Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Rand Corp Study on Imprisoned Low Level Drug Offender

Rand did this study to judge the effects of drug policy reform on sentencing.
The study drew samples from California and Arizona prison inmates imprisoned for "low level" drug offenses, and reviewed them with these objectives in mind:

To characterize the prosecution resulting in prison sentences of drug possession offenses relative to drug sales and other nonpossession offenses.

To examine how marijuana is treated relative to other drugs.

To explore the racial implications of drug sentencing and plea bargaining practices.

To examine what factors influence plea-bargaining behavior and plea-bargaining outcomes.

To analyze whether Arizona's Proposition 200 has brought about changes in drug prosecution patterns that result in prison sentences.

The findings refute the wild claim that "the prisons are filled with marijuana offenders." At the same time, they provide a rich description of just who the typical imprisoned offender of this type is, actually providing ammunition for those who make more reasonable claims, but questioning some deeply held beliefs as well.
A quick perusal of the summary by an admittedly mathematically challenged layman here finds the conclusions a little vague and suspiciously presented to substantiate a foregone conclusion on behalf of the prosecutors. I don't think they did anything unethical but I don't like the way they quantified the data.

I note for instance, the use of prior convictions as determining whether the "dangerous offender" is being targeted rather than the casual user. It means little to say they had extensive priors without detailing what those charges were.

For instance if you're arrested for taking a leak behind a gas station because the restroom was locked, you're charged with public indecency - a serious charge that in MA requires you to register as a sex offender but hardly makes you danger to society.

Cops also have a proclivity to add A&B on an officer and resisting for instance and often it's not really true. In the statistics wouldn't that count the same as say an A & B on your neighbor in the stats? If it does, and I think that makes a difference, then I think it kind of renders the data meaningless.

The increase in paraphernalia charges is also interesting. It suggests to me that they are indeed skirting the intent of the reforms by charging them at drug offense levels when they aren't caught with actual drugs in order keep those warm bodies filling the cells. Gotta pay for that prison construction somehow.

Using weight as a criteria to judge severity of the offense is also ridiculous when comparing marijuana to other drugs. Big difference between an ounce of pot and ounce of coke in terms of how many "highs" a consumer will get from it. That of course is a problem with the way our government sets up the penalties and not a failing on the part of the researchers.

Nonetheless, it still renders the study meaningless in terms of evaluating whether violent criminals rather than non-violent drug consumers are being unreasonably incarcerated.

Still it's a fascinating study and worth a look.


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