A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition

Part II

The Costs of Prohibition

Distortion of the Judicial System

At a time of ever-increasing competition for scarce public funds, the volume of drug prosecutions and convictions continues to increase, as does the strain on judicial budgets, personnel, and facilities in the federal and state systems. The added burdens on the judiciary due to drug prosecutions have substantially diminished the courts' capacity to manage the civil docket. Criminal cases take priority, with civil jury trials relegated to the bottom of an increasing waiting list. Some courts, for purely budgetary reasons, have been forced to suspend all civil jury trials for periods of time.

New York State

The majority of drug cases are handled by state and local courts. Consequently, it is instructive to review first the impact of these increased caseloads and costs on New York State.

In 1991, New York State spent a total of $8,641,418,000 for all judicial and legal services (including police protection, $3,662,389,000; courts, $932,314,000; prosecution and legal services, $461,790,000; and public defense, $197,194,000). It is difficult to obtain specific dollar figures for the cost of drug arrests and prosecutions in New York State, but by combining the available data on caseloads and judicial costs it is possible to make some rough estimates. In 1987, total arrests in New York State were 481,676, whereas in 1991 the total was 506,710, an increase of 5.2%. During the same period, felony drug arrests rose from 42,655 (approximately 9% of total arrests) in 1987 to 54,184 in 1991 (11% of all arrests), a 27% increase. By contrast, between 1987 and 1991, misdemeanor drug arrests dropped from 53,621 to 36,489, a decrease of 32%.

In 1991 a tremendous volume of caseload activity confronted the Judiciary's judges and nonjudicial personnel. Nearly 79,000 felony indictments and superior court informations were filed in Supreme and County Courts throughout New York. That number represents a 54% increase compared with 1985. Most of the statewide increase was the result of phenomenal caseload increases in New York City. This year, the Supreme Court Criminal Term in New York City received over 52,000 felony filings, an astonishing 70% increase since 1985. The remarkable level in felony filings is primarily caused by increases in drug-related filings.

... Unquestionably, these caseload increases are the product of the drug crisis which, perhaps for the first time in our State's history, threatens to test our ability to administer justice on the local level, not just in New York City, but statewide. [9].

The increasing number of drug prosecutions in New York's courts has taken its toll on the judicial system. One New York State Supreme Court Justice has summarized the impact of the so-called "war on drugs" on New York's criminal justice system as follows:

Our court calendars groan under the burden of ever-increasing new drug cases. New York City's Corrections Department estimates that 70 percent of its inmates are charged with drug-related crimes. Yet these ever-growing prosecutions and incarcerations are having little or no impact on drug crimes. In 1980 only 11 percent of the total inmate population was incarcerated for drug offenses, yet by 1992 this figure rose to 44 percent. At a cost of $30,000 per year to maintain each prisoner, our state spent over $195 million in 1992 to confine drug offenders alone. Last year the state's Office of Court Administration requested an additional $40 million just to cover the expense of drug cases. Since the advent of crack a decade ago, the city has hired 9,000 new police, 700 additional assistant district attorneys, and has added 18,000 new cells on Rikers Island. The total cost: $591 million a year. [10].

Other States

State court convictions for drug law violations have increased dramatically nationwide since the mid-1980s. Between 1986 and 1988, there was a nearly 70% increase in the number of persons convicted of felony drug trafficking or possession charges (from 135,000 to 225,000). The number of persons convicted who received state prison sentences rose from 49,900 to 92,500.In 1988, drug offenses accounted for approximately one-third of all felony convictions in all state courts.

Federal Courts

The case loads and concomitant costs of managing drug cases in federal courts also have increased substantially over the past decade. In 1982, the budget for prosecution of all federal drug cases in the United States was $78.9 million; in 1993, the budget was ten times as much---$795.9 million.

In federal district courts in 1989, a total of 54,643 criminal cases were prosecuted; of those 16,834 (approximately 30%) were for drug offenses. In 1990, 19,271 defendants were prosecuted for drug offenses; of those 3,083 were not convicted, and 16,188 were convicted: 13,036 by guilty plea (81%), and 3,121 after trial (19%). Between July 1992 and June 1993, 50,366 defendants were convicted in the federal courts, and 27% of these (18,576) were convicted of federal drug offenses.

Expenses associated with appeals of federal drug cases rose from $8.2 million in 1982 to $104.2 million budgeted in 1993. A significant portion of this increase resulted from appeals filings in drug-related cases, which totalled 1,583 in 1981, 4,386 in 1989, and 5,658 in 1990 (a 29% increase from the previous year alone and, overall, a 383% increase in ten years). In 1991, there were 5,570 federal drug-related appeals filed.

The Judiciary is Impatient with the Present System

Federal and state judges throughout the United States have publicly expressed frustration with the present laws prohibiting drugs, and some senior federal judges have even refused to sit on drug cases. In the Southern District of New York and in the Eastern District of New York, Judges Whitman Knapp, Robert Sweet, and Jack Weinstein have spoken out publicly against the present laws and their associated draconian penalties, and Judges Knapp and Weinstein have refused, as is their right as senior judges, to preside over drug trials and sentences. State judges in New York have also protested the increasing time on their calendars that drug cases take and the Second Offender sentencing rule that compels them to give lengthy prison sentences to second-time drug offenders. These judges seek a solution to the "war on drugs" before the whole judicial system breaks down under the strain.

Efforts to Handle Court Congestion

Because of the enormous increase in drug cases, especially in large urban areas, several stop-gap solutions are being pursued to balance limited court resources against the burgeoning caseloads. In New York City and New Orleans, for instance, special narcotics divisions have been established to expedite processing of drug felonies. These experimental programs are designed to hear cases just prior to grand jury proceedings with the goal of inducing defendants to accept plea bargains that are better than would be expected if the case proceeded through the grand jury process. Also, special court parts---staffed by personnel with expertise in drug cases, addiction, and community treatment centers---have been established in New York City to deal exclusively with drug cases. Unfortunately, none of these short-term solutions will correct the fundamental distortion of the priorities of the state and federal judicial systems caused by the "war on drugs."


A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition
A Report of The Special Committee on Drugs and the Law
of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York
June 14, 1994

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