Patterico's Pontifications


Nonsense About First-Time Drug Offenders from Pattt Morrison

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 6:01 am

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.

24 Responses to “Nonsense About First-Time Drug Offenders from Pattt Morrison”

  1. I get the impression law enforcement is sending certain people a message, “Be discreet, you damn fools. Be discreet about how you get it, be discreet about how you use it. Cuz, frankly, we’ve got more important things to worry about than your sorry ass.”

    As long as we let the fussbudgets and control freaks run the show, we’re going to have situations like this.

    Alan Kellogg (b76949)

  2. A former PA state trooper once said to me, “It was amazing. Every time we arrested someone for drug dealing, it was his first time! What are the odds of that?”

    Attila (Pillage Idiot) (dfa1f1)

  3. Thanks, P….this nonsense about firstime nonviolent drug offenders clogging our prisons and county jails constantly splashed out by the Pat Morrisons of the world has always irked me. Just not true, and the studies of actual case/prior arrest histories (and not just convictions) of those that are actually incarcerated for these drug offenses will confirm this.
    While I am a strong supporter of drug diversion programs, in their current state I am not too optimistic that they really work for the defendants that need them to work the most. I do think these programs serve as a second (and third/fourth) chance for those persons involved (Attorneys and Judges included)…kind of a “scared straight” opportunity for the defendant…and a chance for cities/counties/states to save court/incarceration costs.

    As a side and somewhat unrelated note, I remember a Morrison opinion column from several years ago sort of mocking your office for pursuing the bombing conspiracy charges (LAPD vehicles) against former SLA member and fugitive (then a progressive housewife…now prison inmate) Kathleen Soliah-Sara Olson….basically trashing the DA’s office and the LAPD. I came away from the column thinking Morrison felt we should just “get over it…it was a long time ago…she is rehabilitated and now engaged in important, meaningful work, etc…), never mentioning Soliah/Olson’s additional youthful hijinks involving the Carmichael bank robbery that left a woman dead. Soliah was convicted in both cases.

    A.J. (f4bde8)

  4. What about her claim that one in five Californians have a criminal record? Could that possibly be accurate?

    [I figure it’s possible. But I come from a warped perspective. In regular life we meet people all the time who have no criminal record. But in felony court, when a defendant walks in with an absolutely clean rap sheet, it’s so unusual that it’s like finding a rare and precious jewel. You wonder how he made it through life without even being *arrested* for anything. Then you remember that people do that all the time. — P]

    steve sturm (b5aa23)

  5. It’s true: Patt Morrison has been hitting the crack pipe hawd.

    Prison? For first-time users? Puh-lease. It’s been a while since I handled dope cases, but it was nearly impossible to get a prison committment for junkies who’d been in the system since opium dens were all the rage in the Gay Nineties — the 1890s.

    In the days before Prop. 36, the only people going to prison on drug-related charges were defendants engaged in the sale and distribution of narcotics. Junkies, they were doing life on the installment plan, 90 days at a time.

    Of course, most people don’t realize that being high only gets you a misdemeanor; it’s possession that carries the possibility of a trip to the Big House.

    From what I hear around the office, in the post-Prop. 36 era, the numbers of users going to prison has declined even further from previous levels.

    So, returning to my initial point, this is what happens when a journalist bogarts the pipe. Just one more reason to cancel your subscription to the LATimes.

    Mike Lief (e9d57e)

  6. The number of first-time criminal personal-use dope cases that I have seen or I am aware of that the person went to prison the first time is zero. Deferred Judgment (DJ) in California precedes Prop 36, and permitted such people to enter treatment rather than suffer a conviction. DJ folks do a little better than P36 folks, because it’s first-timers, not hardened doper criminals. On DJ up here, violate a couple of times (or fail to appear for a long time) and you’ll get 60-90 days in jail, which you can do on the work program.

    So, you just can’t go to prison that way, no matter how much you’d like to see Corcoran or Lancaster.

    As a matter of reality, anyone with a first-time for-sales offense with enough quantity to go to prison – which is to say, a *lot* – probably gets snapped up by the feds.

    Dealers get local time (a year or less) too, on first offenses. This pretty much staggers me, actually. Even second-time dealers can sometimes whinge their way into local time.

    Methamphetamine manufacturers have a tougher go. I can argue for a prison on a first-timer without having the judge fall off the bench laughing; I’m unlikely to get prison, but I can ask for it. If you’ve got any kind of record, and it’s not a backpack lab, you’re going to the joint.

    My meth lab trial had as its manufacturing component one large jar of the end-stage liquid; meth “labs” range from stuff you can fit in a backpack to big lab-looking things. My guy with the jar had some other problems – priors, kids, guns, sales – and he got 14 years. If he hadn’t had the priors/kids/guns/sales problems, the jar itself would have been local time for sure.

    Prisons are packed with recidivist offenders. Anyone saying otherwise needs to check the numbers.


    JRM (de6363)

  7. Then why do we have all these scare columns that make it sound like the teenager pulled over for DWB with a roach in the ashtray will be instantly shipped off to Folsom for 20 hard?

    Is this lack of knowledge about the subject matter, or malice on the part of the columnist?

    JD (94b0da)

  8. 15 years experience here … it just doesn’t happen. Well said Patterico.

    MOG (59bfb8)

  9. Is this lack of knowledge about the subject matter, or malice on the part of the columnist?

    On the part of Morrison and others in the MSM it is sheer laziness. The statistics quoted by Patterico are available to anyone who can type “drug offender statistics” into a search engine.

    The “real journalists” at the Dog Trainer can pick up the telephone and call any police dept, DA’s office, or the Dept. of Corrections and get facts on drug offenders.

    Stu707 (cc7fa3)

  10. I have eight and a half years experience in a northern california DA’s office. We don’t see it either.

    Keep up the good work!

    Steve M. (64014e)

  11. Very interesting post. I really enjoy your site. Your statistics on drug offenders and prison are eye-opening. Of these small number of prisoners, do you have any idea how many of them were for marijuana and how many were for harder drugs???

    Mike A. (1ee4ee)

  12. Mike A.:

    California’s maximum penalty for simple possession of less than an ounce of pot is a $340 fine. (Of course, if you have a medical condition like cancer or stress or slight toe pain, you can get a card that forbids prosecution.)

    In my area, the overwhelming majority of prison cases are meth sales or meth manufacturing. Other drugs pale in comparison. Pot’s not a priority, although if you have 300 plants, you’ve got a prison-related problem.


    JRM (5e00de)

  13. You want real cruelty? The FBI used the 20 year old me to get my older brother to stop dealing coke. Their question was, “Do you want to see your younger brother in prison as an accessory to the fact?”

    He cut contact completely with the network. News about his talk with the Feds probably helped.

    Alan Kellogg (87fdba)

  14. Patterico

    I’m in the county just east of you… First time offenders get PC1000 (almost all misdemeanor drug offenses), other’s Prop 36 (and I’ve seen ’em bounce between the programs) and for those that STILL have a tough time keepin’ the nose clean, there’s Drug Court (every Friday at 8:30a)

    THEN, a lot of repeat offenders, when actual jail time comes into play… can do Inroads program in county jail, or opt to do time in any number of lock-down rehab centers (including Salvation Army).

    The idea that first-time, simple addict offenders are going to even be charged with a felony, let alone go to state prison makes me wonder what Pat lines her hats with…

    Darleen (81f712)

  15. Umm, guys, it’s NORML propaganda.

    See-Dubya (c01825)

  16. The idea that first-time, simple addict offenders are going to even be charged with a felony, let alone go to state prison makes me wonder what Pat lines her hats with…

    Actually, it’s spelled “Pattt.”

    Patterico (50c3cd)

  17. You want incarceration for a first-time drug offender in Ohio? Send ’em to certain Municipal courts. The police have cross-jurisdictional Agencies (“Task Forces”) which can allow for forum shopping. Charge the felony in the munie court, then cut a deal for the misdemeanor there. Few defense lawyers will refuse, even knowing the risk for local jail versus the certainty of probation or diversion or treatment or any of the other progarms out there.

    The closer the suburban municipal jurisdiction is to the “big city”, the bigger message they want to send to keep drugs out. A guy may catch 90 days he would never have caught in felonyland.

    Ed C:\> (d72d01)

  18. Pattt Morrison, makes a very important statement that the job prospects for over 172,000 individuals are out of our CJ system are diminished greatly. This is perhaps the most important part of reforming the system and reducing recidivism. The War On Drugs is a significant factor regarding the criminal justice population and the fact that our prison system is one of the major industries in our state. However Prop. 36 was never about the addict nor prison overcrowding. It was about the legalization of grass and the misappropriation of treatment dollars to the criminal justice system. Let not be fooled that the becase the opening statement is not built on a correct premise, let look at the fact that the lack of employement is the overriding reason that once in the system, its almost impossible to get out and we the public are paying a price for the lack of far reaching and short sighted public policy.

    Gregory (22aea9)

  19. […] I guess this is what we should expect from a paper that complains we imprison too many first-time drug offenders — and also that we don’t imprison enough of them. […]

    Patterico’s Pontifications » L.A. Times Editors: That Terrible Program We Opposed Before Is Underfunded! (421107)

  20. I’m 27yrs old, experienced an extensive brain injury. I got caught with a large amount of Norco’s which are pain killers. I am a 1st time offender with no record. I also had brass knuckles. I was charged with Transportation of controlled substance, possesion controlled substance, possesion deadly weapon, 2nd time DUI offender, and driving withouth a license. I have a great career, good family, good morale, and plenty of ambition. I have experienced 2 life threatening brain injuries after being assaulted by individuals. After dealing with brain injuries of that magnitude your decision making abilities, temperment, and judgment are adversely affected. While I am recently recoverging from my injuries and getting back in the swing of normal thinking, I’m left to deal with the negative affects of my choices and actions. I read these articles to make myself feel better. Like there is hope. I read all your statements about 1st time offenders not receiving prison sentances. I think we need to really modify the way Felony’s are issues. There must be something that can be done to improve the way Felony’s are issued to people. Whithout 10g’s for a lawyer I can pretty much plan on the Felony’s sticking with no chance for redemption. Inevitably disabling me from being able to maintain my employment level, disabling me from meeting life obligations. I think the police need to be empowered to make decisions. People sometimes make mistakes for various reasons. Doesn’t mean they are lost in life, a junkie, or a drug dealer. There are special circumstances that should come into play. I think citizens like myself are more afraid of the judicial system than confident in legitimate handling of applicable punishment. Felonys ensure that an individual regardless of what caliber only go down hill. Once you get in that system it is very hard to get out. Of course it is possible. I just think citizens need more faith in the judicial system. DA’s won’t prosecute some pretty bad cases, and sometime choose to prosecute a cut and dry case. Regardless of the impact on the individuals future, family, and mindstate. I think a number of individuals will read this article and basically say something in regards to “you get what you deserve”, or “you made your bed”. I do agree. However, I don’t think 1 mistake in someone life, especially when surrounded by extreme circumstances should criple their ability to maintain and puruse a lawful and successful life. Looks like trading my 6 figure project manager title for that of a trench digger. I would be fine with that as long as I was given the change to reconcile my Felony. To be given the opportunity to improve your life to that of what it once was. Just a point of view from someone who may share your views but also has experienced hardship from mistakes.

    Ghani (c50b08)

  21. Seriously do somemore research because i know someonw whom recieved two life sentences w/o possiblility of parole for first time offense. Yeah over fifteen years ago. This goes to show how ignorant our system is. When someone who takes a life (knowingly) gets such easier penalties. Everyone deserves a “second” chance.


  22. Im sick and tired of all the old people who think drug addicts 1st time offenders or 2nd should be in prison.The fact is that our two biggest drugs on the market today were not availiable back in your day.Today there is much more peer presure and availiability out there. It is a new world (live in it! not your fantasy world). I am a recovering cocain addict.Ive been clean 2 years and am in my second year of college to get my masters in substance abuse counceling.I am a deans list student.The fact im trying to state is that good people do foolish things and once addicted it feels impossible to stop.The addict feels helpless to help themselves only to find themselves sober in prison and saying “what happend to my life”? He is then labled for life as a convict and chances of him doing something with his life are slim to none.I was hit by a car in 2002. I lost my home my 2 buisinesses my cars and my health. In my mind my life was over.I turned to drugs to numb my pain.I became good friends with several addicts and 4 of them are now serving 19 to 38 years in prison.I would trust any one of them with my kids.I would garantee anyone of you would say after meeting them that they were good kind people but now they are in prison for a huge chunk of thier lives and probebly will come out as real criminals after living with rapist ,murderers armed felons etc….We are spending over $6 billion a year to house our inmates in the U.S. and every day the govt. decreases spending on drug treatment centers.What message is this sending.Id say its a message of idiocy! If you must incarcerate these sick individuals at least spend some of this 6 billion dollars to build prisons that are for addicts only so they dont turn into real monsters when they come out!

    chris (c36902)

  23. Most of you people sound like idiots!

    Becky (f2890f)

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