By RUSTY MARKS
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In recent weeks, members of the West Virginia House of Delegates have passed a series of bills that would drastically increase sentences on many drug crimes.
Those in favor of the bills say they are aimed at out-of-state drug traffickers and are intended to convince drug pushers not to ply their trade in the Mountain State, adding that higher sentences should deter drug crimes.
But do stiffer penalties really stop people from committing drug crimes?
“Our police officers, who are fighting on the front lines to combat this epidemic, have been urging us to pass new laws to help them fight against these out-of-state drug traffickers who are targeting our citizens,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. “Specifically, the public wants us to do more to protect innocent victims — especially children — from being exposed to these horrible drugs and drug-related acts.
“Substance abuse is a scourge on our state, and we must do everything we can to ensure our people are protected from dealers who prey on our citizens.”
Although he said it was also important for the West Virginia Legislature to pass laws providing more treatment options for drug addicts and programs to help prevent people from getting hooked on drugs in the first place, Armstead said the series of bills increasing drug sentences just happened to have come to the floor for a vote first.
In debating the bills on the House floor, House Judiciary Chairman Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, repeatedly said the bills were intended not only to deter drug crime, but also to “send a message” to drug dealers, and to voters.
“We’re sick and tired of people bringing poison into our state,” Shott said. “We want our constituents, our citizens, to know we’re going to do everything we can to stop that flow of poison.”
“We need to send an unmistakable message that dealing drugs in West Virginia — that West Virginia is not the place to do it,” agreed state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. The Senate is now considering the drug sentencing bills passed in the House of Delegates.
But while stiffening penalties on drug crimes had bipartisan support, and the bills passed by a healthy margin in the House, not all lawmakers think passing harsher drug sentences will work.
Opponents in the House argued the stiffer penalties would not deter crime and would end up costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep people locked up longer.
“It’s not going to be a deterrent,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “These bills raise our sentencing guidelines higher than the feds.
“Basically, it’s an unfunded mandate (to keep people in jail),” he added. “If I thought it would curb the drug epidemic for one second, I would think it would be money well spent. But until we really address the demand (for drugs), there’s always going to be someone coming in here to make a buck.”
Do stiffer penalties do much to discourage or deter crime? An informational brochure published by the National Institute of Justice, the research and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, indicates criminals worry more about getting caught than they do about how long they may stay in prison.
“Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment,” the Institute of Justice advised. So while prisons are good for keeping criminals off the street, they don’t really deter future crimes.
“Prisons actually may have the opposite effect,” the Institute of Justice found. “Inmates learn more effective crime strategies from each other, and time spent in prison may desensitize many to the threat of future imprisonment.”
On the other hand, a March 2016 article in The Economist cited a 2016 study by two economists at the University of Essex and the University of Ontario, who suggest longer jail sentences do deter crime, at least to a certain point.
According to the researchers, convicts worried about harsher sentences, but less so than the general population. The research found convicts were concerned about events a year in the future about 75 percent as much as they cared about events today, compared with about 95 percent of the general population. But they also found “immigrants and drug offenders” were least sensitive to heftier sentences.
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