Drug sentencing debate: Time for a gram of sanity?

After years of fizzled efforts, Colorado may be close this year to legislation that could reduce slammer-oriented penalties not only for marijuana possession but small quantities of other drugs. Better yet, as this Denver Post article details, the anticipated savings from the move could fund badly needed rehab programs for folks who can't seem to keep their noses -- or their urine -- clean.

One of the primary goals of sentencing reform is to get nonviolent, low-level drug offenders out of prison and into treatment programs, thereby saving millions of dollars in incarceration costs. That's no small feat in a state where close to a third of incoming prisoners are repeat offenders who've violated parole, often because of positive drug tests.

Past efforts have been thwarted by hysteria from the law-and-order crowd, and there's no guarantee that this year's proposal -- which would reduce possession charges for up to four grams of cocaine or heroin or two grams of meth to a maximum of eighteen months in prison instead of six years, while further decriminalizing possession of up to eight ounces of marijuana (already a misdemeanor) -- won't be watered down a bit. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, for example, frets that four grams is plenty for distribution purposes in "urban areas," which seems to be newspaper code for corner slingin' in baaaaad neighborhoods.

Yet any rational analysis of the current prison population will support the idea that there's savings to be had in reducing drug possession sentences -- and not much more deterrent value in six years than eighteen months. What's less clear is how these "savings" are going to be channeled into treatment programs, a crucial component that often seems to disappear from well-intended reform measures.

Still, evidence of the failure of the opposite approach is not hard to find. See, for example, this 2009 report on the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Or take a good look at Colorado's prison spending over the past decade or so.

Editor's note: Marijuana advocate Mason Tvert also decries the resources wasted on pot prosecutions in Denver despite voters having decriminalized weed several years ago. To read more about that, click here.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast