Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Rough Justice for All
By Crispin Hull, Deputy Editor, The Canberra Times
Source: CANBERRA TIMES 26/08/2000 P3
(c) 2000 The Canberra Times.

IT TAKES a long time to turn public opinion and understanding, even on obvious things. It has taken 500 years for almost everyone to understand that the world is round and goes around the sun. After more than 150 years perhaps a bare majority understands the basics of evolution. But turn it does. After 20 years in America, opinion is slowly turning on crime and punishment. In England, they learnt 150 years ago that hanging people for petty theft did not reduce crime rates.

Now in America people are realising that jailing people for non-violent drug offences does not help the drug problem. And some are even starting to realise that state killing of murderers does not reduce violent crime. There are now two million people in jail in America. The jail population rose by about 820,000 people in the 1990s. The huge increase came as politicians pandered to what they saw as a public demand to get tough. A very bleak picture of the US justice system is painted by the Justice Policy Institute of the US.

But there is a glimmer of hope that some Americans are realising that the filling of more and more jails is doing nothing about the drug and crime problems of the country and costs a huge amount of money. Money that could be spent on better things, including education that might help increase employment and reduce crime. First to the grim picture. The US has 5 per cent of the world's population and 25 per cent of the world's prison population. Of the two million in jail, 1.2 million are non-violent offenders. The cost of housing the non-violent ones is $US24 billion ($A41 billion) a year. Non-violent drug offenders cost $A16 billion a year. The total jail cost is $A69 billion. California and New York spend more on prisons than on higher education.

Since the mid-1980s America has been on a get-tough-on-crime wave. This has hit non-violent drug users, particularly blacks, far harder than violent offenders. Between 1980 and 1997 the number of people entering jail for violent offences less than doubled (up 82 per cent). The number jailed for non-violent offences trebled (up 207 per cent) and the number jailed for drug offences went up 11-fold (1040 per cent). Yet despite all these jailings, crime rates have remained roughly the same and drug use has gone up rather than down. In 1986, 18 people per 100,000 were jailed for drug offences. By 1996 it had shot to 63 people per 100,000. Whites were jailed at the rate of 20 per 100,000 people for drug offences; the black rate was 280 in 100,000 14 times the white rate. The white rate doubled between 1986 and 1996; the black rate went up fivefold. The youth rate trebled. The war on crime in the US has manifested itself as a war on non-violent, black and young drug users, rather than violent criminals.

This absurd prohibitionist, moralist crusade against drugs has cost America hugely in prison costs and lost production, and in the human cost of lives tainted or wrecked by jailings perhaps causing more suffering than drug addiction. A lot of the economic effect has been disguised by America's good economic performance in the 1990s, based on the information revolution. The US has the highest incarceration rate among the Western democracies. Its rate is higher than most Third World countries, too. The total European Union prison population is less than the number of drug offenders in US jails, even though the EU's population is 100 million more than the US. The huge wastage caused by unnecessary imprisonment has been spurred on for political reasons. Silly mandatory sentencing laws that give politicians a feel-good factor remain a problem.

Worse, the growth of private jails has resulted in a big pressure group that profits from full jails and resists reform. But there is hope. It has taken a long time, but voters are sensing that the feel-good factor of jailing a non-violent drug possessor for 20 years or life is a transient thing compared to paying for the imprisonment. Thirty-six states have mandatory drug sentences. Some are looking at change. Since 1978 Michigan has given life without parole for possessors of more than 650g of heroin or cocaine. This is being cut to 15 years (still absurdly high, but at least a change). New York is replacing jail with treatment for substance abuse in non-violent cases. It will divert 10,000 offenders from jail, saving $500 million a year. In November, Californians will vote on a citizen's initiative to divert non-violent drug offenders. Polls suggest it will pass. The 20-year exercise of backlash, lash and backlash is instructive. The original demands for tougher sentencing came after people thought the courts were too lenient. The burden of the tougher measures, however, fell mainly on the easy targets non-violent, black drug users.

Fortunately, the Australian experience has been nowhere near as marked as the US, though in NSW the "truth in sentencing" law has resulted in a lot of expensive, unnecessary jailing and the Northern Territory, with a very high Aboriginal population, has a rate three times the Australian average. The US jailing rate (710 per 100,000) is six times that of Australia (120 per 100,000). These are 1998 figures and exclude remandees. Australia's rate has gone up from 105 per 100,000 a decade ago, nowhere near the increase experienced in the US. But there is a notorious trend for Australia to follow the US. We must avoid its mad policies of the past decade. They haven’t worked. The lesson is that the best way to avoid the path of red-neck overreaction is for the police, courts and justice system generally to catch violent offenders, convict them and give them suitable punishments. Otherwise the calls for mandatory sentencing and ever high sentences strike a chord. Inevitably, though, the weapon misses its intended target.