We are one of the few Western countries in the world that deals with drug addicts primarily through incarcerating them, and especially incarcerating those that support their habit by selling small quantities of drugs.
Is this a wise, cost-effective, or even productive solution to the drug problem? And is it even a reasonable way to handle drug addiction? I will let you be the judge.
Consider the case of Terri Pruitt, a woman who was 42 years old by the time of her federal indictment. Ms. Pruitt had a long run of drug addiction, including three prior State court convictions for selling small amounts of drugs, which is fairly predictable addict behavior.
The federal government indicted Ms. Pruitt in 2004, because she sold an ounce of methamphetamine to a government informant in exchange for $1,350. Yes, Ms. Pruitt was not the kind of drug king pen you think of when you think about a federal drug charge.
Given the seriousness of federal penalties for any crime involving drugs, Ms. Pruitt’s prior convictions, and her well-established drug addiction, what sentence do you think Ms. Pruitt received? Or, to put it differently, what sentence is a reasonable one?
Or, to frame it somewhat differently, what is a reasonable sentence for a drug addict sentenced to incarceration at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a system that is currently operating at 139% capacity, at a cost of almost 7 billion a year?
The answer: A federal court sentenced Ms. Pruitt to 292 months in prison, or, close to 25 years. Because she was sentenced in the federal system, Ms. Pruitt will serve, at the very least, about 21 years in prison. That means taxpayers will spend approximately $700,000 to incarcerate her—far and away more than the cost of intense, inpatient drug treatment.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the sentence and found it reasonable.
Former Judge and Republican appointee, Michael McConnell, had a few things to say about the sentence. He noted, that, “except, perhaps, to judges numbed by frequent encounters with the results of the sentencing guidelines, Pruitt’s is an exceptionally long sentence.” He also noted that, under the federal sentencing guidelines, a second-degree murder conviction merits a sentencing range of 235 to 293 months. As a result of the comparison, Judge McConnell asked “whether a guideline that treats a defendant who has committed a series of relatively minor and nonviolent drug crimes more severely than a murderer” can be considered a just or reasonable result.
Sentencing issues are some of the most difficult to explain to the general public because of the many erroneous assumptions involved with whether a particular result is just, productive, and cost-effective. But no matter what your profession, no matter what your educational background, and no matter what your political persuasion, a sentence of almost 25 years for a minor drug offender with a major drug addiction just doesn’t make sense.