Potentially a drug abuser can harm himself or herself, however, given that we all are the owners of our own lives, we have the right to harm ourselves if we so choose. People take lots of other risks which are seen as acceptable; for example, lots of people have skiing injuries, yet we still allow people to ski for purely recreational purposes. (Senator Sonny Bono even died in a skiing accident.)

It doesn't really end with the War on Drugs, however. I also think that all other victimless crimes should simply be reclassified as vices rather than crimes and not be subject to law enforcement. Let people gamble as they choose, let them engage in prostitution, or whatever other vices they like. It is not the business of society to legislate morality. Of course, that does not mean that anything goes. If people are enslaved by pimps, that is a crime. Prostitution would have to be of a voluntary nature. And so forth. You can gamble any way you like, but you can't break someone's leg for failing to pay a gambling debt.

There are many other ways in which the criminal justice system could be re-designed in order to put fewer people in jail and to spend less taxpayer money. Many offenses currently punished by incarceratiopn could be punished by fines, and/or community service, or other such means. Incarceration should always be the last resort, given its great cost.

I also think that for the more heinous crimes, capitol punishment is highly appropriate and it avoids the need to imprison people for long periods of time. Now before you all jump down my throat, yes, I am aware that lengthy appeals processes result in even higher costs for capitol punishment than for life imprisonment. There are usually millions of dollars in legal costs. But that does not have to be the case. I think that a balance can be found between the extremes of being too quick to execute people and thereby increasing the number of innocent people who are wrongly executed (and can never be brought back to life), and dithering endlessly about people who are obviouly guilty of terrible crimes and deserve to be executed ASAP. There is a golden mean.

So there are lots of different things that the US could do to reduce the absurdly high costs of putting people in prison.l Given the dire economic difficulties that the US has, and its insane level of debt, this is very important, as are various other cost cutting measures. The US cannot keep increasing its national debt forever! EVen the US has only a finite amount of credit, and can afford to pay only so much interest on its loans. We are reaching those limits. It is well past time to act.
posted by grizzled at 8:07 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


blahblahblahWillieHortonblahblahblahToughOnCrimeblahblahblahCommonSenseblahblahblahLibrulsblahblahblah

Yeah, really. Why aren’t conservatives outraged by these kinds of statistics? Try to raise the top marginal tax rate three percent and people start stringing up “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. But here you have the United States imprisoning more citizens than Russia and somehow that’s a-okay?
posted by Garak at 8:07 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Haha, as I repeat the sentiments of the dozen or so people before me. Another original comment™ brought to you by Garak!
posted by Garak at 8:08 AM on June 18, 2010


Fiscals concerns are not the reason mass incarceration and private prisons are a bad idea; when you try to argue on their terms you've already conceded everything important.
posted by enn at 8:12 AM on June 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, really. Why aren’t conservatives outraged by these kinds of statistics? Try to raise the top marginal tax rate three percent and people start stringing up “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. But here you have the United States imprisoning more citizens than Russia and somehow that’s a-okay?

Because the ones going to prison are more likely to be black, the ones being taxed at the highest tax bracket are more likely to be white.
posted by stavrogin at 8:13 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Astro Zombie: And yet the people who despise taxes and love liberty never call for the prison doors to be opened.

Don't be ignorant.

There are tons of examples where that's from. I googled and that was the first result. And note that the article is from 1994, this isn't some come-lately bullshit. What the fuck is your problem?
posted by grobstein at 8:13 AM on June 18, 2010


1st U.S. Prison Population Drop Since 1972
According to official state data collected by the Pew Center, 1,403,091 people were under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities on Jan. 1, down by 5,739 from a year earlier. The report, being released Wednesday, said this was the first year-to-year drop in the state prison population since 1972
posted by stbalbach at 8:20 AM on June 18, 2010


Sadly, grobstein, despite what people seem to think, the Cato Institute is not the same thing as the quasi-religious, semi-racist, wholly-ignorant far right dittoheads, teabaggers, whatever. It's a distinction not often made around here, but I find many of Cato's positions reasonable. This has long been one of them. Libertarians of their stripe are generally a little more concerned with individual freedoms than some of those they are lumped in with.

On the other hand, the actual far right would sincerely love to imprison anyone who doesn't agree with them, or at least that is the impression I get from watching all their reindeer games.
posted by umberto at 8:23 AM on June 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Society should certainly educate people, and needs to protect children who are not competent to make their own decisions about many things, but beyond that, adults have to be allowed to live their own lives and choose their own risks.

I wonder (this is really wondering -- please correct me if any of this is wrong) if part of the problem is that if things are legal we just don't have other recourses for dealing with them. This is sort of disproved by rehab for alcoholics, but if people are arrested for drug problems they can often go into treatment, something which may not be available to them unless the state orders it, so if we don't arrest people there's no way for them to get help. I don't think that means that arresting people is the right answer, I think it means that we need more options than incarceration. Unfortunately, that takes money, but if we could free up that money by incarcerating fewer people, that really seems like a net win.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:24 AM on June 18, 2010


I think that it is a bit misleading to say, as enn does, that fiscal concerns are not the reason why mass incarceration and private prisons are a bad idea. It would be more accurate to say that the amount of money spent on mass incarceration and private prisons is only one of the serious drawbacks of those practices. I would agree, however, that even if some hypothetical Galactic Corrections Institute with unlimited financial resources were to pay all of our prison costs, so that we could imprison as many people as we want without having to spend taxpayer dollars, we would still need to reduce the number of people who are put in prison. It really is not reasonable to imprison people for victimless crimes. But I still say that the impending bankruptcy of the US, and the various state and local jurisdictions that also pay prison costs, is a very powerful motive to reform the system. Bankruptcy is a serious problem. Just ask California.
posted by grizzled at 8:25 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


In response to Mrs. Pterodactyl, it is true that drug laws create an opportunity to force some people into drug treatment programs. But if such programs are actually helpful (and they sometimes are) then people who have drug problems would WANT to get help from drug treatment programs. And conversely, if someone does not want such help, it should not be forced upon him or her. We are the owners of our own lives, we get to decide how we want to live. If I use drugs and I don't think that this is a problem which needs to be remedied, then I am entitled to make that choice. You shouldn't get to decide for me. You run your life, and I'll run mine. Live and let live. And if I want help, I will seek it.
posted by grizzled at 8:30 AM on June 18, 2010


If I use drugs and I don't think that this is a problem which needs to be remedied, then I am entitled to make that choice. You shouldn't get to decide for me. You run your life, and I'll run mine. Live and let live. And if I want help, I will seek it.

Sorry, I might have expressed it poorly, my point is that right now we just don't provide sufficient access to treatment programs and things without an arrest. I don't think this means we should arrest more people, I think it means we should have more readily available treatment programs (I think I expressed that better in an earlier version of the comment, but it's what I meant by "we need more options than incarceration").
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:35 AM on June 18, 2010


What, so the rest of us have to live in fear? Come on!
posted by Flashman at 8:36 AM on June 18, 2010


victimless crimes Even crimes with victims -- the length of US prison sentences seem wildly out of proportion to retribution, deterrence, insert any other need. Sentences running in the decades, LWOP, all of these are increasingly in the same category as capital punishment for me. Do we really want to imprison all of these aging guys in their 60s and 70s? (At least 10 to 20 percent of the prison population.) Do we really want to deny parole over and over to someone who has served 20 plus years? At a certain point I wish society could say, okay, we've punished you enough.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:41 AM on June 18, 2010


Legalize the drugs and most of this goes away.

Not only this problem would go away, but a lot of all of our other problems would, too.

The Taliban's major income is poppies. If we were to make it legal, there would more than likely be a boom in poppy farming in Mexico-- creating jobs there and pumping money into an impoverished country-- easing the debate and problems with illegal workers here in the US, and at the same time effectively cutting the Taliban's legs out from under them. Or making them an actual legitimate business. Two birds and all.

The crime rates would also drop to an all-time low, because going into an actual drugstore to get your drugs at a cheap rate would cut out the need for cartels, gangs, and all other seedy entities to procure said items. With regulation, we'd have a steady supply would make it all cheaper for your run-of-the-mill crackhead, so petty crimes likely would lessen. That, and it would no longer be a crime to do drugs, so, BAM! Less crime.

That, and tax the crap out of it, and we'd have the funds for platinum healthcare for all.

I just don't understand how our system is so effed up considering the smallest amout of logic applied makes it all seem so clear to me.

But, I have a quick question--- Since there is a war on drugs, and we imprision people who buy/sell/use drugs, does that make them --- literally--- war criminals? And if not, what's the difference?
posted by From the Fortress at 8:44 AM on June 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


How much of these "savings" would simply be swallowed up by the social programs needed to actually reduce the incarceration rate to the level posited?

Around here at least, very few of the minor criminals are in jail for the drug offenses themselves, they are in jail for the crimes they commit to feed their habit.
posted by madajb at 8:53 AM on June 18, 2010


I may be a war criminal; there's a war on drugs and whenever I capture some of the enemy, I burn them to cinders. No trial. No mercy.
posted by umberto at 8:55 AM on June 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


The war on drugs would be more accurately described as a war on drug users, but even that is metaphorical, and refers to an extraordinary effort at law enforcement, rather than an actual war. And even if the war on drugs were to be considered an actual war, drug abuse is not a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. War crimes are more about genocide, torture, and so forth.

Getting back to Mrs. Pterodactyl again, sure, in the event that drugs are legalized I could certainly see that it would be useful for society to spend more money on drug rehabvilitation facilities. Such costs would still be vastly less than the insane amounts of money currently being spent to incarcerate drug users.

It is also an interesting point raised by ClaudiaCenter that some prison sentences seem overly vindictive, and at some point we should admit that the people in question have been punished enough. It's not just the length of sentences that should concern us. US prisons are generally dangerous, overcrowded, badly run hell holes were many people are assaulted, raped, murdered, or otherwise abused in ways that go beyond their actual sentence of incarceration. Many people would rather commit suicide than go to prison.

However, the purpose of putting people in prison is not just to punish them, or to allow them the opportunity to repent of their anti-social behavior. Some people are truly dangerous to others, the career criminals who will always be committing crimes at any opportunity, and will never reform. (There are also psychopaths who belong in mental institutions, rather than prisons.) Some people are just too dangerous to let out of prison. My personal preference would be to execute them. As for the people who are not such a great danger to society, yes, we need to treat them less vindictively and allow them a chance to become productive members of society. Putting people away for decades seldom accomplishes much for anyone.
posted by grizzled at 9:05 AM on June 18, 2010


Your tax dollars as pork.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:22 AM on June 18, 2010


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms or a recent history of mental health problems.

It's very unfortunate that prisons have become dumping grounds for the mentally unstable; but I don't think you could reduce incareration rates without seeing some increase in costs in other programs (not that it would necessarily be a bad thing).
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 9:26 AM on June 18, 2010


What the fuck is your problem?

I might tactfully suggest, given the astonishing hostility of your response, that I am not the one with the problem.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:28 AM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


And even if the war on drugs were to be considered an actual war

It is an actual war. Congress actually declared war. That's pretty actual.
posted by From the Fortress at 9:29 AM on June 18, 2010


Yo clarify my earlier point, I was referencing the Tea Party, who notably have not made much of a case for prison reform. So that's my problem.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:48 AM on June 18, 2010


despite what people seem to think, the Cato Institute is not the same thing as the quasi-religious, semi-racist, wholly-ignorant far right dittoheads, teabaggers, whatever. It's a distinction not often made around here, but I find many of Cato's positions reasonable.

In that direction is danger... you'll soon find that the Heritage Foundation, Fox News watchers, Rush Limbaugh listeners, members of your local Baptist Church, and registered GOP voters also frequently have reasonable positions.
posted by Jahaza at 9:49 AM on June 18, 2010


In that direction is danger... you'll soon find that the Heritage Foundation, Fox News watchers, Rush Limbaugh listeners, members of your local Baptist Church, and registered GOP voters also frequently have reasonable positions.

In that direction is danger, too....a reasonable position is a reasonable position, separate from its espousers. Blanket condemnations of anything someone has to say merely because they're the ones saying it turns you into the unreasonable, uncompromising, pigheaded hater.

Both sides occasionally (not frequently, perhaps) have reasonable opinions. This seems one of our core problems. As often as not, we decide the reasonableness of propositions based not on their merits, but on our like/dislike of the proposers. The color of your blinkers/(blinders?) doesn't mean your vision is any better: it still means you can only see the ass of the horse in front of you.
posted by umberto at 10:09 AM on June 18, 2010


Is this really to be a thread about the merits of libertarianism? If so, can I add in a demerit? That they tend to take over threads to forcefully argue how awesome they are.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:24 AM on June 18, 2010


Knee-jerk much? As far as I can tell, I was simply suggesting that being instantly dismissive of an opinion, especially if you agree with it, just because of it's source is...unthinking. Gee. Sorry. Go back to staring at the ass end of that horse...
posted by umberto at 10:41 AM on June 18, 2010


'its'....dammit, I hate this cursed uneditability.
posted by umberto at 10:42 AM on June 18, 2010


My knee does tend to jerk when it gets hit with a hammer. I know you weren't the one who assaulted me with the first Cato link, but they do have a habit of coming in like that -- from a frothing, furious mouth.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:46 AM on June 18, 2010


Ok, from the DOJ website: http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2008/data/table_01.html

1993: 24k murders or non-negligent manslaughters, which is 9.5 per 100k people.

2008: 16k murders or non-negligent manslaughters, which is 5.4 per 100k people.

So, we as citizens paid 16.9 billion dollars per year over 17 years for that 5 person per 100k reduction. That's 287 billion dollars. According to US Census website, in 2000 there were 217 million people over 16 in this country. 78 million were not in the labor force. Let's say 50 million were not paying taxes. So 287 billion divided by 167 million is about 1700 dollars per person total. So, 1700 dollars I pay every 20 years to keep the murder rate at 5 per 100k. Kinda doesn't sound like a bad deal.

That was really fast back of envelope. People with more time can refine the figures.
posted by spicynuts at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2010


1700 dollars MORE every 20 years. Sorry.
posted by spicynuts at 11:03 AM on June 18, 2010


a reasonable position is a reasonable position, separate from its espousers. Blanket condemnations of anything someone has to say merely because they're the ones saying it turns you into the unreasonable, uncompromising, pigheaded hater.

Umberto, that was the idea, will be more explicit about the "Hamburger" in the future...
posted by Jahaza at 11:24 AM on June 18, 2010


“ and dithering endlessly about people who are obviouly guilty of terrible crimes and deserve to be executed ASAP”
I’m happy to strike a balance there. I’ll be all for capital punishment as soon as we can empirically determine guilt and who deserves what, and deliver it to them somehow. And as soon as we can resurrect people who deserve to live.

Until then I’ll accept the cost of incarceration as an alternative to lowering the standard of acceptability as to when its necessary to kill someone. There are situations in which it is necessary to exert state power that way. When and where might be debatable.
In my opinion it’s necessary for the state to kill only when it’s powerless to do anything else. Taking a human life to save a few more dollars is never going to be acceptable to me – as long as our society is powerful and wealthy enough to afford to capture and hold a criminal. Even someone found guilty of the worst crimes imaginable.
If we had only limited resources available and they were a direct threat I’d execute the person myself.
Our society – our civilization – has been well beyond that for some time now. We’ve had the land and resources to capture, hold and feed indefinitely, dangerous people for thousands of years.

Unfortunately we are so wealthy we can capture, hold and feed indefinitely, people who aren’t so dangerous. We can do it at political whim. So instead of privation we have overabundance.
Being obese can be as unhealthy as being impoverished. In both cases (too much or not enough) it’s a matter of the misallocation of resources. Not a question of the wrong goal.
The first objective should be to protect society, not to determine what someone deserves. One should not take vengeance when one can afford justice. And most civilizations have had the power to mete justice. That they haven’t chosen to doesn’t mean they couldn’t afford it. It meant they had the hubris to believe they could give people what they deserve.

Imprisoning very dangerous people for life, is at least a somewhat humble recognition that we don’t have the power to alter reality or change the acts of a human being. That we can’t do much else than build walls around them to protect ourselves from them while we try to bring them back into the fold.

Granted the latter bit is mostly academic given what practically goes on in prisons. But it’s the goal, even as we make concessions that maybe we can’t restore someone to human society. Execution is a complete abdication of that goal.

I might accept that some people are beyond redemption, but I won’t recognize that the state – or anyone – has the right to make that determination. Only that it has have the right to use the force necessary to protect the rights of others (or themselves in the case of an individual and self-defense).

Having extra cash is nice, but I’m ok with spending a few bucks to keep someone alive in jail as a matter of principle. I’m not ok with spending that money to further a temporary political agenda or moral judgment. Societies, no matter how long lived, are transient.

I wonder if we’ll be looked at like the Romans with the corruption and whatnot. Plenty of victimless crimes there. I suspect like us one of the threats to a republic is that people can feel the flow of power by proxy and fall into that hubris where – hey, people shouldn’t do drugs, let’s put them in jail for it. And they get that thrill when it actually happens (and that they can make money off it). Forgetting their own vulnerabilities of course. But plenty of folks identify with stuff and disregard their own general interest much less any principles.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:26 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Around here at least, very few of the minor criminals are in jail for the drug offenses themselves, they are in jail for the crimes they commit to feed their habit.

I'm not sure I believe that to be true. Do you have statistics to back that up? Because most stats on drug convictions belie the idea that "most" people are actually being locked up for property crimes. NYC arrests 36,000 per year for possession. They don't jail that many, but that number is astounding, is mostly for marijuana possession, and has nothing to do with property crimes.
posted by OmieWise at 11:28 AM on June 18, 2010


I’ll be all for capital punishment as soon as we can empirically determine guilt and who deserves what, and deliver it to them somehow. And as soon as we can resurrect people who deserve to live.

This reminds me of that one great paragraph in American Gods by Neil Gaiman, that says (not an exact quote) "I believe that if you implicitly trust the government, the death penalty is okay, but no one but a moron would ever trust the government."
posted by From the Fortress at 12:03 PM on June 18, 2010


And yet the people who despise taxes and love liberty never call for the prison doors to be opened.

I nearly favorited that, because there's a lot of truth to it, but then I realized I, myself, despise taxes, love liberty, and think that our current prison system is a travesty. I'd be among the first in line to throw those doors open for pretty much any nonviolent crime.

And don't even get me started on the military.
posted by Malor at 12:20 PM on June 18, 2010


What the fuck is your problem?

My problem is that there are real, live, thinking libertarians in the world (as represented in your link), but that there's also a large, LOUD group of people who claim to be libertarians, but are really just hick racists who are pissed off over Republicans letting a black man become president. And those people don't see any problem with their tax money being spent on locking up large segments of American society, so long as it's the segment with dark skin.

I used to call myself a libertarian, but the label became cumbersome thanks to too many know-nothings identifying themselves the same way (being a "libertarian" means "end all taxes!!1!" the same way being a "liberal" means "end private ownership!!1!", but you'd never know that from the loudest segments of the movement).

Then I called myself a conservative, but that label now means "anything Republicans think", no matter now non-conservative that thing may be.

Now I just call myself independent and leave it at that.

So that's what the fuck my problems are. What are yours?
posted by coolguymichael at 12:42 PM on June 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


So, we as citizens paid 16.9 billion dollars per year over 17 years for that 5 person per 100k reduction. That's 287 billion dollars. According to US Census website, in 2000 there were 217 million people over 16 in this country. 78 million were not in the labor force. Let's say 50 million were not paying taxes. So 287 billion divided by 167 million is about 1700 dollars per person total. So, 1700 dollars I pay every 20 years to keep the murder rate at 5 per 100k. Kinda doesn't sound like a bad deal.

You're making a massive assumption there: that the reduction in murders was a direct result of higher incarceration. I'd question that assumption, to say the least, especially since the vast majority of felons incarcerated since the 90s had nothing to do with violence, much less murder. State felony convictions (which make up 95% of all felony convictions) for drug offenses and property offenses are each nearly two times the amount of convictions for violent crimes. Together, they make up over 60% of all felons.

The third chart here makes it clear that the increase in incarceration is way, way out of proportion to the "corresponding" decrease in murder. I think that cultural and environmental factors are a much better explanation for the decrease in murder... and what's more, I suspect we could trigger an even greater decrease if we legalized drugs and spent our resulting savings on mental health (including addiction) treatment and education.

I also think you're missing something when you concentrate only on financial costs. It's important to remember that we've paid a very heavy social cost for our incarceration rates, in everything from a generation of missing fathers to the spread of gang culture and widespread mistrust of the police and the government. In a lot of ways, I think the prison state we've created is much worse for society than the mid-90s murder rates were...
posted by vorfeed at 12:44 PM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


1st U.S. Prison Population Drop Since 1972

Rhode Island topped the list of states that have reduced the prison population, largely due to recently passed "good time" legislation. Hopefully we'll see yet another decrease now that we've finally decided to stop imprisoning innocent people. [It'd be nice if Alabama and South Dakota would follow suit.]

It is also the case that drug courtshave been a fairly effective model for diverting people from prison into treatment programs and reducing recidivism. Overall, it is estimated that the current adult drug court treatment program produces about $2.21 in benefit for every $1 in costs, for a net benefit to society of about $624 million. And, by and large, there is still unmet demand for spaces in these types of programs.
posted by lunit at 12:45 PM on June 18, 2010


I'd question that assumption, to say the least, especially since the vast majority of felons incarcerated since the 90s had nothing to do with violence, much less murder.

I went hunting for these numbers because when I referred an NYPD friend of mine to this study, his immediate response was "go compare murder rate in 93 to today". His point was that (and I'm not saying I agree, I'm just adding some other perspective in here) all these minor offense or mid-level non-violent offense incarcerations kept people in jail who would have otherwise escalated from non-violent crime to violent. In other words, he claims all of this incarceration is prophylactic - proactive instead of reactive. It's a pretty specious claim as who says there's a direct path from non-violent crime to murder. However, he's been NYPD for 15 years and he claims to base his point on experience. Again, not saying I agree.
posted by spicynuts at 1:02 PM on June 18, 2010


Now I just call myself independent and leave it at that.

Yeah, I’ve stopped calling myself anything. I just ask ‘what’s the issue?’
Tends to shut people’s autopilot off. Although there’s still this WWII ‘who won the world series’ sort of ersatz interrogation on topical subjects to see which ‘side’ you’re on.
‘So, you’re a conservative?’
‘On what issue?’
‘Uh…. On the … uh… do you like Obama?’
‘Do I like Obama doing what?’
‘Uh… his … the … Ok, so the illegal immigration thing. Where do you stand on it?’
‘With regard to what element? It being illegal, or it being immigration?’
‘The, no, uh…. Ok, wait, no, the oil spill.’
‘What about it?’
‘It sucks, doesn’t it?’
‘Yeah, it sucks. Sucks balls.’
*to hidden 'liberal' cohort* ‘It’s ok – he’s cool’

posted by Smedleyman at 1:24 PM on June 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Fiscals concerns are not the reason mass incarceration and private prisons are a bad idea; when you try to argue on their terms you've already conceded everything important.

It's interesting. A federal court ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 people (or about 25%) because prison overcrowding is cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court may hear the appeal.

There are a lot of fucked up things about states' prison policies. I would agree that fiscal concerns shouldn't be the primary reason to argue against mass incarceration, but hey, whatever works. We are entering an emergency state right now.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:03 PM on June 18, 2010


Smedleyman makes the seemingly irrefutable argument that he will give his approval for capitol punishment as soon as we are able to bring back to life those who we later discover to have been wrongly executed. Of course, we would not want to do anything irrevocable. Unlike putting people in prison, which we can correct by letting them out of prison. Except that even if we let people out of prison, we cannot give them back the time that they spent in prison, which in some cases is as much as decades. If you have lost decades of your life, that is also irrevocable. So by the same logic, it should not be done. Are there any punishments we can inflict which are entirely revocable? There are some. If we take away an award, we can re-award it later and no lasting harm is done. Of course, this is not much of a punishment. Most people can part with their bowling trophies without too much regret. What about fines? Technically yes, we can take away your money and give it back later, with interest if we want to be scrupulous. But the loss of money can create a loss of opportunity. This alters the course of people's lives. Maybe someone could not buy a house, buy a car, take a vacation where he would have met the love of his life, for the lack of that extra money. There is no telling what irrevocable harm could be done by fining someone.

Smedleyman also stipulates that capitol punishment must only be allowed if we have an infallible method of determining guilt or innocence. Of course, all wrongful conviction is very unjust, very destructive of the lives of the wrongfully convicted, and should never be done. Hence, no punishment of any kind should be inflicted unless we have absolute certainty about who is really guilty. And that is impossible since nothing in this world is absolutely certain. So your iron-clad arguments against capitol punishment can also be applied to nearly any other kind of punishment. Stern reprimands are still permitted.

It would actually be better to live in a utopian world in which no one ever has to be punished and the whole problem of law enforcement disappears. As a science fiction fan, I can imagine such a world, although there does not seem to be any good prospect of creating such a world. In the real world, we make many compromises. We would have perfect justice if we could, but we have to settle for imperfect justice.
posted by grizzled at 2:59 PM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


But, but, but, without a gigantic prison system crammed full by the War on Drugs, what else will we use to fill the void left by the de jure end of Jim Crow?

How else will we let the horrible Negroes know they inescapably remain second-class citizens, without the possibility that every instance of Driving While Black can result in a beat-down or jail time excused by the War on Drugs?

I mean, we can't label them all Sex Offenders, can we?
posted by orthogonality at 5:25 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The crime rates would also drop to an all-time low, because going into an actual drugstore to get your drugs at a cheap rate would cut out the need for cartels, gangs, and all other seedy entities to procure said items. With regulation, we'd have a steady supply would make it all cheaper for your run-of-the-mill crackhead, so petty crimes likely would lessen. That, and it would no longer be a crime to do drugs, so, BAM! Less crime.

I'm ready to end the War on Drugs today, this minute. However...

I'm not on board with the idea of allowing all drugs to be sold at the local drugstore to anyone who has the purchase price. What happened when drugs were last legally and openly sold? Their use was astonishingly prevalent. In the 19th century cocaine, heroine, and opium (usually sold in the form of laudanum) were all very popular and widely used. For example, many tonics containing cocaine and opium were sold to "pep" up the user and alleviate "female problems." What would stop food and beverage manufacturers from popularizing their products by adding addictive drugs? And restaurants? I believe that there have been cases in modern day China where very popular noodle shops have been investigated to discover why they are so very popular and the answer was addictive drugs. Would this be outlawed?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:08 PM on June 18, 2010


Smedleyman makes the seemingly irrefutable argument that he will give his approval for capitol punishment as soon as we are able to bring back to life those who we later discover to have been wrongly executed.

Your logic is sound but that's not my argument. On the contrary – not the undoing of wrong, but the assumption of a kind of theodicy by the state, that justifies its punishment in regard to evil being done in the world.

Would we accept a state that could damn someone for eternity as retribution?

Execution is punishment without the hope of rejoining human society. There is no justification in it as a luxury. It’s not rehabilitative. It’s not restorative. One can argue deterrence, but I don’t because my argument isn’t predicated on what it is the executed did but what on the executioner does (and anyway, if we're looking to scare people as a deterrent, execute the innocent. Worked for Stalin. Scared the shit out of people).

So the only question then is whether the act is necessary or not.
If we’re to assume that execution accomplishes something beyond the needs of necessity - if we’re going to assume responsibility for life or death - then we should have power commensurate with it.

It’s blatantly obvious we don’t have anywhere near the power even to apprehend what it is anyone truly deserves much less who deserves to live.
We certainly don’t have the power to restore life to those who were killed by happenstance or who never got to live in the first place.
So why make the pretense?
I’ve exercised might. I’ll call it necessary when it’s necessary, but it’s not self-justifying.
We hold people in prison because its necessary to protect society, not because we can restore their lives to them.

We hold them in prison exactly because there is no infallible method of determining guilt or innocence and we recognize a trial by jury and other methods is the best we can do with what we have.
I’m not looking for a utopia, I demand my state do the best it can and not cede the right to life unless absolutely necessary. Liberty either.

As it is, it’s easier to try to rehabilitate someone if you only take their liberty. It’s a temporary situation that recognizes we don’t have the power to pull something better off just now.
But we work on better methods of justice, just as we work on curing disease.
We continue to try to do better than kill someone not just for that persons sake, but because its better for us to try. Execution, particularly as punishment, is ultimately a concession to might making right.

Most particularly when we have other methods of protecting society at our disposal.
Furthermore it eliminates the ultimate advocate on behalf of the accused – the accused themselves.
Even when proven guilty by the court, someone can be in reality innocent. And we recognize (unless you’re Scalia and believe ) that the state can make mistakes.
We don’t have to settle for imperfect justice. We have to recognize that the justice we do is imperfect. And likely will always be.
It’s when we settle that justice is perfect - because that’s when it will be perfectly absent.

Kant talks about a situation where if the world were going to end tomorrow and there were two people left on Earth and one of them was a murderer the innocent guy would have the duty to kill the murderer instead of just letting him die the next day.

Kinda silly. But that's what people want to take on in these cases. Not that the murderer is threatening him. Not that he's got to kill him to prevent him from killing someone else ('cos there isn't anyone else) but that he's got to die just one day early because he's a bad guy.

You can justify the rule of law and the necessity of killing without trying to justify punishment or killing for the sake of punishment.
Punishment without rehabilitation is not human justice, it's (IMHO) the assumption of divine right. Executions are without compromise. And our elected representatives are not divine such that they can make such decisions. Nor are we divine that we can authorize them on our behalf.
When we're omniscient, when we know everything about what should be then we can decide who lives or dies.
When we can mete out perfect justice, then we can take a life as punishment.
Until then we bend to necessity and get our hands dirty doing the best we can without the consolation that we're beyond reproach.

I have the same attitude towards warfighting. I don’t look for a justification. There are none. There’s only what’s necessary and what isn’t. But hell, we can’t trust that we’re not going to kill people en masse unless it’s absolutely necessary, we’re going to trust that its not going to be done one’s and twos’?
Why, because its domestic? Democide killed more people last century than war.

We’ve got the option to not jail people by the double hand full, and we've had excellent practical reasons for a long time why we shouldn't - And? - we’re clearly choosing not to exercise those options. We'd rather feel right than be right.

So we have to follow principle. There should be at the highest threshold possible before the state takes any right away from a human being.

As it is, we’re looking to execute people because we want to. Because we think we should, because it makes us feel righteous, as opposed to having no other option.
Same thing with locking people up for smoking a joint. We can, so we do. As opposed to we absolutely have to.
That road leads to tyranny.
And people know this. You use force on people instead of engaging them its easier but long term you're going to create a self-serving system which is abused for the whims of a few who think they can get away with it whether out of straight selfishness or ideology.

We've allowed the 'war on drugs' and privatized prison services (even though we don't have many private prisons as yet) which has been self-serving for quite a number of interests and we've got gigantic incarceration levels compared to other countries.

What then when we allow them to justify the ultimate punishment?
posted by Smedleyman at 7:32 PM on June 18, 2010


It wasn't really my intention to open up a discussion in depth of capitol punishment, which is far from being the most important issue when it comes to the actual topic of this discussion, which is the high cost of prisons, but nonetheless I will reply to your lengthy comment (Smedleyman).

I do not advocate capitol punishment out of vindictiveness or anger toward criminals. Some criminals do make me feel angry, but I have never thought that it is the purpose of the criminal justice system to get revenge, but only to help make society safer for the general public. I also do not advocate capitol punishment as a means of deterring crime. Life in prison is a sufficient deterrant (many people would consider life in prison to be a fate worse than death).

There are two reasons why capitol punishment can be socially useful. First, as I have already mentioned, as long as it can be done without excessively elaborate and expensive appeals processes, it is a way to lower prison costs. In an extreme example, consider a young criminal who commits a horrible crime at age 20, and is sentenced to life in prison without parole, and then lives to be 90, spending 70 years in prison at taxpayers expense, costing roughly $60,000/year. This is a ridiculous amount of money to spend to safeguard the public from further crimes that this person might otherwise commit, when it is so much cheaper to just kill him and be done with it.

Secondly, people do sometimes escape from prison, and it has happened on a number of occasions that a convicted murderer has escaped from prison and has then commited more murders. In one case that I know of, a murderer escaped repeatedly, commiting more murders each time he escaped. So while you are compassionate toward convicted criminals, you might also have some compassion toward the innocent people who will be killed if murderers are allowed to escape. Those deaths are even less justifiable.

Now, there is another solution to the problem of escaping criminals, which is to make prisons more secure. There exist "super-max" prisons from which people do not escape. Of course, they cost more. So again, we have to consider how much money we can actually afford to spend on the criminal justice system. Let's face it, money does matter. In additional to criminals who need to be guarded and afforded various rights, there are non-criminals who need help in various areas as well; hungry people needing food, homeless people needing homes, illiterate people needing education, sick people needing medical care, and so forth. Money can do a lot of good, if we do not spend it all on the criminal justice system and bankrupt our entire society in the process.

In any event, the urgent reform that we need to bring costs under control is the end of the war on drugs. That is where the big savings lie. Capitol punishment is not as significant in a fiscal sense. And yes, there are significant moral issues to deal with. I can see both sides to that issue. But I do think that there are at least some people who, for the good of society, should be executed.
posted by grizzled at 6:59 AM on June 19, 2010


Another (somewhat frivolous) reply. From the Fortress tells us that the war on drugs is an actual war because Congress actually declared war, so that's pretty actual. You know, Congress can employ metaphor if it so desires. They can declare war on drugs, but they cannot hold diplomatic negotiations with drugs, cannot sign a peace treaty with drugs, cannot even kill drugs (which are already inanimate substances and are not alive in the first place), and so forth. Clearly, the war on drugs would not satisfy any normal dictionary defintion of the word "war" - except in the metaphorical sense which is what I said in the first place. Congress has also declared war on poverty, illiteracy, crime, cancer, and so forth. They can declare war on anything. If they so desire they can declare war on sloth and bad handwriting. They can declare war on the Andromeda galaxy. All these wars would be metaphorical at best, if not entirely imaginary. It is within the realm of possibility to launch a national campaign to improve people's handwriting, although it is not within the realm of possibility to invade the Andromea galaxy with an armada of spaceships (it would take millions of years just to get to the Andromeda galaxy, even aside from the problem that there may not be anyone living there with whom we could go to war even if we wanted to and spent the millions of years needed to get there).

Secret Life Of Gravy warns that if drugs were fully legalized and available to all in drug stores, drug abuse would increase, and drugs would be ruthlessly marketed to a foolish public, as they were earlier in history when opiates such as laudanum were consumed as freely as beer is today. Well, there is that risk. But I did say in my original comment that there is still a role for education. The public needs to understand the risks of the drugs that they buy. And certainly, drugs must carry clear and accurate warning labels. I do not want anyone to use an addictive drug inadvertently. But if people do know what they are doing and choose to do it, that is their privilege. Look at all the cigarette smokers. They have all been told, very clearly and on every package, that smoking is very dangerous to their health, and they still choose to smoke. Should we make tobacco illegal? No we shouldn't - it would only create a vast new black market in illegal cigarettes, to the further enrichment of organized crime, and it would turn vast numbers of law-abiding citizens into criminals, and add to the excess prison population and the crushing costs of the criminal justice system, while also depriving government if its current revenue from tobacco taxes. People are going to smoke cigarettes anyway, and they will use all kinds of drugs despite everything that is done to stop them, so we might as well give in to the inevitable and allow people to make their own decisions about how to live their own lives, and about what kind of drugs they wish to consume. So yes, sell them in drugstores. That is the best way to deliver a fatal blow to the drug lords, the criminal gangs that have become so wealthy and powerful by selling illegal drugs. You can put them all out of business by making drugs available legally in drug stores. And when the drugs stores sell drugs, they afre part of the legal economy, and they pay taxes. Not only do you avoid the vast cost of putting drug users in prison, you can instead collect taxes from them.

Now in all honesty, I would prefer that people did not use recreational drugs. It is a mistake. People pay far too high a cost for whatever recreational value they obtain. There are much better things for people to do with their lives, and better sources of fun and recreation. However, we have tried, really really hard, to stop people from using recreational drugs, and people won't stop. We can't stop them. We have spent countless billions of taxpayer dollars, and it all goes down a black hole. We have put millions of people in jail at vast and insupportable expense, we have made our jails so overcrowded that judges regularly release people from jail just to relieve the overcrowding, yet none of this stops people from using illegal drugs - they continue to use them even in jail! It's fucking unbelievable! So it is time to admit defeat. We (metaphorically) went to war with drugs, and the drugs (metaphorically) won. We can at least salvage something of our world by taking a realistic attitude about what it is possbile to accomplish, rather than continuing to spend more and more money on futile endeavors. So let's educate people. Let's rehabilitate those who wish to be rehabilitated. Let's do what we can. But the war on drugs has to end. And yes, that does mean that drugs, any kind of drugs, should be available to the general public in drug stores. It sounds abhorrent, but it is the best solution we can come up with. If someone actually wants to become a heroin addict, so be it. The reality is, heroin is no more addictive than nicotine. If we can let people choose to become nicotine addicts, we can let them become heroin addicts. And let them buy their heroin at the local drug store. It has to be done.
posted by grizzled at 8:14 AM on June 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Could Congress please declare War on Stupidity?

I don't think we will ever be able to completely decriminalize drugs. Lets say cocaine is available in drugstores. Who sets the price? Will everyone who is an addict be able to afford to feed their habit? As with cigarettes, a black market will eventually rise to counter the (inevitable) heavy taxes. Unlike cigarettes, however, drug users won't be able to carry on with their normal activities while using. What about laws concerning operating heavy machinery, driving cars, operating on patients? (Obviously there is no smoking in the surgery, but there can be 5 minutes before.)

At the very least there will have to be laws about age limits.

The reality is, heroin is no more addictive than nicotine. If we can let people choose to become nicotine addicts, we can let them become heroin addicts. And let them buy their heroin at the local drug store. It has to be done.

Would you rather your kid pick up a smoking habit at a campus party or a heroine habit?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:53 AM on June 19, 2010


Lets say cocaine is available in drugstores. Who sets the price? Will everyone who is an addict be able to afford to feed their habit?

I'm guessing the price will be set by the companies involved, with respect to tax, just as it is with cigarettes and alcohol. And, just as with cigarettes and alcohol, not everyone will be able to afford to feed their habit. However, the massive difference between street prices and drugstore prices suggests that this will be much less of a problem than it currently is with street drugs.

As with cigarettes, a black market will eventually rise to counter the (inevitable) heavy taxes.

Perhaps... but the black market for cigarettes is not even remotely comparable to the black market which already exists for cocaine, despite heavy cigarette taxes. The vast majority of smokers buy their cigarettes legally; I doubt most smokers even know where they could buy black market cigarettes (and even when they can, they tend to be cigarettes bought legally in an area with lower taxes -- a far cry from drugs of unknown provenance produced for the black market). Thus, this would be a positive outcome (a much smaller and less pervasive black market), not a negative one.

Unlike cigarettes, however, drug users won't be able to carry on with their normal activities while using.

This is false. Cocaine, amphetamines, and other stimulants are well-known for being compatible with daily life. The same goes for marijuana. Opiate addicts are fully functional as long as they have steady access to opiates; they can (and do) go to work and live perfectly ordinary lives. You yourself pointed out that the use of these drugs was once widespread and common in this country, especially among the upper class -- do you seriously think that all those wealthy housewives, actors, and businessmen would have used a substance which meant that they wouldn't "be able to carry on with their normal activities"?

Of course, some percentage of drug users allow their use to interfere with daily life, just as with alcohol... but legalizing drugs would allow us to treat drug abuse as the medical issue it is, rather than a legal issue.

What about laws concerning operating heavy machinery, driving cars, operating on patients? (Obviously there is no smoking in the surgery, but there can be 5 minutes before.) At the very least there will have to be laws about age limits.

I'd imagine these would be similar to the laws we already have for alcohol.

Would you rather your kid pick up a smoking habit at a campus party or a heroine habit?

Assuming a world in which clean heroin is available next to cigarettes at the drugstore? Heroin, no question. Cigarettes kill, even if used as directed; heroin does not. Even when they don't kill, cigarettes lead to serious physical debilitation; heroin does not. And cigarettes are much more addictive than heroin.
posted by vorfeed at 1:53 PM on June 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not on board with the idea of allowing all drugs to be sold at the local drugstore to anyone who has the purchase price. What happened when drugs were last legally and openly sold? Their use was astonishingly prevalent.

Since medicine was much more primitive then, it wasn't necessarily irrational to take drugs that worked (e.g. opiates) to treat pain or other problems resulting from chronic conditions, while nowadays we're better able to treat the underlying condition. (In other words, some amount of the usage was medical, and probably wouldn't occur today.) Plus, more to the point, all drugs - medicinal and recreational, real and snake-oil - were less regulated a century and more ago when you could pick up laudanum at your local drugstore. Heck, these days, even some innocuous OTC stuff like pseudoephedrine is more regulated (for various reasons) than anything was back then. So... you do realize that any sort of drug legalization would mean drug regulation, right? And that pro-legalization people understand that? Based on how the US approaches marijuana, which is relatively harmless, and how we regulate legal drugs and medicines, I guarantee you that your local supermarket won't suddenly start stocking laudanum and vials of cocaine next to the tea and coffee. If drugs didn't out-right require prescriptions (medicinal marijuana, ecstasy if the PTSD studies suggest it's helpful, various preparations of opiates, etc.), it seems likely that they'd be at a minimum as tightly controlled as alcohol, or, if anything, more tightly controlled: beyond regulation of manufacturers and age limits and laws against intoxication while driving and so on, you might see additional controls, such as databases (like the pseudoephedrine ones) that limit how much you can purchase per month or year, sales licenses that might be much harder to get than liquor licenses, etc.

But, to a certain extent, you're saying "I'm happy to legalize drugs as long as no one will use them, because I think drugs are bad!" Thing is, people are using them, regardless of their legal (and, in your eyes, moral) status. Your child can pick up a heroin habit today - though it's not much of a party drug, and it's probably less unhealthy long-term than cigarettes if pure and taken at a known dosage, and your child is not likely to pick up either a heroin or nicotine habit unless they actively seek the drug out, with some frequency. But importantly, there's data on this. Places that have experimented with decriminalization (e.g. Portugal) have not seen a big difference in drug usage - just as, conversely, the institution and repeal of Prohibition did not cause a lasting decrease in alcohol consumption. It did make a big difference in crime, choice of liquor over lower-alcohol drinks, and exposure to methanol and other dangerous contaminants. The question then becomes whether or not the harm done to drug users from dubious black-market stuff and the harm done to society by prohibition (prisons, increased crime, corruption, etc.) is worth it to prevent a comparatively small number of people who're currently avoiding drugs due to their legal status from ever trying drugs - and an even smaller number from actually getting addicted.

On preview: You're in all seriousness suggesting that there is even a chance that decriminalization or legalization would be completely unregulated? Uh....
posted by ubersturm at 2:20 PM on June 19, 2010


On preview: You're in all seriousness suggesting that there is even a chance that decriminalization or legalization would be completely unregulated? Uh....

No, I'm suggesting that it will have to be regulated...heavily regulated. Which means penalties for breaking the law. So we will continue to jail people for drug offenses, just far fewer.

do you seriously think that all those wealthy housewives, actors, and businessmen would have used a substance which meant that they wouldn't "be able to carry on with their normal activities"?

I knew quite a few cocaine users in the 80s, and no, they were not able to carry on with their normal lives. Divorce and job loss were pretty common consequences.

But, to a certain extent, you're saying "I'm happy to legalize drugs as long as no one will use them, because I think drugs are bad!"

I don't think heavy drug use is good-- I've known too many people whose lives became ruined, including my brother's. Whether or not the majority of people can use drugs recreationally without consequences in the same way that that the majority of people can use alcohol without consequences-- that's the big question.

I do believe that given the capitalist tendencies in this country we will see increased drug usage due to hard sell promotion. The trick is to decriminalize without allowing it to be marketed.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:05 AM on June 20, 2010


Secret Life of Gravy, there are already restrictions on the way in which tobacco and alcohol are marketed. I see no reason why we could not have restrictions on the way any other drug is marketed. And yes, some drugs are very dangerous. But there are lots of dangerous things in our world. I mentioned in my original comment that skiing is dangerous. Driving cars is very dangerous, but driving cars is also very useful. Lots of people could not carry out the normal functions of their lives without driving, so that particular risk is understandable (although I would still like to see greater efforts to make it possible for people to get where they need to go without such a high level of risk). But skiing? Nobody really needs to ski. We could outlaw skiing and avoid many serious skiing accidents and even some deaths. But we don't want to do that. We understand that if someone enjoys skiing and is prepared to take the risks that go with it, they should be allowed to ski. And there are a thousand other examples I could give.

The destructive effects of drugs are also, to a large extent, more a product of the war on drugs than they are a product of the drug itself. When people have to buy illegal drugs at inflated prices from criminals, because they are not allowed to buy those drugs legally and at an affordable price from drug stores, many harmful consequences result. Of course, they could also just refrain from using those drugs, but for some strange reason, there are lots of people who insist on using recreational drugs. Despite all legal impediments, they use them anyway. And it's not just a matter of addiction. Most people are not born addicted (although unfortunately, some are). People who have never used drugs will, in many cases, decide that they want to give them a try. This is not a decision that I personally recommend, but most people are not asking me for my opinion and wouldn't really care even if I gave it to them.

There are many forms of regulation and restriction which could reasonably be used to reduce the harm that drugs will cause if legalized. One serious problem is that of pregnant women who use recreational drugs and who then give birth to a damaged baby. That, I believe, should be a crime. Women should either refrain from recreational drug use during pregnancy (including alcohol, which is very dangerous to a fetus) or if that is not acceptable to them, they should be required to abort the fetus, or to have the fetus transplanted to a host mother for safe gestation, although the latter is an expensive option that few women would choose.

So, restrictions on advertisement, restrictions on sale to minors, restrictions on use by pregnant women, and perhaps other restrictions as well, could be useful. I have considered the possibility that people would need an actual license to buy recreational drugs, and they would need to pass a written test showing that they understand the dangers of recreational drugs, before they are allowed to buy them. So regulate, but legalize. The war on drugs is a disastrous failure and it is time that we admit it.
posted by grizzled at 11:12 AM on June 20, 2010


I knew quite a few cocaine users in the 80s, and no, they were not able to carry on with their normal lives. Divorce and job loss were pretty common consequences.

Cocaine users in the 80s have nothing to do with the question, which was about users of legal drugs. You keep acting as if we don't know how the majority of people would react to legal drug use, but we do know, because hard drugs were legal in America as recently as the 1920s. And despite your assertions to the contrary, those who studied addicts at the time did not find that most of them couldn't carry on with their normal lives. Problem users were the exception, not the rule, just as with alcohol.

Besides, you speak as if "divorce and job loss" aren't pretty common consequences of alcohol abuse... and as if "pretty common" makes up a "majority".

Whether or not the majority of people can use drugs recreationally without consequences in the same way that that the majority of people can use alcohol without consequences-- that's the big question.

And my point was that this is a proven question, with a sample size of hundreds of millions. The War on Drugs is relatively new, yet drug-seeking is not -- there are centuries worth of evidence which suggests that the majority of people can regulate their own drug use, including plenty of evidence from modern America and Europe. We've even got evidence that repealing Prohibition worked well in the countries that have tried it.

And if nothing else, over a hundred million Americans (nearly half the US population) have used illegal drugs during their lifetimes, and tens of millions of our citizens currently use illegal drugs... yet we don't have tens of millions of problem drug users. Do the math.
posted by vorfeed at 12:47 PM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


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