Weeding out the prison population

By Ben Walsh
July 28, 2014

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The New York Times’ editorial board – America’s barometer of what cautious, moderately liberal elites are supposed to think  – wants America’s war against weed to end. States, they say, should be allowed to make their own marijuana policies. And states already are: nearly three-quarters have reformed their marijuana laws to legalize all use, medical prescriptions, or cut the consequences of possession.

Reforming America’s marijuana laws, along with the rest of its war on drugs, seems like the just thing to do. Vox’s German Lopez writes that based on a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, “blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession, with the black arrest rate at 716 per 100,000 and the white arrest rate at 192 per 100,000 in 2010.” Lopez shows that racism is endemic in the enforcement of drug laws, affecting everything from sentence lengths to the neighborhoods targeted by police SWAT teams.

The policing costs alone of enforcing the criminalization of marijuana are almost $8 billion annually. America spends a staggering $80 billion on prisons and jails each year: with just 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s inmates (17 percent of all people in U.S. prisons are there for drug offenses. In federal prisons, the number is a jarring 50 percent.)

From 1978 and 2009, the U.S. prison population grew by 430 percent. It is impossible to understand what Emily Badger calls the “the meteoric, costly and unprecedented rise of incarceration in America” without looking at the nation’s drug policy. “Between 1980 and 2010,” she writes, “the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold.” (Recently, America’s prison population has fallen fractionally, largely thanks to state reforms.)

The economic impact of this is immense, and cannot be ameliorated by a change to marijuana laws alone. John Tierney wrote last year that “black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma… [are] more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.” Harvard sociologist Bruce Western told Tierney that “prison has become the new poverty trap… creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

If legalization becomes federal law, the U.S.’s ability to effectively undo massive human damage and economic inefficiency will come down, in large part, to the deeply glamorous task of regulating the market. Mark Kleiman thinks that “letting legalization unfold state by state, with the federal government a mostly helpless bystander, risks creating a monstrosity.” He’s against commercialized legalization, but regulation, with the tax revenue it generates, and the lobbyists it attracts, looks to be where things are headed. – Ben Walsh

On to today’s links:

Charts
Barack Obama, market timer in chief  - Business Insider

So Hot Right Now
“In a data-chic world, a chief economist is the new marketing must-have” - Lydia DePillis

Explained
When bad journalism becomes a joke: the origin of “whoa, if true” - The Daily Dot

Sovereign Debt Problems
Why Argentina’s credit spreads are going down while the probability of default is going up - Felix Salmon

Yikes
The Coconut Water Wars: “Attempts at psychological point-scoring that could charitably be described as sophomoric” - NYT

New Normal
“The precariat: insecure, unorganised, taking on too much work for fear of famine, or frighteningly underemployed” - LRB

Wonks
It’s unclear that cutting unemployment benefits in North Carolina cut unemployment -Justin Wolfers
And yet, North Carolina likely hurt people when it cut unemployment benefits - Jared Bernstein

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