Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

I happened to run across some information that I found quite interesting. And pretty frightening. What I’m referring to is a table of sentences imposed on cases that were decided in U.S. District Courts. By crime, they list the percentage of convictions that were sentenced to incarceration (i.e., jail time) versus probation and/or fines. They also list the average length of the sentences. So I thought it would be interesting to see how drug offenses compare to other crimes with respect to sentencing. I figure that should give us an idea of how serious the criminal justice system thinks drug offenses are, relatively speaking. Because in a fair and just system, the punishment should fit the crime. Shouldn’t it?

First, let’s look at the number of people sentenced to incarceration: They classify drug offenses in two categories, trafficking and possession/other. Unfortunately, they do not separate these offenses by the controlled substance involved. And I can only assume that these are non-violent crimes, since the various violent crimes have their own categories. Of the offenders convicted of trafficking, 92% received jail time, and of the offenders convicted of possession/other, 90% received jail time. This statistic alone surprised me. But in comparison to other crimes, it is downright shocking. The only other crime that even comes close is sexual abuse, for which 90% of convicted offenders went to jail. After that, we have murder—89%, burglary—88%, arson—86%, kidnapping—79%, racketeering and extortion, 78%, assault—76%, perjury—66%, counterfeiting—61%, and tax fraud—56%. At the other extreme, only 17% of those convicted of misdemeanors and petty offenses went to jail.

Based on the proportion of convicted offenders that go to jail, it would appear that drug offenses are right up there with murder and sexual abuse. And of course it is clearly a more serious crime than burglary, arson, kidnapping, and even counterfeiting. I don’t know about you, but this is a bit hard for me to even comprehend. You’re as likely to go to jail for a victimless, non-violent crime as you are for murder! And more likely to go to jail for a drug offense than most other crimes of violence and theft.

Next, let’s look at the length of sentences: Of the offenders convicted of trafficking, the average jail sentence was 74 months, and of the offenders convicted of possession/other, the average sentence was 79 months. Not a big difference, and probably not statistically significant, but even so it would appear that possession is at least as serious as trafficking in the eyes of the criminal justice system. At least with this statistic, there are crimes which receive longer sentences. Those convicted of sexual abuse or kidnapping receive average sentences of 88 months. The average sentence for murder was 85 months, and for racketeering and extortion, 74 months. After that we have the sentences shorter than for drug offenses: assault—38 months, perjury—34 months, tax fraud—22 months, counterfeiting— 21 months, and embezzlement—16 months. Misdemeanors and petty offenses resulted in an average sentence of 10 months.

Based on this statistic, it would also appear that drug offenses are serious indeed. Drug offense sentences are less severe only than those of the most serious violent crimes. Again it must be concluded that you will spend more time in jail for a victimless, non-violent crime than you would for all but the most violent of offenses.

I’d like to believe that the severity of the punishments for drug offenses relative to other offenses that I, and I think most people, would consider much more serious is just a coincidence. I’d like to, but I can’t. These statistics strongly imply that our government views using drugs as the most serious of crimes. Its seriousness is equaled and/or exceeded only by murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

And I really hate to ask, but what kind of message is this sending to our children? I have a few ideas. For one, it’s telling them that their government really doesn’t want them to use drugs. And it’s telling them that if they are caught, they are viewed by their government as some of the worst, most violent, sociopathic criminals in our society. It also tells them that if they are going to commit a crime and get caught, they’d be better off if that crime involved cheating, stealing, or beating somebody up. Finally, it’s telling them that to the government, it is more important to protect people from themselves than it is to protect them from others. Don’t you just love our criminal justice system?

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