The sentences required by state and federal drug laws have led more than one judge to reconsider his support for prohibition. But a recent study suggests that the total punishment received by drug offenders is even heavier than commonly realized.
Writing in the Journal of Legal Studies, University of Pennsylvania economist John R. Lott notes that drug offenders continue to bear the costs of conviction long after they've paid their fines and served their time. He reports that "the most significant portion of the monetary penalty imposed upon criminals takes the form of reduced legitimate earnings once they return to the labor force."
Lott performed a regression analysis using data on 369 drug offenders sentenced by the federal court system between July 1984 and July 1985. He compared incomes during the 12 months prior to sentencing with incomes during the last 12 months of probation or parole.
"Even though the data deal with a very limited period of time after conviction," he concludes, "the effect of conviction on legitimate earnings clearly outweighs the sum of the criminal's forgone income from imprisonment and expected fines and restitution; except for heroin and cocaine importers, it is usually between 82 and 97 percent of the total monetary penalty."
Offenders with higher presentence earnings tended to lose bigger shares of their incomes. Consider a single, white man from California with no previous criminal history who is convicted of cocaine or heroin importation. If his annual legal income was $19,600 a year before sentencing, his loss would typically amount to about $2,300 a year, or 12 percent. If he earned $35,650 a year, he would lose about $17,260 annually—nearly half his income.
Lott offers several explanations for lower postconviction incomes, including loss of business or professional licenses (or the opportunity to obtain them). Perhaps the most significant cause is damage to reputation: Employers are apt to view convictions, even when they do not involve a breach of trust, as a sign of dishonesty.
Indeed, Lott notes, criminal defendants may lose their jobs soon after being arrested, before they are convicted (and even if they are ultimately acquitted). In a recent U.S. Sentencing Commission study, the average defendant's nominal income fell by about 40 percent between the date of the offense and the date of sentencing, a period that lasted an average of two years and seven months. Lott cites this effect as one reason why his study, which uses income figures for the year before sentencing as a baseline, actually underestimates the total income losses associated with conviction.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "For the Record".