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Life in Prison for Fourth Marijuana Conviction

by Professor Will Huhn on May 9, 2011

in Criminal Law,Wilson Huhn

Louisiana sentences a small-time marijuana dealer to life in prison.

Ramon Antonio Vargas of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Fourth marijuana conviction gets Slidell man life in prison.  The offender, Cornell Hood II, was caught with about two pounds of pot in his house while on probation for third offense.  Judge Raymond S. Childress sentenced him to life in prison.

I am committed to the rule of law.  Unlike Ron Paul (GOP debate: Ron Paul makes case for heroin legalization) I do not believe that people have a constitutional right to ingest addictive and harmful substances.  And I hate drugs.  I hate them. 

But as a taxpayer and a citizen I am opposed to sentencing nonviolent offenders – even repeat offenders – to long prison terms.  First, it is enormously expensive.  The Pew Center on the States has conducted numerous studies on the Fiscal Impact of incarcerating large numbers of nonviolent offenders, including its March 2009 national report One in 31 - referring to the fact that nearly 3% of Americans are in the criminal justice system.  Lisa Lambert of Reuters, in her article Cost of locking up Americans too high: Pew study, states that Pew made the following findings:

It estimated states spent a record $51.7 billion on corrections in fiscal year 2008 and incarcerating one inmate cost them, on average, $29,000 a year. But the average annual cost of managing an offender through probation was $1,250 and through parole $2,750.

Pew concludes:

With states facing the worst fiscal crisis in a generation and corrections costs consuming one in every 15 state discretionary dollars, the need to find cost-effective ways to protect public safety is more critical than ever.

Research from the Public Safety Performance Project and its partners details strategiesâsuch as strengthening community supervision and reinvesting money currently spent on imprisoning the lowest risk inmatesâto cut corrections costs and give taxpayers a better return on public safety.

Not only do we as taxpayers have to pay to guard, house, feed, and provide medical care for inmates; but we also lose their contributions as workers and taxpayers.  Better they should support themselves!

Second, as a practical matter, I am not convinced that rehabilitation is more likely to occur in prison than out of it.  To the extent that people's lives can be turned around, it is unlikely to occur by requiring them to associate with other criminals. 

We cannot afford to imprison every nonviolent criminal, even repeat offenders like this one.  Nor does it make us safer.  As Pew suggests, if we direct funding away from incarceration and towards community supervision, we will not only save money but we will reduce crime.

{ 4 comments }

Scott May 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

we have 90 year old judges using 100 year old laws that dont apply to todays society. i think the days of "the good ol southern boys " is over wake up america we need to revamp our laws. truth in sentencing, (12 yrs is 12 yrs!!) rapist ,murderers, pedophiles, and all other violent offences, need to be prioritized to the front of the line!!all others can be dealt with in other ways.
if this poor guy gets out of jail (in 30 years on appeal, clogging up the system with his case, which shouldnt even be a case!!) he will be meaner and more violent and probably grow more dope again,,,,,but this time he shoots it out with the cops because hes been there and aint going back to jail. are we making our own criminals?? Think hard about that everyone!!

The Reverend May 11, 2011 at 9:52 am

Part of the prison-industrial complex. Why do we have egregious sentencing as in the case here? Job security.

Professor Will Huhn May 13, 2011 at 6:49 am

Dear Scott and The Reverend,
I don't believe that Americans as a whole are somehow morally inferior to the people of other industrialized countries – that it is inevitable that we should have to incarcerate so large a percentage of our population. Even aside from moral considerations, it is hugely expensive and inefficient.
But there is another side of the problem that liberals must be willing to address, and that is the functioning of the criminal justice system. At present, it is structured as a game – prosecution versus defense – but it should not be a competition. For the good of society we should be looking at how to determine the truth more efficiently and to inspire more confidence in the results reached by judges and juries. We have to consider a more streamlined inquisitorial system which would require discovery and revelation of all pertinent information. Police reports and other investigatory materials should be freely available once a prosecution has started. Investigators and experts should be freely available to both sides. However, to ensure the procurement of all relevant evidence it would also include rethinking notions such as freedom from search and seizure and the right to silence. The right to silence makes perfect sense when people are being prosecuted for religious or political offenses, but makes little sense in the context of ordinary crime. Specialized courts, drug treatment, job training, and community supervision are part of the solution – but that should go hand-in-hand with reforms that will streamline and rationalize the ascertainment of innocence or guilt.
More information, more freely available, will result in swifter and more accurate determinations of guilt or innocence. We also desperately need a more rational and comprehensive array of responses to wrongdoing.

Dan S. May 13, 2011 at 8:30 pm

"….it would also include rethinking notions such as freedom from search and seizure and the right to silence."

Notions? I perhaps misunderstand your logic, but aren't those a few of the most basic protections provided by our favorite national document? Fiddling with the scope of 'commerce' is one thing…..this is perhaps the mother of all cans of worms.

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