Nonviolent Drug Offenders, a False Bill of Goods
March 2, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Criminal justice reform and mass incarceration are hot topics every time a new legislative body pops up in America. One of the biggest areas of concern is whether our jails and prisons are overcrowded with “nonviolent drug offenders.”
The mentality concerning these poor souls is as follows: If we release the “nonviolent” drug offenders from prisons and jails, then the system will work as designed, and we can rid ourselves of mass incarceration.
Here’s the problem. The fabled “nonviolent drug offender” is just that: a fable. And by deluding ourselves into thinking we can get rid of mass incarceration by simply releasing all the allegedly “nonviolent” drug offenders out there, we’re impeding any efforts to reduce mass incarceration or criminal justice reform.
Let’s start with basic facts. As long as drugs remain illegal, there will be people using weapons to protect their supplies and income. When dealers of any sort are caught with firearms, knives, batons, or other instruments of self-defense on their person, the penalties for possession with the intent to distribute are more likely to include a felony charge involving said weapon. That makes the drug offender “violent” before the first plea deal ever hits the table.
Our definitions of “violent” also don’t work when discussing criminal justice reform. If you throw a piece of food at a teacher in a school, you’ve committed assault. That’s a “violent” offense. In a similar hypothetical, if you throw a paper plane at a teacher, and the school resource officer who comes to punish admonish you sternly for your bad behavior finds a joint in your bookbag, you’re now a violent drug offender.
In any scenario when force is a factor, and drugs are present, the person the cops deem a guilty party will most likely get the label “violent drug offender.” Yet, we delude ourselves into thinking this scenario doesn’t play out as often as one would think. That’s why no real progress is made when it comes to “nonviolent drug offenders.” The term itself sells a false bill of goods, and it keeps meaningful reform off the table when any mention of criminal justice reform pops up.
What’s the best way to fix this problem? As John Pfaff notes, it’s time to reconsider what we term “violent offender.” Let’s take a look at what John considers a “violent offender.”
[V]iolent offender defines who the person is, as opposed as to the state they are passing through.
And in that one comment, Pfaff schools the public on what a “violent offender” really is. It’s not about a person who continually shoots up others or harms Jane Q. Citizen to keep the dreaded marihuana flowing on the city streets. The “violent offender” is the person who happens to be caught at a certain point in time with something that could be considered a weapon, or committed an act that cops could call assault, and respond accordingly.
This doesn’t fit with our conveniently scripted models of rural pot dealers copping a plea for growing weed to feed their families, or the person who turned to smack because they couldn’t get a valid prescription for pain medication from their local doctor. That “nonviolent” drug offender is an evanescent property of the criminal justice system, and yet we use this stereotype as the rationale for pillorying the government over why more people are incarcerated each year.
Fixing the problem of mass incarceration requires us to divest ourselves of the myth that most drug offenders aren’t violent. They can and will be at the moment a government agent bestows that label on an alleged “violent offender.” Because of the inequities in funding between defense and prosecution, a party labeled a “violent offender” would be more likely to take a deal that puts a scarlet “V” on them when considering how much time he may serve in prison.
This is an uncomfortable truth the American public must reach if they are serious about ending mass incarceration and truly reforming the criminal justice system. The label “violent offender” is an arbitrary one thrown at an alleged defendant when it’s convenient for the government to secure a conviction.
If we as a nation are to get serious about ending mass incarceration or criminal justice reform, it’s time we rid ourselves of the mythical “nonviolent drug offender” sold to us by politician after politician, who wants nothing more than to look tough on crime and compassionate towards the criminal justice system at the same time.
Fortunately, Americans are quite adept at demanding refunds when sold a false bill of goods, especially when it comes to legislation. This particular problem will be harder to sell to the public when it comes to patching cracks in the criminal justice system, but it’s crucial if we are to see any meaningful progress.