John Tierney has a thoughtful piece in the NYT: the first of a series.
The number of drug offenders behind bars has gone from fewer than 50,000 in 1980 to more than 500,000 today, but that still leaves more than two million people on the street who sell drugs at least occasionally, according to calculations by Peter H. Reuter, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. He and Jonathan P. Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University say there is no way to lock up enough low-level dealers and couriers to make a significant impact on supply, and that is why cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs are as readily available today as in 1980, and generally at lower prices.
The researchers say that if the number of drug offenders behind bars was halved — reduced by 250,000 — there would be little impact on prices or availability.
“Mandating long sentences based on the quantities of drugs in someone’s possession just sweeps up low-level couriers and other hired help who are easily replaced,” Dr. Caulkins said. “Instead of relying on formulas written by legislators and sentencing commissions, we should let judges and other local officials use discretion to focus on the dealers who cause the most social harm — the ones who are violent, who fight for turf on street corners, who employ children. They’re the ones who should receive long sentences.”