Unless he has some new research we’ve been unable to locate, Portland police Chief James Craig’s idea of increasing the penalty for first-time cocaine possession is a bad one.
The chief recently told the Portland Press Herald that he wants to make the penalties more severe to keep Portland from following in the footsteps of other major U.S. cities.
“Crack cocaine breeds violence,” Craig told the Press Herald. “Crack cocaine will destroy this community if we don’t stay ahead of it.”
He points to a couple of home invasions, three robberies and a stabbing, all in one week and all drug-related.
Crack cocaine use in the U.S. has ebbed and flowed during the past 30 years, after the initial explosion in the 1980s. Its use declined in the 1990s with increased policing and public information, but its use has been increasing since 2000.
But if there is one thing we’ve learned over the decades, it’s that stiffer jail sentences for users have no impact on the root problem.
While the rate of violent crimes has held steady over the decades, politicians have gradually packed prisons with more and more nonviolent offenders, particularly drug users.
According to a Beckley Foundation report, the U.S. had a relatively stable incarceration rate over the first 70 years of the 20th century, about 100 prisoners per 100,000 population.
After 35 years of getting tough on drugs, we now imprison nearly 500 people per 100,000 population, the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
These arrests might have had an impact had we been locking up drug dealers. However, the foundation’s report found that 82 percent of these drug arrests were for possession offenses.
While Portland has recently suffered a spate of drug-related crimes, Maine has one of the lowest crime rates in the U.S., and our incarceration rate reflects that.
Maine only imprisons 159 residents per 100,000 population. Compare that to Connecticut (410), the highest in the Northeast, or to Louisiana (865), the highest in the U.S.
If imprisonment was the answer, the war on drugs would have been over years ago. At the very least, we would see some connection between reduced drug use and crime in the states that have the harshest penalties.
There is no such connection. In fact, the states that imprison the most people still have the most serious problems.
Studies show that people who serve prison time for drug possession offenses have higher recidivism rates than those who get community service sentences coupled with counseling.
If the state of Maine has a growing crack cocaine problem, it would be much more productive — and cost-effective — to target first-time offenders with supervision, counseling and rehabilitation.
Felony convictions and prison sentences are, in effect, an extremely unfortunate last resort. They should be reserved for those who deal drugs or those who commit serious crimes obtaining them.