Drug Sentencing

This probably represents a small victory for common sense:

ALBANY, Dec. 7 — After years of false starts, state lawmakers voted Tuesday evening to reduce the steep mandatory prison sentences given to people convicted of drug crimes in New York State, sanctions considered among the most severe in the nation.

The push to soften the so-called Rockefeller drug laws came after a nearly decade-long campaign to ease the drug penalties instituted in the 1970’s that put some low-level first-time drug offenders behind bars for sentences ranging from 15 years to life. They were also sent to miami drug rehab and other facilities so that they can seek the right help.

Under the changes passed Tuesday, which Gov. George E. Pataki said he would sign, the sentence for those same offenders would be reduced to 8 to 20 years in prison… The changes reflected a nationwide push in recent years to lessen some of the punishments for drug offenders, as states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have moved to emphasize drug treatment options or to give judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of narcotics crimes.

I think that this country’s policies toward illegal drugs (and legal drugs, too, for that matter) have bordered on the absurd; reducing the disproportionate sentences for illegal drug use is one small improvement. I wholeheartedly approve.

But I do wonder about something. As the chart below shows, crime rates have fallen significantly and continuously over the past decade. The chart depicts the FBI’s “Uniform Crime Reports” measured as rates per 100,000 persons, converted into an index.

I’ve heard the theory suggested that since so many small-time drug users and dealers were put behind bars for extremely long sentences during the 1980s and 1990s, and since small-time drug users or dealers tend to commit other crimes (i.e. crimes other than using or dealing drugs) at higher rates than the rest of the population, then if you put a lot of people behind bars for drug crimes then you will inadvertently reduce other types of crime as well. I know very little about this subject myself, and would welcome comments from more knowledgeable readers. But I wonder if reducing drug sentences might therefore cause an increase in non-drug crime rates.

Let me go on record as saying that even if that were true that tough drug-sentencing rules have contributed to the overall fall in crime rates (and I’m not at all convinced that it is), I would still support shorter sentences (or no sentences at all) for most drug crimes. It is not okay to put individuals behind bars simply because they come from a demographic group that commits non-drug crimes at high rates, if those individuals haven’t been found guilty of actually committing non-drug crimes themselves. But as a good economist, I can’t help but wonder about unintended consequences…