Title

How Should Low-Level Drug Dealers Be Punished?

Date of Original Version

1998

Type

Working Paper

Abstract or Description

The US pursues a number of drug control strategies, but the it invests the most resources in arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating low-level drug dealers. Thus, it is important to reflect on what is the appropriate and expedient punishment for these offenders. Currently punishments vary from nothing to very long prison sentences; substantial variation is appropriate because not all low-level dealers are equally destructive. Unfortunately the current system does not punish most severely the most culpable offenders. A stronger correlation between severity of sanction and culpability could be achieved by: (1) moving decisions concerning length of incarceration from the state level to the local level, (2) reducing minimum sanction severity to expand the variation between minimum and maximum sanctions for all defendants except those who meet locally established definitions of what constitutes unusually destructive forms of dealing, and (3) allowing judges to depart from presumptive sentences instead of computing sentence length from fixed formulas based on readily observable – but only marginally relevant – criteria such as quantity possessed. The goal would be to allow police, prosecutors, and judges to work together to identify and target long sentences on the minority of most vicious dealers. This would serve the interests of justice, by making the punishment better fit the crime, and efficiency, by making more effective use of scarce and expensive punishment capacity.