As reported Monday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Governor Tony Evers has justified his proposal to decriminalize marijuana as follows:
Bottom line is we’re spending too much money prosecuting and incarcerating people and often people of color for non-violent crimes related to possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Don’t hold your breath, so to speak, waiting for evidence that “possessing small amounts of marijuana” has anything to do with the incarceration rate.
Last month the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) reported on the most serious offenses for which inmates were admitted to state prison. Among male inmates, 111 of 22,459 were admitted for drug possession. Among female inmates, 30 of 1,624 were admitted for drug possession.
More than twenty years ago I studied a representative random sample of state prison inmates from Milwaukee County. The most recent offense of seven percent of the inmates was drug related. As detailed in the report, none of the offenses were for possession. All involved possession with intent to deliver or actual delivery of drugs. Many offenders were armed. Some were in school zones.
Current data demonstrate that little has changed. The new LFB report shows that nearly eight percent of current inmates had convictions for possession with intent to deliver or manufacturing and delivery.
As for who really goes to prison, a 2018 LFB report states, “The predominant offenses by [male inmates] are sexual offenses, murder/homicide, robbery, assaults, and burglary. The most common by women are murder/homicide, theft, assault, operating while intoxicated, and robbery.”
Yet another 2018 report, from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, addresses the “logic” employed by Evers. Under the heading “Serious Crimes, Serious Time,” WPF describes “the rising share of inmates serving time for violent crimes. These numbers rose from 59.4% of inmates in 2006 to 66.0% in 2017.”
Directly addressing the assumption that “most inmates are nonviolent drug offenders who do not require incarceration,” WPF matter-of-factly observes that “corrections data do not appear to bear that out.”
(Disclosure: I am in the small minority of Americans who favor a broader policy of ending drug prohibition than offered by Evers. That’s a topic for another day.)
Anecdotal evidence from my years of covering police and courts bears this out, at least in my experience. Where I work the people who get arrested for marijuana offenses (1) aren’t small-time personal users (for instance, the 21 people who got arrested on marijuana delivery charges in Platteville in May 2012) or (2) get busted in the course of something else — for instance, a traffic stop where the officer discovers drug paraphernalia. Do those who support marijuana legalization also support allowing drivers to toke and drive?