Right Problem; Wrong Solution. Obama’s Push for Reduced Prison Sentences

President Obama is pushing for reductions in prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders.  As this article notes, the federal prison population is more than eight times higher today than in 1980, before the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs.  The United States has a larger share of its population behind bars than any other nation in the world, making it difficult to call it “the land of the free.”

The solution to our rising prison population isn’t going easier on lawbreakers, but changing the laws to eliminate victimless crimes.  The War on Drugs is one of the most damaging social policies the government has initiated.

Yes, it swells the prison population, but it has many other pernicious effects.  It criminalizes drug market participants and pushes them to look for ways to protect their property and their markets, because not only will police not protect them, the police are trying to hunt them down.  This leads to the formation of gangs, and gun violence.

It opens the door to corruption because there are no victims who want to report drug “crimes.”  Both buyers and sellers hope to remain undetected, which means police must invade everyone’s privacy to detect drug deals and drug users.  It also opens the opportunity for law enforcement officers to be bribed to look the other way, or worse, to join in.

The effect of US drug policies on other countries might be worse.  Look at the violence and lawlessness in Mexico and throughout Latin America as organized crime in those countries competes for a share of the US drug market.

These are the big picture effects, but look at what the War on Drugs does to individuals.  If your drug of choice is illegal and you get caught, a conviction and prison time, or even an arrest, can harm you for the rest of your life, making it more difficult to find a good job, and therefore more likely that you will look to the drug market for income after release.  Do we really want to ruin people’s lives this way?

President Obama’s attempt to lower the prison population identifies a real problem, but the appropriate solution is to decriminalize victimless “crimes,” rather than giving lighter sentences to lawbreakers.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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