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.”


  1. JMG says

    Judicial discretion is an awesome thing, and I heartily encourage a return to it. But I note that, having lived through the period where we got rid of it, remember that it was a liberal notion that we needed to get rid of it: in America, judicial discretion quickly becomes the New Jim Crow, as skin tone quickly becomes a perfect indicator of worthiness for leniency.

    Perhaps we could keep the idea of race-blind sentencing and instead revisit the failed notion that creating an American Gulag in response to a medical/social problem is a good idea in the first place.

  2. says

    Considering those “local officials” include prosecutors, who already have such discretion and generally exercise it in the worst possible ways, I’m not hopeful this good sense will be effective.

  3. says

    Making punishment commensuate with social harm done — wow, what a notion! What would the punishment be for the banksters then, the money launderers for the big drug dealers and the rogue states, like for instance HSBC? Why… we’d impose a fine so stiff some executives would have to defer their bonuses!

    What would be the punishment for say Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, mainstreamers of fascism and feudalism for fun and profit? Why… we’d award them even more news outlets!

    What would be the punishment for politicians who shirk their duty to address global climatic catastrophe? Why….

    The fact is our criminal justice system is a lot more ciminal than just. Drug prohibition is just the purest example of its derangement.

  4. paul says

    So some soi-disant conservatives are finally recognizing things that saner people have been telling them for 30 years? Maybe we should have a half-hearted liberal opposition to sentencing and imprisonment reform, so that the right can pass it while believing they came up with the whole idea themselves.