Saturday, November 07, 2015

Guns, Drugs, And Prison

Salon's Daniel Denvir deserves a lot of credit for arguing

At a moment when Congress is considering winding down mandatory minimums, however modestly, one should take a close look at any gun control measure that touts more more prison time as the solution. If Sanders and Clinton are serious about ending mass incarceration, they should too.

He deserves roughly as much credit as a person asserting "one should take a close look at any proposal for expansion of treatment facilities as the solution for drug addiction."   Out-patient and in-patient programs put a dent in substance abuse but would not end the drug scourge. Neither would "a gun control masure that touts more prison time" end mass incarceration or gun violence.  Like treatment programs, though, it is one part of a multi-pronged strategy (video below from San Diego in 2009).

Denvir laments that gun control measures "that mete out harsh sentences for illegal gun possession, or possessing a gun while dealing drugs or committing another crime, primarily target black men and have won support from both conservatives and law-and-order liberals." He notes

Like other aspects of the criminal justice system, people of color are the ones who most often end up behind bars.

In fiscal year 2014, just 18-percent of those who were sentenced under the mandatory minimum statute for carrying a gun related to a violent or drug crime were white, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. 54-percent were black and 25-percent were Hispanic.

The maximum penalty for most white collar crimes is severe and presumably imposed primarily upon non-Hispanic whites.  It would be foolish to eliminate most penalties simply because they fall most often upon whites or males or individuals of means.

No doubt the 18/25/54 statistics cited by Denvir are accurate and  reflect laws which disproportionately affect blacks, and especially, young men. They also are mandatory minimums, which themselves reduce the arbitrariness of sentencing, which otherwise disadvantages blacks.

Removal of young black men from society for carrying a gun related to a violent or drug crime has a significant impact upon those individuals. Nonetheless, it has a great (and beneficial) impact also upon the community- often black- in which those weapons are possessed and in which they are expected to be used. The door swings both ways.

But Denvir's argument fails most miserably when he makes the (probably) technically accurate, but nearly irrelevant, argument that individuals sentenced "for carrying a gun related to a violent or drug crime... don't exactly qualify as violent criminals."

Leniency often is appled toward drug users, who have committed victimless crimes, and who may need treatment.  Similarly, illegal weapons may be possessed for relatively benign purposes and by individuals not prone to criminality. They, too, legitimately escape incarceration..

Among those benign purposes, however, is not one to enforce the terms of a drug deal. Threatening to blow away someone who cheats on a drug transaction is not a legitimate reason to possess a weapon and the offender, insofar as the law allows it, should be removed from society for a protracted period of time.

There are legitimate means to reducing mass incarceration. Nonetheless, except in rare circumstances, no charity, no "mercy of the court," is due the man with illegal drugs and an unlawful weapon. Punishment, infrequently swift in our criminal justice system, must at least be severe.

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