Mandatory long-term prison sentences for lower-level drug users and dealers are not effective and should be scrapped in favor of a system that gives judges discretion to order offenders to serve shorter terms and undergo treatment, the Rand Corp. said Monday in a study of narcotics law enforcement.
Despite the decade-long popularity in Congress of mandatory minimum prison terms for drug offenses, the indiscriminate use of such sentences is “the least cost-effective means of reducing drug consumption in this country,” the study concluded.
Citing the high cost of lengthy prison terms, the Rand report attacked federal guidelines that require judges to impose a sentence of at least five years for anyone convicted of possessing half a kilogram of cocaine powder or five grams of crack cocaine.
Incarceration has little effect on the flow of drugs because “most incarcerated drug dealers can be easily replaced on the street,” Jonathan Caulkins, principal author of the report, told reporters.
Caulkins, associate professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said more conventional sentences for low-level cocaine dealers and users, combined with prison drug treatment programs, give taxpayers “more bang for their buck.”
The Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization said mandatory minimums become the most cost-effective method only for the highest level of drug dealers: those who reap the highest profits and hire others to handle the drugs, and are the most expensive to convict. Present laws “foreclose discretionary judgment where it is most needed and often result in unjust punishment or even racial bias,” the report said.