We have seen how this Movie Ends
Prohibition and the long fought war on drugs are failures. The policies are failures under any measure, but the federal government, having learned nothing, is doubling down, looking to charge drug dealers under federal criminal statutes that carry large mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors’ blind adherence to discredited theories destroy the very communities they claim to protect. Even when they know they have nothing to offer but failure they press forward.
Consider Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Mr. Bharara penned an op-ed in the New York Daily News, laying out his position. The magnitude of his cognitive dissonance is substantial, but before examing his article some background is needed.
The Department of Justice Knows this is All for Show
The National Institute of Justice is the “the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice”. Its job is to “improving knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science.” The NIJ acknowledges that “[s]ending an individual convicted of a crime to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime…[and] increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.”
Nonetheless, Attorney Bharara, employed by the Department of Justice, plows ahead with a strategy to “[go] after those callous dealers who play Russian Roulette with other people’s lives. . . . Every overdose is a potential crime scene and should be treated as such.”
Attorney Bharara sees no conflict between his bravado and his acknowledgment that “[t]he good news is that opioid dependence, unique among drug addictions, can be treated with medication.”
For his part he will put as many people as he can in jail. I am sure the community rejoices.
Drug Dealers are Not who You Think They Are
Maia Szalavitz gives that some context in her column, Why We Shouldn’t Charge Drug Dealers for Their Clients’ Deaths. She notes that drug dealers:
earn McDonald’s-level wages and often suffer from addictions themselves: Around two thirds of those in state prison for drug trafficking meet criteria for a substance use disorder, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In other words, many of those prosecuted for drug delivery deaths could easily have been overdose victim themselves.
Let Us Do Some Math
Attorney Bharara’s, and those of his ilk, intend to use ineffective methods (long prison terms) to put poor people in jail despite the presence of an effective means of dealing with demand – treatment. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that “the average cost for 1 full year of methadone maintenance treatment is approximately $4,700 per patient, whereas 1 full year of imprisonment costs approximately $24,000 per person.”
As Ms. Szaavitz points out so plainly, the cost of incarceration under one of the draconian measures Attorney Bharara intends to leverage, “could treat [the dealer] and two dozen other people dealing with drug problems for at least a decade, cutting their risk for death and for relapse at least in half and thereby actually shrinking demand.” Huh.
This is not limited to the federal government. States are getting in on the act. But that is a story for another day.