Tougher isn’t always better

Kevin Ring President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
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“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” Try to imagine the fallout if current Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske made such a statement. Within 24 hours, he would be a political pariah and punch line.

The statement was actually made by one of his predecessors, Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger was not some gadfly; he began as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the Hoover administration and served into the Kennedy administration. It is tempting sixty years later to simply laugh off Anslinger’s ignorance. We know so much more today than we did then about the effects of different drugs that his statements seem ridiculous. Yet, in his time, he was simply considered “tough on crime.” Moreover, the policies he espoused for those Satanic-music-listening marijuana users — lengthy mandatory minimums — are used today to combat all drug offenders.

How has such a stupid tool, based on shocking ignorance, survived to the present day? The answer is that federal policymakers simply do not heed scientific research and evidence when setting criminal justice policy. In our zeal to punish, we forget to think. We pass laws that sound extremely tough on criminals but rarely consider the long-term effects of those laws.

I know it happens because I did it. I had the high honor of working as a counsel for then-Senator Ashcroft on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the late 1990s. After deciding to forgo a presidential run in 2000 and instead focus on keeping his Senate seat in Missouri, Ashcroft needed to show he was focused on the threats facing the Show Me State — and none was scarier at that time than the growing menace of methamphetamine abuse and production. Meth was becoming known as the crack of rural America. We drafted a bill to impose the same mandatory minimum sentences on meth trafficking that applied to crack. The bill was not approved by the full Senate, but we successfully attached it to an omnibus appropriations bill and it became law.

People can debate whether the effects of this law have been good or bad, but I can tell you that when we put the bill together, I did not know half of what I should have known. I did not know what the average sentence imposed on meth traffickers was at the time, whether those sentences were sufficient at deterring use, whether alternatives to prison might have been more effective at reducing recidivism, or how much these new, longer sentences would cost the federal government. These are things policymakers — or, at least, the staff they entrust to craft their legislation — should know before making national policy.

If I did not know these critical facts as the lead staffer on the bill, how little did other Hill staffers (and their bosses) know when they agreed to let this bill pass? I know this for certain: If someone had objected, I would have recommended that we accuse the objector of not being serious about saving Americans from this deadly threat.

Perhaps things are different today. I am encouraged that Congress last year finally moved to reduce the indefensible disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. The 30-year-old disparity was borne of the same ignorance that propelled Anslinger’s crusade against marijuana. Congress deserves credit for correcting course.

Looking forward, our debates over public safety need to get smarter. The public and its elected leaders both have a role to play. The general public needs to temper its calls for new laws every time a new threat arises or a single tragedy occurs. In a nation that experiences more deaths by accidental poisoning than by homicide, we need to develop some perspective on the actual risks we face.

For their part, lawmakers need to begin anchoring anti-crime policies in the mountain of evidence that has been gathered over the past few decades about what works and what doesn’t. In particular, as evidence accumulates that swift and certain punishment is more effective than severe punishment — something every parent knows — policymakers must have the courage to abandon inefficient and outdated approaches such as mandatory minimum sentences.

Kevin Ring is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md. He previously served on Capitol Hill as a counsel to then-Senator John Ashcroft; executive director of the Republican Study Committee; and legislative director to former Congressman John Doolittle.