Why imprison drug users?

Without getting into the wisdom of the criminalization of drugs, especially marijuana, can someone explain to me why we imprison drug users? Rehabilitation? Punishment?

Some statistics: approximately 12.8 million Americans use marijuana. In 1998, over 600,000 people were arrested for possession. Tens of thousands of people in currently in jail on marijuana possession charges. (Hard statistics for the latter are not available, but most estimates agree on numbers between 20,000-40,000 people.) These are only people possessing small enough quantities to count as personal use, not anyone who could possibly be a dealer.

Keeping people in jail is expensive. We currently have over 2 million people in jail. I personally would like to see us only lock up people when we have to, when it might do some good. In some cases, drug penalties are far more severe than the penalties for rape or murder.

If we want to enforce victimless crimes, why not stick with fines, community service, etc?

are you looking for factual information or justification of the practice?

Justification of the practice would have to come from supporters of the “War on Drugs”.

factual info? A. (obvious answer) we’ve chosen to make possession of certain substances/ things a crime (for example, possession of stolen property is also a crime)

B. In some quantities, mere possession implies the person is a part of a sales and distribution process (tough to argue that the 3 pounds of cocaine is for personal use).

And the basis for why to care in the first place, of course involve the following presumptions:

  1. Our country has a defensible interest in maintaining the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.

  2. Drug abuse can negatively impact the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.

  3. Those who are addicted to substances are over represented in the prison population, leading to the specific conclusion that drug abusers are probably also committing other crimes, therefore by locking up the drug abusers, we reduce our crime.

Pick one from column A and one from column B.

With all due respect, giraffe, I don’t think your question can be meaningfully addressed without getting into the wisdom of the criminalization of drugs.

The short answer is that in general, we punish violations of the law with confinement. The general sense I gather is that if the policy were to address drug violations with fines and community service, it would be seen as being ‘soft on drugs.’ And the wisdom, or lack thereof, of being ‘soft on drugs’ is directly relevant to the issue of criminalization.

One oft-drawn distinction is that between ‘criminalization’ and ‘legalization.’ The former refers to enforcing criminal penalties for drug violations; the latter, to repealing any legal sanctions for the use of drugs.

  • Rick

Why do we put drug users in jail?
A. It’s illegal to use drugs.
B. No good reason.

Both A and B are correct answers to your question (IMHO).

I can’t imagine that this won’t turn into a debate about criminalization of drugs (sorry Giraffe), so I’ll go aheadand punch a hole or two in the “presumptions” that wring mentions.

True, but: (1) Prison is more of a detriment, on average, to one’s safety and welfare then are drugs, (2) Drug abuse is more of a threat to one’s health, safety, and welfare when it is illegal (and therefore unregulated), and (3) the presumption’s relevance to the “War On Drugs” argument assumes that drug use goes down due to criminalization, an assertion for which I’ve seen very little proof (which is not to say that it is certainly false).

Obviously, we can’t make something a crime simply because it is correlated with other criminal activity. African-Americans are even more over-represented in prisons than drug addicts; we cannot therefore put black people in jail in order to lower the crime rate. The same goes for poor people; we can’t make it illegal to make less than a certain amount of money per annum.

NOTE: I realize that wring’s presumptions are not necessarily representative of her (“her,” not “him,” right?) views on this matter – that she was stating them in response to the OP’s question regarding the logic behind imprisonment of drug offenders.

The majority of offenders in UK jails are inside for drug related offences, direct and indirect.

The indirects make up the majority of those, those persons who commit offences either whilst high on drugs or to obtain the wherewithall to purchase drugs.

We run many rehab courses and figures are now starting to emerge that dealing with the drug habit is not an answer since that person now no longer has a lifestyle such was their dedication to maintaining their habits.

What is now emerging is that although they have kicked drugs they are still virtually unemployable, either due to lack of skills, education or simply they find it so much easier to steal rather than work, they return to crime.

Drug marketing is in effect the infrastructure of this little world and continues to feed in new recruits to this way of life, it has to to survive.

By being illegal drugs generate a certain type of activity and there are those who argue that legalisation would improve things in many ways.

The line of illegality might be redrawn maybe to exclude say cannabis, there are arguments both ways.

It’s not a genie that any politician wants to let out of the bottle, in Sheharezade’s 1001 nights, most of the genies liberated used their wonderous powers to enslave, kill and torture their masters.
If it all goes completely wrong who would want to try and do that.

Oooer, ignore those last 14 words they are very ambiguous.

Wish I could have taken them out but did I check carefully, noooooo!

yes, VarlosZ (Being careful to get the name right), 'tis Ms wring, and you were also correct in assuming that my posting was not to be confused with my personal agreement with the WOD.

I believe, however, you have an incorrect analysis, tho’ when it comes to:

the WOD person would point out that by imprisoning the drug user/abuser, they’re not acting out of concern for the drug user/abuser’s health safety and welfare, but for the rest of society.

and the analogy of ‘drug use/crime’ vs. ‘black/crime’ is flawed as well. When one studies prisoners, the substance abuse is seen as the proximate cause of the criminal behavior. Race is not. (ie that they were stealing in order to get $$ for drugs, beat some one up 'cause they owed a drug debt, were under the influence when the killing occured etc.)

Anectdotally (aka- nope, I’m not digging through stuff to provide a cite 'cause it’s not my argument anyhow), I do see that happening - in my interviews with clients, most (roughly 75%-85%) have a documentable history, and most of those were either under the influence during the commission of the offense or the offense was linked to getting $$ for drugs etc.

Aww, come on. My little rant of two or three weeks ago was totally tongue-in-cheek; no reason to tip-toe around me. . .

Aha, I would say, but putting the non-violent drug offender in jail is a detriment to society. Aside from the fact that society has to pay (a lot, in aggregate) to keep these people in jail, those who are jailed leave jail eventually. Socializing non-violent offenders with the “criminal element” does no one any good, especially when you combine said socialization with the poverty that comes from being an ex-con (job prospects will never quite be the same again, eh?).

Ahh, but here the WODer confuses substance abuse with the societal (and legal) ramifications of substance abuse. Heroin (e.g.) does not tend to make people violently insane (quite the opposite, in fact). However, when heroin addicts cannot afford the artificially high black market prices (caused by the law) or when heroin is unavailable, it’s a completely different story. You would see the same phenomenon among severe alcoholics if alcohol was not consistently available or was priced to high for many to afford.

In any event, we’ve been down this road before and I’m sure that neither of us feel like arguing with someone who agrees with most of what the other is saying anyway. I’ll probably just lurk here from now on and pop in if anything really interesting comes up. Toodles.

, true, true (whew, I was going to have a tough time keeping up the WOD’ers side of the argument). toodles back atchya :wink:

Hello again,

Yeah, I figured there was little chance of this not devolving into a debate about legalization and the War on Drugs. That’s fine.

However, the question in my OP is more about the philosophy of law enforcement and punishment. The WOD was just the best example I could think of. Let me rephrase it slightly:

If it can be shown conclusively that putting people in jail who break a certain law results in neither a decrease in the number of people who break that law or any sort of rehabilitation of the lawbreakers themselves, should we as a society continue to absorb the cost of locking people up? (Excluding laws like murder, etc. where you need to lock people up simply to keep them away from society.) Examples of this: drugs, prostitution.

I say no. There are other ways to discourage things that are bad for people. (For example: cigarettes are bad for people, and we discourage them by making them prohibitively expensive and forcing smokers to huddle outside. Much more effective than locking people up, IMO.)

I’d like to hear from people who think the War on Drugs is a good idea, though.

This is a very fundamental question which can easily be separated from the War on Drugs. The purpose of incarceration is still debated. Possible reasons are: rehabilitation, punishment, safety of the citizens, vengeance.

Then, if you can get an agreement on the purpose (and, let me tell you, you will never get a society-wide agreement) then you can apply it to the War on Drugs.

Of course you’re dismissing the position that “we don’t care if the drug abuser gets rehabilitation, we just care that (s)he isn’t breaking into our house to get $$ for drugs).”

I don’t think this is a valid argument for putting people in jail. The fraction of our society who break into houses to get money for drugs (or for alcohol, or for a new DVD player) should be locked up, both as a deterrent and to protect our stuff.

Not all people who use drugs get addicted and have to steal to pay for their habits. We shouldn’t treat the first group as if they were the second.

We incarcerate drug users because the principle of punishment is based on an economic model. The model suggests that the effectiveness of punishment will be related to the motivation to do the crime, the certainty of being caught and the swiftness and severity of the punishment. Beccaria, who pretty much invented the modern theory of punishment, warned that criminalization of victimless crime should be avoided wherever possible. This is because the the low certainty of being caught for any particular transaction was so low that the severity of sentencing must be grossly out of proportion to the seriousness of the offence in order to be effective.

Given the desire for illicit drugs is high the only limit to punishment imposed will be what society can stomach. The fact that people are prepared to our children into a prison for a minor offence is based in their palpable fear of drugs and desire to protect their own children from that horid fate at any cost.

A cartoon opened my eyes to this more than anything else. It depicted drugs as a terrifying monster stalking towards us with wretched suffering victims in its grasp and underfoot. The monster is so terrifying that we would gladly sacrifice those already in its grasp to protect ourselves and our families. Fear like this is not conducive to rational law making.

Check out http://www.druglibrary.org. I haven’t been thru the site in a while, but I’m sure there’s some pertinent info there.

But this is only one theory of punishment. I don’t think that the country has even decided on what model to use. Every once in a while a theory will be ascendant, but it is not universally accepted. Though many subscribe to your deterrence theory, many believe in punishing because what the criminal did was “inherently bad”, or they should be removed from society to protect innocent people from their crimes, or they can be rehabilitated, or…

There is no one answer why we incarcerate drug users. The reason depends on the belief of the person you talk to.

Zoff, the prison system of the western world is entirely based in the economics of punishment. The courts play around with various factors related to other factors. Retribution and rehabilitation come in and out of vogue but the simple economic theory of punishment is the backbone of the whole thing. Prior to Becarria prisons were warehouses for people waiting to be punished. Bentham developed the entire concept of modern prisons based explicitly on Becarria’s theory using time as a synonym for severity.

There have been a ton of superficial changes back and forth but the economics of punishment have been as immutable as the principal of gravity underneath it all.

An ancillary reason ?

short zen answer: water seeks its own level, follows path of least resistance.

long version: in an increasingly litigious society of laws, the prosecution attorneys and enforcement officers [“A&E”] are increasingly apt to seek out simpler laws to enforce & cases to try. (Lousy recruiting and retention feeds into this, too, but that’s another thread). Drug crime enforcement is good business, politically and bureaucratically speaking. Maybe even economically, too.

Put another way, few “A&E” are Rhodes scholars, or even encouraged to assume any more risk than need be (heck, the job for the cops anyway is risky enough, what with law suits, injuries, etc…) so given the choice of investigating a crime - say, complex money-laundering and insurance fraud, or toxic waste dumping, both of which are very difficult cases to make what with all the exemptions, technical proofs, etc…, it’s alot easier to seek out the binary “hmm. bag o’ dope. Got ya.” with its lesser proofs - relative to the aforementioned crimes, that is. Just the inertia of bureaucracy, politics and group dynamics, along with a naive - or actively uninterested populace.

Which crime affects you more ? Some kid smokin’ dope listening to Aerosmith looking at the ceiling, or some oil company befouling your drinking water ? Now ask yourself, which position is easier to take on the evening news: “Just say No !” or “I am introducing a bill to require the mercury contaminant emissions for non-grandfathered industries to reduce to an acceptable level according to best scientific evidence, with provisos to encourage exempt factories to enter into compliance with x number of years…” snooze.

**Girrafe ** just to be clear, you do understand that I don’t necessarily believe that imprisonment for the drug user is the correct path?

I believe that Jorge has hit on one of the more deciding factors. It’s pretty damned easy to make a case for drug possession, and many of the “with intent to distribute” laws are pretty broadly written as well.

Think about it - even those police, prosecutors etc who are honest, forthright and want to do a good job, have to be able to demonstrate that they’re having an effect on crime. The easiest way to do that is to have a bunch of arrests to show for it.

Robberies, rapes, assaults, thefts all are criminal driven crimes - that is , the number of complaints are driven by the # of times the criminal does something, and even with a very good police force, there won’t be 100% solve rate. However, if they can round up the locals every now and then and generate solved crimes, that increases their over all rate.

haven’t thought this all the way through, so there may be holes in it, but it is intersting.

Again, I think that’s a simplistic statement. Deterrence enters into the equation a lot, obviously. But there are still differences of opinion on why criminals should be incarcerated.

The Model Penal Code Section 1.02(2) says “The general purposes of the provisions governing the sentencing and treatment of offenders are: (a) to prevent the commission of offenses; (b) to promote the correction and rehabilitation of offenders…”

The New York Penal Law Section 1.05 says “The general purposes of the provisions of this chapter are…
5. To insure the public safety by prventing the commission of offenses through the deterrent influence of the sentences authorized, the rehabilitation of those convicted, and their confinement when required in the interests of public protection.”

California’s Penal Code Section 1170 “The Legislature finds and declares that the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment.”

As you can see, there is still a debate on why we punish. Some of these codes emphasize deterrence, some don’t. I don’t doubt that most theories incorporate at least a small deterrence aspect. But we don’t live in a pure deterrence theory system. Crime is an important and emotional topic and many people disagree on the very purpose of punishment.