A professor of Criminal Justice and retired Louisiana State Police Officer compares drug offenses with sex crimes in Louisiana in response to David Vitter’s vitriolic political ads suggesting that releasing non-violent drug offenders will harm public safety.
By Wayne “Steve” Thompson, PhD (Special to LouisianaVoice)
According to Louisiana Revised Statute 40:967, the state of Louisiana has a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for possession of 28 grams of cocaine or crack cocaine. According to Louisiana Revised Statute 14:34, the state of Louisiana does not have a mandatory minimum for aggravated battery which includes shooting or stabbing someone. Second degree rape has a mandatory minimum of two years (LRS 14:42.1). To sum it up, a man who threatens to kill a woman so she will not resist while he rapes her is required to do less time in jail than a person with a handful of cocaine or crack cocaine.
I have personally worked cases involving drug use and drug dealing resulting in decades if not centuries of incarceration. I have served numerous warrants on drug dealers while serving on the LSP SWAT team. I have assisted in the investigation of sex crimes cases. I found it frustrating the level of leniency towards sex offenders who received less punishment than drug offenders. Leniency for sex offenders is required to make sure there is room for the statutorily mandated sentences of non-violent drug offenders. My frustrations are shared by many in the criminal justice community.
Incarceration does not work
Thirty-two percent of state felony convictions were for drug offenses in 2002 and more than 60 percent of those were sentenced to incarceration (Vanderwaal et al., 2006). There were 253,300 drug offenders in state prisons in 2005 (United States Department of Justice, 2008). The estimated cost of incarcerating these offenders is from $5 billion to $8 billion dollars per year. The average incarceration cost per offender is around $30,000 per year.
The drug war is an exercise of futility. Drug prices have gone down and the availability of drugs has increased (Caulkins & MacCoun, 2003). Long incarcerations result in higher recidivism or have zero effectiveness in reducing recidivism (Marinelli-Casey, et al., 2008; Caulkins & Reuter, 2006; Harvard Law Review, 1998; Vanderwaal et al., 2006). The user is still able to obtain drugs because there are plenty of people willing to stand in for a drug dealer when he or she is incarcerated. It is not the same for a violent offender. There is no line of violent offenders who want to step into the shoes of a sex offender, robber, or murderer. There are only victims. The incarceration of violent criminals can actually reduce the number of victimizations.
What does work?
According to Vanderwaal et al. (2006), drug treatment is more effective than incarceration in reducing drug use and reducing recidivism. Many states have realized this evidenced by numerous legislative acts which reduce mandatory minimum sentences and the establishment of over 1,600 drug courts by the end of 2004. The Back on Track (BOT) program in California is focused on first time low level drug dealers. They participate in extensive community service and meet positive goals such as school and employment requirements. If the participants successfully complete the program, they have their records sealed. Rivers (2009) reported the program has a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent and the cost is only $5,000 per participant. When this amount is compared to the reported prosecution expense of $10,000 and an annual incarceration rate of up to $50,000, it is a great success, a bargain for taxpayers.
Why does Louisiana lead the world in incarceration rates?
Research based treatment programs are a common sense alternative to incarceration that improves the ability to incarcerate violent offenders. An ad recently released in the Louisiana gubernatorial campaign condemned efforts to release up to 5,500 nonviolent drug offenders. That is 5,500 prison beds that can be used for violent offenders. The fiscal impact alone based on current incarceration costs is a savings of approximately $165 million every year. I am sure our schools could use that money.
The excessive punishments have been inspired by political popularity which also inhibits our ability to use common sense penalties and treatment. The public and law enforcement have shifted to the ideals that the drug problem is social, psychological, biological, and medical. The criminal justice system is ill equipped to deal with such problems.
Politicians are hesitant to change how we treat drug offenders for fear of appearing soft on crime resulting in damage to a political career. The fear is not created by the person who chooses innovation over ineffectiveness. The fear is created by opponents of the candidate by taking the methods out of context. I will attempt to place them in context.
Any effort to reduce the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders through research proven treatment is a stance against violent criminals. Those who oppose such efforts are actually supporting keeping violent offenders in our midst. An attempt to create fear for political gain is described by Sheriff Tony Mancuso of Calcasieu Parish as “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”
Why do politicians think these ads work?
There is only one explanation, the perception of ignorance. The candidate must believe the voters at large have never dealt with a friend or family member who suffers from drug abuse and believe they should be treated versus incarcerated. We need representatives who will reduce our prison population with research proven best practices to make room for violent offenders. The people behind such political ads do not want violent offenders on the street and I would never make that claim. But, by putting such blatantly ignorant ads out, that is what they are facilitating.
Caulkins, J. P. & MacCoun, R. (2003). Limited rationality and the limits of supply reduction. Journal of Drug Issues, 33(2), 433-464.
Caulkins, J. P. & Reuter, P. (2006). Reorienting U.S. drug policy. Issues in Science & Technology, 23(1), 79-85.
Harvard Law Review. (1998). Alternatives to incarceration. Harvard Law Review, 111(7), 1863- 1991.
Louisiana Revised Statute 14:34. (1980). Aggravated Battery.
Louisiana Revised Statute 14:42.1. (2001). Forcible Rape.
Louisiana Revised Statute 40:967. (2007). Prohibited Acts-Schedule II, Penalties.
Marinelli-Casey, P., Gonzales, R., Hillhouse, M., Ang, A., Zweben, J., Cohen, J. Hora, P. F., & Rawson, R. A., (2008). Drug court treatment for methamphetamine dependence: Treatment response and posttreatment outcomes. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 34(2), 242-248.
Rivers, J. L. (2009). Back on track: A problem-solving reentry court. Bureau of Justice Statistics Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved on November 22, 2009 at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/pdf/BackonTrackFS.pdf.
United States Department of Justice. (2008). Number of persons under jurisdiction of state correctional authorities by most serious offense, 1980-2005. Retrieved November 24, 2009 at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/tables/corrtyptab.htm.
Vanderwaal, C. J., Chriqui, J. F., Bishop, R. M., McBride, D. C., & Longshore, D. Y. (2006). State drug policy reform movement: The use of ballot initiatives and legislation to promote diversion to drug treatment. Journal of Drug Issues, 36(3), 619-648.
Editor’s note: In one of the two debates attended by Vitter prior to the Oct. 24 primary election, both he and State Rep. John Bel Edwards agreed that alternative programs needed to be implemented in order to alleviate prison overcrowding. That, of course, was before Vitter decided to ignore his own position to the issue and to paint Edwards as “soft on crime.”