Deterrent Defect

Mandatory minimum sententces for drug offenses are often criticized as unjust, meting out excessively harsh punishment based on arbitrary criteria. A new report from the RAND Corporation shows that such sentences are also inefficient, an argument that may ultimately carry more weight with taxpayers.

Using a mathematical model of the U.S. cocaine market, a team of four researchers led by Jonathan P. Caulkins compared the effects of an additional $1 million spent on: 1) longer sentences for drug dealers who are already being apprehended; 2) arrest and conviction of more drug dealers; and 3) treatment programs for heavy cocaine users. As measured by reductions in drug use, in revenue from drug trafficking, and in crimes against people and property, treatment was by far the most cost-effective option, followed by more law enforcement, with longer sentences last.

Under RAND's "best estimate" assumptions, $1 million spent on longer sentences would cut cocaine use by only 13 kilograms. The same amount would reduce consumption by 27 kilograms if spent on additional arrests and by more than 100 kilograms if spent on treatment. The pattern remained the same for the other two measures of effectiveness and under a wide range of assumptions. The report, Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers' Money?, concludes that "[m]andatory minimum sentences are not justifiable on the basis of cost-effectiveness at reducing cocaine consumption, cocaine expenditures, or drug-related crime."

A summary of the report is available at www.rand.org/publications/mr/mr827/.

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