On Friday, a 31 year old man who started a website where people buy and sell drugs and engage in other illegal behaviour got sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The man, Ross Ulbricht, was convicted of 7 felonies, including trafficking drugs on the internet, narcotics-trafficking conspiracy, running a continuing criminal enterprise, computer-hacking, and money-laundering.
Those are indeed all serious crimes. And, having been convicted of them, Ulbricht certainly deserves some punishment.
But life in prison without parole?
It’s time we Americans woke up to the fact that our desire to be “tough on crime” has gone way past the point of fairness and usefulness and is now just ruining lives and consuming precious resources that could be far better used elsewhere.
It’s also time for Americans to admit that our strategy in the “war on drugs” — criminalization and punishment — is not only misguided and arbitrary but has utterly failed.
A reminder of the statistics…
America’s prison population has exploded in the past 40 years. Thanks in part to the “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing, more than 2 million Americans are now in jail — about one in every 100 adults. That’s the second-highest rate of per-capita incarceration in the world, second only to the Seychelles. (The Seychelles!)
Three per cent of Americans are either in jail or have a family member in jail. Leaving aside fairness and utility, this mass-incarceration isn’t free. Each imprisoned American costs the rest of us an estimated $US31,000 a year to keep behind bars.
The main justification of our draconian sentences, meanwhile — deterrence — is also not working, especially when it comes to illegal drugs.
40 years after we launched the “war on drugs,” America is still hooked. The root reason for that, by the way, is not that haven’t yet caught and jailed everyone who sells drugs. It’s that Americans love drugs. And if we have demonstrated anything over the past 40 years, it’s that we’ll risk and spend almost anything to get them.
Then there’s the absurd and arbitrary distinction we draw between bad drugs (illegal, immoral) and good drugs (sell everywhere! serve at every party and restaurant!). Alcohol and cigarettes, which also “hook” people, destroy health and lives, and cause death and harm to those who don’t use them (second-hand smoke, drunk driving, abused families) are legal, billion-dollar industries, and these drugs are available and consumed everywhere. The only difference between them and illegal drugs is that they’re legal and regulated.
Some people argue that Ross Ulbricht deserves his life sentence because that’s what a gang-land “drug pusher” from a poor community would have gotten and Ulbricht shouldn’t be treated any differently. Fine. But the folks who sell drugs on the streets shouldn’t be getting life sentences without parole for drug offenses, either.
Others argue that Ross Ulbricht deserves his life sentence because he actually tried to have people killed — there were reports of “murder-for-hire” solicitations in the initial allegations, If that’s true, that’s a valid consideration. But “attempted murder” is not generally punished with life without parole.
And, more importantly, no one should be sentenced for crimes they aren’t even charged with committing, much less convicted of.
Ross Ulbricht’s life sentence won’t deter others from giving Americans access to the drugs they want. It won’t “protect” society. It won’t “serve justice” in some moral or cosmic sense. It will just waste another life behind bars and cost non-incarcerated taxpayers ~$US2 million over Ulbricht’s 50 year remaining life expectancy — $US2 million that could be much better spent on something else.
It’s time we finally acknowledged that.