Drug War

Jail Time is on the Increase for Identical Crimes


A new study from the Pew Center on the States has found that in 35 states inmates serving time for drug offenses and violent crimes are serving on average nine months longer than they would have in 1990, a 36 percent increase. The worst state is Florida, where prisoners are serving 194 percent more time for drug offenses. The study also found (unsurprisingly) that the increase in jail time for drug offenders did not lead to safer streets and a reduction in violent crime. In fact, states that did reduce prison time for drug offences saw an overall drop in crime.

The U.S. is addicted to incarceration. Almost 1 percent of the population is behind bars, and the crime rates do not reflect this fetish for locking people up yielding any encouraging results. The U.S. has about 730 prisoners per 100,000 of the population, while England has 156 and Canada has 117. Even totalitarian countries like China and Burma have no more than 122 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. Approximately one in 20 people are Americans, yet one in four prisoners are American. The U.S. has close to a million more prisoners than China, a country with a population of over a billion.  

The huge American prison population is a relatively recent phenomenon. The explosion in the prison population can be attributed to mandatory sentencing and "three strikes" laws that were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Americans did not suddenly become more violent and dangerous in these decades; we just introduced really dumb sentencing policies. 

In our current economic situation prison and sentencing reforms have been noticeable by their absence. The rise in prison time costs an estimated $10 billion a year. Many prisoners have committed victimless crimes for which some are serving expensive decades-long sentences. 

While prison and sentencing reforms are lacking some progress is being made in drug policy. Governor Cuomo wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and Rhode Island lawmakers have just passed a marijuana decriminalization bill. While these are steps in the right direction they need to be copied more widely and the federal government needs to back off, neither of which are likely.

There is a website that features aerial photographs of American prisons. It gives you a sobering idea of the scale of this vast, expensive, and inefficient project that is mass incarceration. Longer sentences for drug offenders do not lower crime rates or the rates of consumption, its time to abandon them.

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  1. That looks just like our ICU, only we issue pink scrubs, not orange.

  2. But I thought England had gone full retard and was the land of Orwellian distopia?

    Oh also, one might also include a counterargument to the point that often gets brought up in these debates; that crime has experienced a steep reduction over the last few decades.

    Correlation =/= causation, but it is something that should be actively refuted.

  3. I’m unclear on how increased jail time for violent offenses is a bad thing. Obviously the drug laws are stupid and extending punishments for them is stupider. But that study should be done in isolation from violent crimes.

    1. This.

    2. I’m unclear on how increased jail time for violent offenses is a bad thing.

      Theoretically, of course, you can certainly have sentences for violent offenses that are too long. Whether we are at that point or not, I couldn’t say.

      But I certainly agree that a separate study of drug offenses is in order.

      1. Theoretically, of course, you can certainly have sentences for violent offenses that are too long.

        9x19mm is about right for serious and repeat violent offenses.

        1. 38 Super or go home.

          1. I’m trying to keep criminal justice costs down. I didn’t know the length of a .22 LR off the top of my head.

            1. You have problems with violent squirrels, I take it?

              1. .22 rimfire has been successfully used to take every species land mammal on Earth. Probably porpoises and smaller whales too.

                1. I would go with .25 ACP for the porpoises.

  4. Also, the PRC and Burma execute far more people than we do, even going by the official numbers. Not that that’s the bar we should set, but if you’re going to make the claim you need to make sure it’s appropriate.

    1. When the government murders someone it’s not counted as a murder by the government.

      1. It is only another notch proudly carved on their gun.

  5. While I agree that the trend is troubling, I would point out the typical problems with comparing incarceration rates between our country and authoritarian ones: unlike our country, there is an incentive to under-report jailings for these regimes, and there are the tools available to those regimes to effectively hide such data. They also have many other punishments at their disposal, such as corporal punishment, collective punishment, and impromptu, unpublished on-the-spot punishment. It is difficult to gauge the level of brutality of law enforcement/punishment when there’s no real rule of law or good info.

    1. Also, he never talks about the crime rate. The point of incarceration is to lower the crime rate not to have a lower rate than other countries. That whole paragraph is just stupid.

      1. Homicide rate in the US compared to other western countries is higher.

        1. Yet the trends are running in opposite directions. (Ours is dropping, others climbing).

          1. Not true for all countries (homicide rate are at a record low in Germany, Britain,…)

  6. I have no problems with Three Strikes laws, as they are marketed. I hate how they are implemented. When that law was on the California ballots, we were told it was three violent felonies. The first two offenses don’t have to be violent, merely serious, and the last strike could be just a petty crime. And all three strikes could arise from a single court trial.

    In short, the voters were lied to.

    1. This. If a guy does a burglary, gets caught, gets out, does it again, gets caught, gets out, does it again….well he’s a career criminal. Lock him up on a penal farm.

      Assault, rape, burglary, robbery, etc. should be three strikes crimes. Posession or possession with intent should not be.

  7. Would it be considered an “Identical Crime” when that bald wizard on Game of Thrones made copies of himself and killed most of the Council of Qarth? Because he didn’t go to jail for that, his punishment was a little more cruel and unusual…

    1. To be fair he killed the only people who could punish him for the act.

  8. The incarcerated don’t count in Obamas unemployment numbers. He’s just trying the rate done.

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