Take two guys convicted of a nonviolent crime, like smoking a bong in a parking lot. Now, as a society, you have to make a choice. You can go easy on them with probation or community service, figuring that what they did wasn't that serious of a crime. But you're also making it easier for them to continue to be criminals, right? If you're not taking them off the street, they're free to get into more mischief. And why wouldn't they, if you have basically taught them that crime gets you nothing more than a slap on the wrist?
No, if you are serious about crime, you need to scare those guys straight! Send them to jail, let them feel the consequences of their actions. Once out, they're sure to straighten up, for fear of going back.
So What's the Problem?
It's the opposite.
"When you came here you could barely roll a joint. But by the time you graduate prison, you'll know how to cook meth and cut bitches with a soap knife."
Let's say with our two hypothetical bong smokers, we give one probation/community service and give the other a short sentence in jail. The first guy, the one who spends his time picking up trash in a garish orange vest and chatting weekly with a police officer, is approximately 20 percent less likely to be in jail three years later.
The second guy, supposedly taught a harsher lesson, has a close to 50 percent chance of showing up in prison again within the next three years. A variety of studies have shown this -- jailing first-time nonviolent offenders is completely ineffective at deterring future crimes. It's weird -- it's almost like prison puts you in a criminal mindset, as if spending all day and all night living with and talking to other criminals, completely immersed in their lifestyle and morals and way of thinking, makes you start to act like them.
"Told you I'd be back to finish this game. I'm no quitter, man."
So if the data says jail isn't great for keeping nonviolent offenders free of crime, why do we insist on using it? For starters, there's a massive cultural bias in favor of putting people in prison -- we don't want to be soft on crime, after all.
And holy shit do we love to send people to jail. The U.S. jails 743 out of every 100,000 citizens -- 10 times the rate of a country like Denmark (which only jails 71 out of 100,000 people). The U.S. has 1.6 million people in prison right now. The only country close to that number is China ... which has four times the population.
Via Wikimedia Commons
Then again, behind each of these doors is over seven thousand criminals.
It's not because violent crime is rampant in the U.S., either -- the U.S. is average in that category (for instance, the U.S. has fewer violent crimes per capita than the U.K., regardless of how civilized that accent makes them seem). It's because we jail people for anything. The U.S. is the only modernized country to throw people in jail for writing bad checks. In no other civilized (or even pretend civilized) country will someone go to jail because he couldn't pay a $215 fishing license fine. And then we have the perpetual drug war, which has added around 200,000 people who wouldn't see jail time in Europe.
Meanwhile, states are cutting funding to programs meant to keep people out of the prison system and spending far, far more on prisons (where it costs $24,000 per prisoner, per year). Jail is where the bad guys go, and we'll be damned if we'll just let those bong-smoking bastards walk around free.
Take your gang signs elsewhere, druglord!
While we're on the subject of drugs, we should probably point out ...
For those of you who don't remember, the '80s were all about saying "NO!" to drugs, and then reminding everyone else to do the same about three times every minute. This was due to the appearance of crack cocaine, a much cheaper form of the drug that exploded in popularity overnight. So when Congress wanted to draft a law that would punch crack right in the dick, they turned to officer Johnny St. Valentine Brown, nicknamed Jehru, for help.
Using his pharmacology PhD, his decades as a narc and his lifetime of having a name from a 1970s cop show, Jehru concluded that crack was 50 times more dangerous than cocaine. Congress transformed this into the 100:1 rule, which meant that having one gram of crack was as bad as having 100 grams of cocaine. Possession of 500 grams of cocaine or 5 grams of crack was enough to classify a person as a dealer, leading to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. And 5 grams of crack is a tiny freaking amount.
Ladies and gentlemen, the '80s.
But, hey, we can never be too careful, right?
So What's the Problem?
Too bad the whole thing was bullshit. There is absolutely no difference in danger between crack and powder cocaine. It turns out that Jehru made the whole thing up, just like he made up his academic credentials. That's right: Jehru was convicted of perjury in 1997 for falsifying his degree, plagiarizing letters of reference and being a douche who helped jail thousands of undeserving people.
It's OK, you can make the "oops" face.
Which, again, maybe a person could justify under the "better to be tough than to let our kids all turn into crackheads" theory. But as you can guess, jail doesn't work -- treating drug users is the most effective way to reduce cocaine use. It doesn't matter. The laws force judges to impose outrageously large, expensive jail sentences on first-time offenders. The minimum drug amounts are so off that the average cocaine dealer gets less of a sentence than the average crack user.
Which makes some people incredibly happy.
Fortunately, it only took 15 years of total failure to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the arbitrary ratio of 100:1 to ... an equally bullshit 18:1 ratio. Even though the White House Drug Control Policy Director acknowledges that there is no real difference between crack and cocaine, the laws are still different because ... we have no idea. We give up.
For more reasons to be scared of everything around you, check out 6 Weird Things That Influence Bad Behavior More Than Laws or The 5 Most Horrifying Things Corporations Are Taking Over.
Do you have an idea in mind that would make a great article? Then sign up for our writers workshop! Do you possess expert skills in image creation and manipulation? Mediocre? Even rudimentary? Are you frightened by MS Paint and simply have a funny idea? You can create an infographic and you could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow!