Have you ever wondered at how sentencing guidelines for certain crimes appear to be arbitrary or indecipherable? People who have committed crimes that most of us would consider being fairly minor sometimes end up facing stiffer penalties, and it seems as though many of these outrageous sentences involve drugs. For example, in 2004, a paraplegic man who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the chronic back pain was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years on drug trafficking charges for possessing an unusually large quantity of opioid painkillers – even though they were all prescribed to his name.
Most of us can probably agree that there is a continuum of crime – taken as a whole, all crime is “bad,” but there are clearly recognizable extremes. The least serious type of crime, called infractions or petty offenses, usually don’t result in jail time. These are things like littering, jaywalking, or certain traffic violations. Next are misdemeanors, which are usually punished by fines or a short stint in a local jail. Some examples of misdemeanors are petty theft, trespassing, and vandalism. Felonies are generally punishable by sentences of more than one year, although there are different penalties for different classes. A Class A felony (like first-degree murder) is punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty, while class E (non-violent robbery, for example) is the least serious.
When it comes to drug offenses, laws vary by state and according to the drug in question, how much of it was in an individual’s possession, and whether they were manufacturing it, selling it, or were deemed having the intent to distribute. Generally, simple possession of marijuana (outside of places or situations where it’s legal) is a misdemeanor, although its sale and cultivation are felonies. When it comes to most other drugs, including methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, and other so-called hard drugs, possession alone is considered a felony in many states.
Here’s why all of this matters. In some states, all felons are permanently disenfranchised, meaning they’re excluded from ever being allowed to vote again. Other states take into account the exact type of felony committed. There are currently 6.1 million Americans who are not allowed to vote because of a felony conviction, and the majority of these people are minorities. One out of every 13 African Americans is disenfranchised, as opposed to one in 56 non-black people who would otherwise be eligible to vote.
Another issue is that people with felony records are typically required to register as such, at which point their names are forever part of a database with criminals who have committed much worse offenses. Consider that someone scrolling through a registry might be able to keep track of where you live. This might seem reasonable for people who don’t want to move their children into a new neighborhood and end up living next to someone who did 40 years for murder, but is it really fair if all you’ve ever done was get caught with some cocaine once a decade ago? There are a number of websites out there where anyone can search for felons, and some of them are downright alarming. One, called felonspy.com, reminds us that “safety starts with good information, even if it ends with a loaded .44 caliber pistol.”
Fortunately, some states are moving away from these harsh sentences, even if it is a slow process. In 2014, California reclassified most low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as misdemeanors. In Oregon, a law passed in 2017 downgraded first-time simple drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, even if the drug involved was something like cocaine and heroin. A lot of other states have dialed back the punishments for marijuana offenses, but not harder drugs.
If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504 to get started.