One Step to Solve America’s Incarceration and Arrest Problems–Isn’t it About Time?

One Step to Solve America’s Incarceration and Arrest Problems–Isn’t it About Time?

By now, just about everyone knows that the United States has something of an incarceration problem. With thehighest per capita incarceration rate in the world — and about a quarter of the world’s prisoners — the need for some structural changes is becoming quite clear. Yet focusing on incarceration can ignore another serious legal issue hitting young men especially hard: arrest rates.

new study released last Monday in the Crime & Delinquency journal, led by University of South Carolina criminology professor Robert Brame, finds that, “By age 18, 30 percent of black males, 26 percent of Hispanic males and 22 percent of white males have been arrested.” Worse, by the time they reach age 23, those numbers increase to 49 percent, 44 percent, and 38 percent, respectively.

Numbers for women trend much lower, but remain significant: “By age 23, arrest rates were 20 percent for white females and 18 percent and 16 percent for Hispanic and black females, respectively.”

One might respond to Brame’s study by saying arrests are not as meaningful as convictions and incarcerations. As the study points out, however, “previous research has suggested that the negative consequences of arrest (at least with respect to employment) occur even when arrest does not lead to conviction.” At a time when labor force participation is sitting at its lowest since 1978, the impact of this can hardly be overstated.

This data also comes at a time where the conversation around marijuana decriminalization is really heating up. As drug-related arrests outpace almost all others nationwide, and with about a quarter of all state prison admissions in 2011 coming primarily from drug-related offenses — and half of all federal prison admissions in 2012 — it’s stands to reason that those concerned with the future of our young people should also be taking a serious interest in the U.S. drug policy.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been an outspoken advocate of several major reforms. He and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), have advocated creating a “safety valve” for those caught up in abuse of mandatory minimum provisions that result in absurdly long prison sentences for those committing nonviolent or coincidental crimes. Paul has also stood by the decriminalization of marijuana, saying that the goal for users “is not to legalize them but not to incarcerate people for extended periods of time.”

Paul also has supported a devolution effort to put more power over drug laws into the hands of states. “[M]ost policies of crime and punishment,” he points out, “should be and are addressed at the state level.” The state of California, for example, experienced a resounding success after loosening possession laws for marijuana, with drug arrests decreasing by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2011. Colorado and Washington state have gone even farther, with the opening of (heavily taxed) recreational marijuana outlets being approved by voters.

For many Americans, the response to all of this is a collective “about time.”

The assumption that sits under any free society is this: Human beings are capable of self-government. If this were not true — and bear in mind, it was assumed not to be for the vast majority of human history — then liberal societies would be impossible. Yet by continuing to demonize and treat as criminal even the possession of small amounts of a drug like marijuana, we treat citizens like infants and cripple them from living free and fulfilling lives.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate that this argument needs to be made. Marijuana has been given a bad rap: It’s the drug for burnouts, bums, do-nothings and all-around losers. It deflates you (see?). To attach moral arguments about freedom and self-government to unappealing things is unpleasant, sure, but it is a duty.

The trend of decriminalization and legalization of “soft” drugs is thus a promising sign, especially to those for whom arrest at an early age can greatly damage career prospects and opportunities; but as government enforcement lifts, we must also take responsibility, both personally and in our communities, to make sure that greater liberty is put to responsible use.


Originally posted on Red Alert Politics

  • PGlenn

    Mr. Velasquez, I’m sympathetic to much of what you write and I favor reforms in drug policies.

    Still, though, some of the data might be a bit misleading. In the college town where I live, if you check the local online “police blotter,” the majority of arrests revolve around alcohol consumption (e.g., DUI, disorderly) or offenses that were predicated on previous alcohol offenses (e.g., driving under suspension or without a license), although drug offenses are pretty common, too.

    Also, when we follow the FBI arrest data link you provide, we see that you’re right, the catchall “drug offense” category ranks highly (12.7 percent of arrests), but we could create our own catchall drunken teenagers and twentysomethings category if we were so inclined. If we combine DUI, vandalism, disorderly conduct/curfew violations, that adds up to 19.7 percent of arrests, which doesn’t even include property crimes and assaults (it’s not unusual for a kid who will never spend a day in jail to get arrested for these alleged offenses as well).

    Also, keep in mind is that the great majority of inmates who are in prison for “drug offenses” are not really there because they used and/or possessed drugs, although such offenses might have factored into their fates. In most cases, either they sold/distributed drugs, or they were caught possessing/using while “already in the system” and the drug offense was the only charge that the authorities could get “to stick.” Setting aside the ethical and class/race fairness questions, maybe some of these offenders had rap sheets and got away with numerous other crimes and the cops were trying to get them off the street by other means.