Marijuana Sentencing Guidelines

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As with any public policy, there are both costs and benefits tocurrent policies with respect to drugs such as marijuana, cocaine,heroin, LSD, and PCP. Benefits are presumed to include a reductionin the use of such drugs, with such concomitant benefits asimproved health of U.S. citizens, more productive work, and lesscrime, though the last claim is particularly controversial. Costsinclude a loss of individual liberty, public expenditures forenforcement and incarceration, lost work effort by thoseincarcerated, and an increase in crime because of black-marketactivities.

Weighing most of these costs and benefits is not within thescope of the Commission's authority. That task is theresponsibility of Congress and the state legislatures, who would dowell to consider the wisdom of spending $15 billion a year toenforce a policy that arguably increases both property crime andviolent crime. But the Commission can consider the direct costs ofincarceration as a result of its sentencing guidelines.

In 1987 the Commission substantially increased the penalties formarijuana possession, with little investigation of what pastpractice had been or what the results in terms of drug prices andcrime might be. It seems clear that rising penalties, while theymay deter some drug use, also increase the price of illegal drugs,thus leading to more black-market crime. It would be valuable forthe Commission to analyze the relationship between drug prices andmurder rates in our major cities. Such an analysis might lead theCommission to question the benefits of increased penalties andstepped-up enforcement.

However, the question before the Commission today is a narrowone: Should the marijuana sentencing guidelines be changed to treateach marijuana plant as the equivalent of 100 grams of marijuanarather than 1000 grams, thus reducing the sentencing range forthose convicted of offenses involving 100 or more marijuanaplants?

I would suggest first that 100 grams is in fact a much betterestimate of the yield of a marijuana plant than 1000 grams, so theproposed change simply makes sense.

Second, I would suggest that there are definite benefits forAmerican taxpayers in making this change. It costs $20,804 to keepa prisoner in jail for a year. (That figure does not includeconstruction costs.) By my calculations there were approximately784 people convicted of marijuana offenses in 1992 for whom theminimum of the guideline range was higher than the applicablemandatory minimum. The cost of keeping those 784 people in prisonfor one year was $16,310,000. If we estimate that they wouldaverage four additional years in prison based on the currentguidelines, the taxpayers would be paying more than $65 million inadditional costs for those prisoners.

There are other costs to consider. Each prisoner displacesanother potential prisoner. Would we be better served by keepingviolent criminals in prison longer by freeing up beds now used bymarijuana offenders? The average violent criminal commits 40robberies, 7 assaults, 110 burglaries, and 25 auto thefts in ayear. If we had space to keep 784 more violent criminals in prisonfor a year, we could avoid 31,000 robberies, 5,000 assaults, 19,600auto thefts, and 86,000 burglaries.

Another cost is the productive work not done by people inprison. Not only does it cost society $20,804 to keep each offenderin prison, GNP is reduced by the amount that he would have earnedin that year. Let's assume that the average marijuana offenderwould earn not the median income but only 75 percent of the medianincome of American men. That means our GNP is reduced by $12.1million for each additional year that 784 offenders areincarcerated.

The change proposed here is small, and the benefits are smallcompared with the $15 billion a year that America spends to enforceits drug laws. But $28 million a year in incarceration costs pluslost output is still a cost worth considering, and I urge you todetermine that it clearly exceeds whatever benefits the additionalprison time may be supposed to produce. Thank you.

Calculations

From Sentencing Comm. memo
1393 marijuana cases convicted under mandatory minimums In 56.3% ofcases (784), the minimum of the guideline range was higher than theapplicable mandatory minimum

784 x $20,804 (annual prison costs) = $16,310,336

Average four years extra for each -- calculated from FAMMmatrix

Median income for American man (1992, Statistical Abstract) =$20,654 (21,605 for men 25-34) x .75 = 15,490.50x784 =12,144,552.

31,360 robberies by 784 violent criminals
5,488 assaults
86,240 burglaries
19,600 auto thefts