Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.


Drugs and the Criminal Justice System   


One of the challenges of marijuana reform is to address the concerns of professionals who work in or study the criminal justice system. Ultimately, their support is essential for marijuana’s legalization and for other drug policy reform.

The study and management of jails and prisons is called Corrections. Any college student taking a course in Corrections these days is being taught that the nation’s jails and prisons are over-crowded, and that the massive increases in arrests for drug offenses during the 1990s is one of the primary causes of overcrowding.


Jails, by the way, are for individuals convicted of crimes with penalties of less than one year. Prisons are for those convicted of crimes punishable by a year or more. If someone is convicted of marijuana possession and they are sentenced to serve time, they serve it in jail. Most individuals in prison for marijuana-related offenses are there for sales, distribution, or manufacturing. Also, people who are convicted of marijuana-related crimes along with more serious offenses will end up in prison. Most drug offenders in prison, though, are there because of offenses involving dangerous drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin.


The problem for correctional authorities is that most states are unable to provide adequate funding to manage prisons and prison populations. Custody rules in prison management, so concerns about security and safety have priorities when it comes to budgeting the minimal funds provided by state legislatures.


So the impact of overcrowding due to drug offenders is two-fold: First, and more obvious, it provides more prisoners than the prison systems were built to handle; Second, and more subtle, overcrowding diverts funds from treatment and rehabilitations programs to security and custody. This makes it even harder for prisons to provide education, job training, and mental health programs designed to reduce the number of released prisoners who return to a life of crime.


Even worse, it reduces the funds available to address the medical and mental health treatment needs of prisoners. Up to 10% of many state prison populations consist of individuals with intellectual disabilities, also referred to as developmentally challenged individuals with relatively low IQs. Another 15% of prisoners have severe problems with mental illness, defined as serious impairments in everyday functioning. Both of these categories of prisoners require treatment and protection, challenges made more difficult by overcrowding.


A survey by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) estimates that 70% to 85% of state prisoners require substance abuse treatment. The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that 31% of federal prisoners require some form of substance abuse treatment. And yet only about 13% of state prisoners receive drug treatment and only 10% of federal prisoners receive it. While these figures are from the late 1990s, they illustrate a problem that still confronts Correctional authorities and experts.


However, one of the concerns of correctional experts is the role drug abuse plays in sending people into the criminal justice system. And this is an important factor that reformers must be able to address in convincing criminal justice professionals to support reform. When looking at the specific characteristics shared by people who end up in prison, substance abuse is an important and widespread factor. Surveys from the 1990s, for example, indicate that roughly half of people in prison were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed the offense leading to their arrest. Other common factors include broken family influences, poor education such as lack of a high school diploma, and personality disorders. 


However the role of drug abuse is a conspicuous influence. In addition to 50% of inmates being under the influence when they committed the crime leading to their arrest, 22% were in prison for drug or alcohol crimes, and 17% committed their crime to get money for drugs.


Of course ending drug prohibition would address the problem of sending people to prison for many drug related crimes, and would also address the issue of crime committed for getting money to buy drugs. But focusing on these issues tends to divert attention from the more pressing problem for criminal justice professionals – that of drug abuse itself being a factor in committing other crimes. 


The solution, though, is to return to the issue of prison overcrowding and the challenges in providing adequate treatment and rehabilitation programs in a prison environment.


Many drug offenders belong in community programs rather than in prison. Probation and parole are less inexpensive and more effective as correctional policies to be applied to drug offenders. Community programs provide a better environment for substance abuse, job training, and mental health treatment than prison. Overall prison should be a place for violent offenders while community correctional programs should be devoted to non-violent offenders. Drug policy reform can play a vital role in reducing correctional costs and contributing to a climate in which society gets more impact from the limited funds available for jails and prisons.


Where does marijuana reform fit into this? First of all marijuana reform reduces jail costs and allows local law enforcement to focus more of their resources, in terms of police, jail, and court time, to more serious offenders. Second, marijuana use can trigger revocation of probation or parole for individuals convicted of other crimes. Reform of marijuana laws can help reduce the costs of re-incarcerating these individuals if it is accompanied, as it should be, by increasing the emphasis on treatment over incarceration for substance abuse problems. This last point is of even greater significance to prison overcrowding in general. Treatment over incarceration for all minor drug offenders will both reduce prison over-crowding and provide for greater progress at addressing the root causes of crime.


Criminal justice professionals many not seem sympathetic to marijuana’s legalization when they first consider the issue. However when placed in the larger context of prison overcrowding and finding ways to more effectively use resources, they will be more interested when marijuana legalization is presented as one component in a larger plan to replace incarceration with treatment and community supervision for non-violent offenders.


Reducing local law enforcement costs through marijuana reform not only helps local police focus on serious criminal activity, it also reduces pressure on local government budgets in ways that will enable them to provide more support for a wide range of community programs for non-violent offenders. Marijuana reform, in this way, can be part of a beneficial chain reaction that makes state correctional policies more responsive and more effective. 


It’s a complex issue to take to criminal justice professionals, and advocates of reform need to be prepared to do a lot of listening. However correctional and law enforcement professionals know they have a problem on their hands when it comes to jail and prison overcrowding, and if drug policy reform advocates are prepared to hear about and address those problems, they could find a very receptive audience for reform proposals.