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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.