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Freedom watch: Jailhouse bloc

The real reason law-and-order types love mandatory-minimum sentencing? It's money in their pockets.
By HARVEY SILVERGLATE AND KYLE SMEALLIE  |  December 9, 2008

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With aromatic puffs of change, Bay State stoners rejoiced on Election Day. But even the haziest of revelers may have missed the full significance of Question 2, a statewide ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana possession in small amounts. Not only will this bring more humane and responsible marijuana laws, it will also suppress — however slightly — an insidious, contemporary offshoot of what President Dwight Eisenhower famously referred to as the "military-industrial complex": the idea that if private industry and government joined in promoting ever-increasing defense spending, war as well as national bankruptcy were more likely.

Almost a half-century later, that mindset has extended to both the local and federal law-and-order sectors, which have argued for, and experienced, virtually unabated growth. Today, law-enforcement groups regularly lobby against criminal-punishment reforms, and for the creation of new criminal statutes and overly harsh prison sentences. While these efforts are cloaked as calls for public safety, they are essentially creating more business for themselves.

The problem has become so widespread that some private correctional corporations — companies that subcontract services, and even privately owned jails and prisons, to all levels of government — have even lobbied the government to enact and maintain ever broader criminal laws and higher sentences. Those private prisons are now rolling in the profit, and taking on more prisoners every day as federal and state prisons run out of room to house their inmates.

But these lobbyists' success — and that of various law-enforcement groups — has given rise to a veritable "prison-industrial complex" that not only uses fear to suppress these groups' true intentions — it leaves taxpayers footing the bill.

Bleak house of detention
It was with these self-aggrandizing interests in mind that the Massachusetts Districts Attorneys' Association (MDAA) and other tough-on-crime groups fiercelyopposedthe marijuana-decriminalization referendum.

After all, if the penalties for minor marijuana possession were to remain on the statute books, more police, prosecutors, prison guards, and parole officers — and their lucrative overtime — would also be retained.

To their dismay, however, Question 2 passed by an overwhelming 65 to 35 percent voter margin, and will be implemented 30 days after election results are certified. As a result, many law-enforcement officials may soon be without an important source of job security and additional revenue — namely, the $30 million a year (as one study by a Harvard economics professor estimated) spent enforcing the soon-to-be-history current marijuana-possession laws.

Never mind that the forthcoming statutory reform is, from even a moderate law-and-order perspective, relatively benign. According to Question 2, anyone caught with less than one ounce will forfeit the substance and pay a $100 fine, while minors will additionally have to complete a drug-awareness program (including group sessions and community service). Current penalties for growing and trafficking in marijuana, as well as the prohibition against driving while high, will remain exactly as they are.

These facts were conveniently left out of the MDAA's efforts to "inform" voters.The group could not legally make direct contributions to ballot campaigns — publicly funded groups are unable to do so, thanks to a 1978 Supreme Judicial Court decision — yet in opposing Question 2, it still managed to fuel a whisper campaign and add misleading info to its Web site (hosted, by the way, on the state's ".gov" domain).

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Related: Are doctors complicit in prison torture?, Advocates renew challenge to punitive probation practices, Prison in turmoil, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Deval Patrick, U.S. Government, Cynthia Creem,  More more >
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ARTICLES BY HARVEY SILVERGLATE AND KYLE SMEALLIE
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 See all articles by: HARVEY SILVERGLATE AND KYLE SMEALLIE



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