Pattt Morrison, in a column about the job prospects of Californians with criminal records, makes the following ludicrous statement:
One Californian in five has a criminal record (in no small part because the “war on drugs” has been cramming prisons with first-time offenders).
That’s just a bunch of baloney. To put it kindly.
California prisons are mostly assuredly not crammed with first-time drug offenders. Morrison has no basis for that statement. It’s something she says because all her friends say it, and Morrison thinks it sounds good.
And so, to hell with the actual truth.
In eight and one-half years in the District Attorney’s Office, I cannot recall a single occasion when I have seen a defendant with no criminal convictions sent to prison for a drug offense — whether it be simple possession, or even possession with intent to sell. I asked my wife, who has eleven years experience as a Deputy D.A., and she says the same thing. In fact, neither she nor I have ever even heard of such a thing happening.
In my court, I almost never see a defendant with no record walk through the door on a simple drug possession case. Virtually all such cases are handled in a special Proposition 36 drug court, where defendants have to work like the dickens to get to jail. They can violate probation repeatedly and the judge cannot incarcerate them for even a day.
You folks voted for it.
If such a defendant walks into my court, it’s because he is demanding a jury trial — after which, if convicted, he will still be eligible for Proposition 36!
It simply does not happen that a defendant like that goes to prison on their drug possession case, without something more. It could happen if they have other charges, or if they violate their probation in a significant way. But that’s not the same thing.
Even for sales or “possession for sales” cases, in my experience, defendants get probation the first time around. If I tried to give a first-time drug seller with no previous record a prison sentence on a possession for sales case, everyone in my courtroom would look at me as if I had two heads. And then my judge (like any other judge) would give the defendant probation anyway.
I suppose it’s possible that it happens, sometime, somewhere, that a first-time offender goes to prison right out of the gate. Our Major Narcotics Division may catch people with sufficiently large quantities of drugs that it is felt appropriate to send them to prison the first time.
But I suspect that such situations are quite rare. I’m guessing the quantity would have to be very large indeed. And most offenders caught with such large quantities are likely to have a previous record. So I’d be willing to bet that, even in Major Narcotics, first-time offenders are almost never sent to prison. But I don’t know for sure. (Perhaps “CStudent” can help me out here.)
What’s it like in other parts of California? I know prosecutors in different counties read this blog. How about it, Mike Lief? JRM? Is your experience any different?
But why take my (or our) word for it? Let’s look at some actual studies. In Michigan, how many prisoners out of 47,000 do you think are incarcerated for first-time drug possession charges? How about Wisconsin? Take a guess, and then read these statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration web site:
The Michigan Department of Corrections just finished a study of their inmate population. They discovered that out of 47,000 inmates, only 15 people were incarcerated on first-time drug possession charges. (500 are incarcerated on drug possession charges, but 485 are there on multiple charges or pled down.)
That’s 15 people. Not 15%. 15 people — total.
In Wisconsin the numbers are even lower, with only 10 persons incarcerated on drug possession charges. (769 are incarcerated on drug possession charges, but 512 of those entered prison through some type of revocation, leaving 247 entering prison on a “new sentence.” Eliminating those who had also been sentenced on trafficking and/or non-drug related charges; the total of new drug possession sentences came to 10.)
Don’t get me wrong. We send a lot of people to prison for dealing drugs. I don’t want to imply that we don’t, because we do — all the time.
But they are hardly first-time offenders. If they were, they wouldn’t be going to prison.
I can virtually guarantee you that Pattt Morrison has no basis for stating that “the ‘war on drugs’ has been cramming [California] prisons with first-time offenders.” I’d be willing to bet that she can’t come up with a single such example, much less provide reliable statistics to back up her assertion.