Saturday, April 17, 2004
Adjustments to Partially Offset Unjust Drug Laws
A friend of Vice Squad brings our attention to this New York Times story (registration required) reporting on ways in which New York state's criminal justice system has attempted to ameliorate the ridiculously severe sentences legally required for many convicted drug offenders: "...over the years, the laws have been tweaked to reduce their impact, and prosecutors have increasingly been steering addicts into treatment programs instead of sending them to prison. And perhaps most important, the number of people still imprisoned under the provisions of the original tough sanctions has been falling steadily in recent years." Also, the governor has granted clemency to some drug offenders caught up in the most outrageous miscarriages of justice.
The response of the New York state legal system is a common one. There are three elements of rules: the standards imposed, the enforcement effort, and the punishments meted out to those found guilty of violating the standards. (The standards/enforcement/sanctions trichotomy follows the work of Berkeley professor Eugene Bardach -- see this previous Vice Squad post on zero tolerance for more information.) When pressure is applied in one direction to one of the elements -- here, the stiffening of sanctions in the mid-1970s -- the other elements tend to adjust in the opposite direction. According to the Times article, in this case, for instance, prosecutors have been more circumspect about bringing felony drug charges.
Still, offsetting responses generally do not render rule changes futile -- the responses only partly offset the impact of the severe sentences. So there is much to be said for eliminating from the laws of New York state the draconian penalties applied to drug offenses. A legal but tightly controlled market would be still better, I maintain, but even within a criminalization regime, the New York laws can be improved through more sensible sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
The story indirectly highlights one of the dangers of zero tolerance style policies: as these policies often simultaneously push standards, enforcement, and sanctions all in the same direction of increased severity, zero tolerance policies reduce the extent to which adjustments in other dimensions can offset a sub-par situation with respect to one of the dimensions of a rule.