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Why do minor drug offenses lead to major penalties?

This will probably sound like a record skipping, but many penalties that are levied against drug offenders are simply absurd. They do not match the offense in question, and it leads many people to wonder why our laws and policies are set up in a way to excessively punish people who commit non-violent acts that minimally infringe -- or don't infringe at all -- on public safety.

Case in point: a 48-year-old man was recently sentenced to 13.3 years in jail because he was in possession of marijuana. You may hear that sentence and think that this man had pounds and pounds of marijuana stashed away in his house or something. Instead, he only had two cigarettes worth of marijuana, and this will lead to him losing about one-sixth of an average male's life to a prison sentence. He also has no chance to earn parole.

"The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can’t call it 'punishment' – it is more like torture," said one drug criminal advocate about the case.

It's an upsetting decision for many reasons. For one, he actually had his sentence reduced to five years, but upon appeal by a District Attorney, it was raised back to 13.3 years. Why even file that appeal? Why does this person need to be jail for more than 13 years?

That leads to the second point, which is that this 48-year-old was not selling the drugs. He wasn't doing anything violent. He simply had the drugs for personal use, and for that, "the system" deems that this person must be locked away for a very long time.

Third and finally, this brings back the notion that there is no room for nuance in the criminal justice system. We punish drug offenders as harshly as possible because that's what we've always done. It's what seems right -- but really, this kind of sentence does nothing to enhance public safety, nor will it teach this person to avoid his mistakes. In fact, it will likely only make him bitter and upset at a system that treated him harshly.

Source: Drug Policy Alliance, "Louisianan Given 13-Year Prison Sentence for Possession of Two Marijuana Cigarettes," April 16, 2014

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