Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Urban Legend: People are in prison for possession of Marijuana

Its not often I agree with Republicans on an issue however, Representative Dennis Kintigh from Roswell wrote a quest column on NMPOLITICS.NET which I whole heartily agree with. I remember reading in the news when a report was issued by a New Mexico Think Tank proclaiming that 853 people were supposedly sitting in prison for only a drug possession conviction.

When I read that I knew it was not true. No one, and let me repeat this NO ONE, goes to prison for merely a drug possession conviction in New Mexico. Now three, four, eight, or ten convictions yes. New Mexico has drug courts through out the state and judges will bend over backwards to get those caught with drugs a chance to turn their lives around.

Most who end up in prison for drugs have committed, assaults, burglaries, robbery's, fraud, forgery, and murder but often it is the drug case that is easiest to prove or one which the defense attorney has them plea bargain to because it actually has the lightest sentance when compared with the offenses they committed because of their drug problem. A drug conviction also allows the inmate an array of services and treatment that a burglary or assault conviction would not provide. Therefor defense attorneys encourage felons to admit to drug problems to lessen their time in prison and afford the inmate services. Interesting contrast here, defense attorneys often want to decriminalize drugs yet they use the drug laws as a benefit to avail their clients to lighter sentences with treatment which would not be available to them under decriminalization.

Getting back to Representative Dennis Kintigh. He looked into the claims by the think tank in his guest column and here are some excerpts:

One of the most recent manifestations of this "urban" myth was in September 2009 when a New Mexico “think tank” published a report damning the state’s drug laws because 853 people were supposedly sitting in prison for only a drug possession conviction. That report motivated me to write a letter to the Corrections Department because the department was the source of that statistic.

The written response I received showed that the 853 number was for inmates who had a drug possession conviction plus other criminal convictions. In fact, the number of people incarcerated for simple drug possession was 92. That is 92 out of almost 6,000 inmates.

However, even the 92 number is misleading.

The Corrections Department sent me the names of the 92 inmates. Through the Internet I was able to review the cases for these individuals. Randomly checking their cases revealed what I already knew. Even though they were listed as convicted of a simple drug possession, they were, in fact, in prison because of probation revocation or for being a habitual offender.

What is a habitual offender, you might ask? Well that is someone who has already been convicted of at least one felony and is now convicted of another felony. The first subsequent conviction requires a mandatory one-year sentence even if the sentence of the subsequent conviction is suspended. The second subsequent conviction results in a mandatory three-year sentence. The third one requires an eight-year mandatory sentence.

All of these habitual offenders who are convicted of drug possession are in fact repeat offenders.

I have always said that the best thing about making drugs illegal is that the arrest by law enforcement is often the only way those addicted to drugs get help. It is often the wake up call that they need help. Most arrests are not for having a joint or a pot pipe, in fact those cases usually amount to nothing more than a citation to go to court and they are sent on their way. Most drug arrests are for selling, having large quantity's, or committing crimes to obtain money to pay for their drug habit. The court ordered treatment is often the first and only treatment an offender gets. I do believe that we need to spend more on treatment. As a law enforcement officer most would not expect to hear this from me but I do advocate spending less on enforcement or having future funding increases not go towards enforcement but rather go to treatment which is sorely lacking in New Mexico and across this country. I am not alone in this call either. A recent meeting of D.A.'s , Cops, Police Chiefs, and Sheriff's said the same thing in a recent summit held in the overdose capital of the U.S. , Espanola New Mexico. So next time someone says our prisons are full of those convicted of drug possession you can look them straight in the eye and say " sure, and big foot was having carnitas on the Santa Fe Plaza yesterday".

1 comment:

New Mexican said...

I think Americans in general and New Mexicans in particular have reached a tipping point with drugs and the war on drugs. I think the majority of people either use illegal drugs or have in the past used illegal drugs. Reference former Governor Johnson and current candidate Pete Dominichi Jr.

And these folks I am talking about here will not work against their best interests. That is, they need the illegal drugs to continue flowing so they can purchase and use them.

I am not sure that we as Americans/New Mexicans can stem the flow of illegal drugs.

Users of these drugs seem to be able to brush off their part in creating the culture of drug violence here in New Mexico and in Jaurez. These users own a part of every death that occurs because of illegal drugs.