Social justice advocates are, by definition, generally supportive of pardoning non-violent drug offenders, since “justice” is difficult to reconcile with “locking human beings in a cage,” especially for crimes with no victim. Marijuana prisoners are an especially compelling instance of such injustice, since the drug has been legal in WA for two years. Our state continues to imprison people for a crime that is no longer a crime.
But there is another, more vulgar reason to consider releasing WA drug offenders—money. Washington State is currently facing a $2-3 billion budget shortfall, exacerbated by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling mandating full funding for public schools. The hole is equal to about 7% of the total state budget. And it just so happens that locking people in cages is expensive.
Below are some numbers that give a rough sketch of how much money the state is pouring into pot imprisonment:
- 18,121 — total number of WA Dept. of Corrections prisoners (prisons + work release)
- 18% — percentage of state prisoners who are Black
- 4% — percentage of total WA population that is Black
- 4.5 — factor by which Black portion of prison population exceeds Black portion of general population*
- 67,668 — number of marijuana possession arrests in WA, 2006-2010
- 29.6% — percentage of drug arrests in Western US in 2007 that were for marijuana possession
- 4.5% — percentage of drug arrests in Western US in 2007 that were for marijuana production/distribution
- 8% — percentage of WA prisoners serving for drug offenses (as distinct from e.g. robbery or assault)
- 1,450 — approximate number of WA prisoners serving for drug offenses
- About $90 — daily cost of imprisonment per inmate
- About $32,850 — annual cost of imprisonment per inmate
- About $47,632,500 — annual cost of imprisonment of all WA drug offenders
That last number is important: the state is paying about fifty million dollars per year to imprison non-violent drug offenders. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a breakdown of those offenders by specific drug (though it’s not at all clear to me that imprisonment is an appropriate response to any non-violent drug crime). But considering that over a third of regional drug arrests were pot-based in 2007, it’s reasonable to assume that marijuana offenders constitute a significant portion of the WA corrections population.
That implies that tens of millions of state dollars are being used to lock up inmates whose crime is now embraced by the state government. If you’re unmoved by the ethical problems that poses, then consider what else that money could be used for: infrastructure investment, education or social services funding, tax breaks for big corporations, gifting inflatable elephants to every Washingtonian…the list of better uses for that funding is literally endless.
In the middle of a huge budget shortfall, the state — and presumably the governor in particular, with his pardoning authority — can save tens of millions of taxpayer dollars overnight.
*I’m not sure how these demographic numbers can be interpreted as anything other than objective evidence of systemic racism, which raises difficult questions about the government’s culpability for the same.
Image courtesy of OFM, via PubliCola