Criminal Justice 1010
General Education Requirements
Social Sciences (SS), Diversity (DV)
Part of my current understanding of the criminal justice system comes from stories I've seen on the news. Illegal immigration, mass shootings and police brutality are major issues that dominate the news today, and although opinions vary regarding what action to take concerning them, most will agree that something should be done. I also gain insight into how the criminal justice system works through the true crime podcasts I listen to. These podcasts often explain the investigative processes used to arrive at certain conclusions regarding how a crime was comitted, and many other aspects of a case such as the arrest and trial of a suspect.
My major is computer science, so criminal justice may seem like an odd course for me to take. However, that’s really not the case. My father is a retired political science professor, so the field of politics has interested me. Political decisions tend to directly or indirectly affect many aspects of criminal justice. Decisions such as the appointment of judges, the creation of laws which determine whether or not a certain act is criminal, and even those that affect the economy or social programs which will determine if someone receives the help they need before resorting to crime or has easy access to the means to commit a crime. Therefore, a better understanding of the criminal justice system will lead to more informed opinions regarding the political decisions that shape it, and this is what I seek to gain from taking the course.
Quantitative Literacy Assignment
In 2015, the crime rate for West Valley was 49.43 per 1000, while the crime rate for St. George was 18.65 per 1000. The most probable reason for the higher crime rate in West Valley is population age concentration. According to a 2017 survey (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/westvalleycitycityutah,stgeorgecityutah/PST045218), West Valley has a higher estimated percentage of persons under 18 (32 percent vs. St. George’s 26 percent), while St. George has a higher estimated percentage of persons over 65 (21.5 percent vs. West Valley’s 7.9 percent). Younger individuals are statistically more likely to commit crime than older individuals.
Eight drug-related offenses add up to 14,665 arrests, or about 18.1 percent of the 2015 Part 2 crime arrests in Utah. (This doesn’t include arrests for drunkenness, liquor law violations, or Driving Under the Influence (DUI), as alcoholic beverages are considered a legal narcotic).
The use and sale of illegal drugs can contribute to other types of crime. This is because drug addicts may commit larceny in a desperate attempt to obtain funds to purchase more drugs in order to satisfy their addiction, and drug cartels or gangs that are made up of seasoned criminals may commit violent crimes against rival cartels, gangs, and police officers to continue profiting from illegal drug sales in a chosen area. This results in an increase of Part 1 crimes such as larceny theft and homicide.
Compared to the previous year, the categories “Sale/Mfg Opium/Cocaine or Derivative,” “Possess Opium/Cocaine or Derivative,” and “Rape” all saw an increase in arrest totals from the previous year (73 percent, 22 percent, and 7 percent respectively). The rise in arrests for the first two categories can be explained by a rise in the nationwide opioid epidemic, as 2015 also saw an increase in the amount of deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses from about two deaths per 100,000 population to about there deaths per 100,000 population (https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html). The rise in arrests for the third category can likely be attributed to increasingly better nationwide awareness, reporting, and investigation of rape crimes. The number of arrests made for rape in Utah has steadily increased between 2013 and 2018 (https://bci.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2019/09/CIU-2018-1.pdf p. 104).
This assignment has helped me realize factors that influence crimes committed and arrests made in a certain area. These include the population age concentrations in the area, the amount of illegal drug sales and addiction in the area, nationwide trends, and national awareness of certain issues. In addition, it has helped me better understand what crime statistics police departments report as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, how to view those statistics for my home state and city, and how to relate those statistics to national trends.
In particular, I was surprised by the affect the national opioid epidemic had on the arrest category of “Sale/Mfg Opium/Cocaine or Derivative” in Utah. The number of arrests jumped no less than 73 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year as the demand for synthetic opioids grew rapidly, which resulted in more of them being illegally manufactured and sold. This growth in synthetic opioid sales also directly resulted in more deaths from overdoses.
Legalization of Recreational Marijuana
The recreational use of marijuana has long been a debated topic in many parts of the United States. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana and its primary psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are classified as “Schedule 1” drugs, meaning they are viewed as unsuitable for both medical and recreational use under federal law (USDEA). However, eleven states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation legalizing the recreational sale and use of marijuana, while an additional sixteen states have decriminalized certain offenses relating to marijuana possession (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws-NORML. [n.d.]).
Still, in more states, marijuana has recognized prescription medical uses, but this paper primarily will focus on the recreational sale, use, and possession of a small amount of the Schedule 1 substance, for which someone may still be charged with a felony and sent to prison in twenty-three states. My opinion has long been that this punishment is overly harsh while alcoholic beverages that exhibit similar psychoactive properties are fully legal for possession and consumption by adults. Furthermore, felony charges for marijuana possession tend to disproportionately affect minority groups, strain the court system, and contribute to the overcrowding of prisons and jails.
Making the Distinction: Decriminalization vs. Legalization
Decriminalization and legalization of recreational marijuana are often used interchangeably. The two both mean fewer arrests for marijuana possession, but they are not the same (NORML; MPP). Proponents of decriminalization take a more conservative approach, arguing that possession of recreational marijuana should remain an infraction, but the crime and punishment should be lessened. Proponents of legalization take a more liberal approach, arguing that possession of recreational marijuana by adults 21 and older should become legal, and typically also that the sale of recreational marijuana should be allowed by licensed dispensaries, thereby making it easier and legal to obtain.
States that have decriminalized but not legalized marijuana possession typically instruct police departments to avoid arresting a first-time offender who possesses a small, specified amount of the substance, and instead impose a civil infraction and fine similar to a speeding ticket. In a few of these states, however, repeat offenders can still face the possibility of a misdemeanor charge and time behind bars. There is also still no legal way to obtain recreational marijuana in these states, meaning residents who wish to obtain it must travel to another state which has legalized it, or purchase it from an illicit drug dealer, and are technically breaking the law despite the lessened penalty for doing so.
Yes, Recreational Marijuana Should be Legalized
Marijuana Arrests Result in Racial Discrimination, Prison Overcrowding, Wasted Resources, and Ruined Lives
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, and in some states the disparity is even higher. The Drug Policy Alliance also found a racial disparity, with African Americans and Latinos comprising 46.9 percent of all drug violation arrests, despite making up just 31.5 percent of the U.S. population. In 2018 alone, 608,775 individuals were arrested and charged with marijuana possession, contributing to an already significant prison population. In 2016, 2,205,300 individuals were incarcerated in the U.S., the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Despite the limited number of states that have legalized marijuana possession, the number of arrests continues to increase (Williams and Angell). Legalization advocates are highly critical of this use of resources. “At a time when more than 100 deaths per day are caused by opioid overdoses, it is foolish to focus our limited law enforcement resources on a drug that has caused literally zero,” said Don Murphy, the federal policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). To them, it makes sense for law enforcement to devote those resources to cracking down on more dangerous drugs or offenses and decrease the burden on taxpayers caused by supporting such a large prison population. Additionally, people who have been convicted and sent to prison for marijuana possession are likely to have trouble finding work after release, leaving them unable to support themselves and their families.
Public Opinion is Shifting
In addition to eleven U.S. states and the District of Columbia, Canada passed legislation making marijuana for recreational use legal in 2018 (PC). Furthermore, a 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 62 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, up from just 31 percent in 2000. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Political Director Justin Strekal, “Actions by law enforcement run counter to both public support and basic morality. In a day and age where twenty percent of the population lives in states which have legalized and nearly every state has some legal protections for medical cannabis or its extract, (it’s) time for lawmakers to end this senseless and cruel prohibition that ruins lives.”
No, Recreational Marijuana Should NOT be Legalized
Marijuana is an Addictive “Gateway Drug” Likely to be Abused by Minors
Some studies have suggested that users of marijuana may find it addictive and are also more likely to abuse other mind-altering substances such as alcohol or nicotine, especially if the users are adolescents, who may find it easier to obtain marijuana following legalization (despite jurisdictions in the U.S. permitting possession and use only by an individual 21 or older to match alcoholic beverage laws) (PC). The “gateway drug” theory has long been argued by opponents of marijuana legalization and continues to be debated within the medical community.
Possible Negative Social, Health, and Environmental Effects
As with the consumption of alcoholic beverages, the use of marijuana impairs short-term judgement (PC). It can have imperative effects that last for days or weeks, and frequent users may negatively impact their long-term mental, social, and economic well-being. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), several studies found that frequent marijuana users were more likely to be unemployed or engage in criminal activity.
Legalizing recreational marijuana is opposed by major public health organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine as more studies need to be carried out to determine the negative consequences of marijuana use (PC). Critics of legalization also point out the possible negative health and environmental effects of secondhand smoke from marijuana cigarettes, and the additional agricultural resources needed to cultivate marijuana plants.
To me, from a criminal justice perspective, the pro arguments outweigh the con arguments. Prison should be a place for violent offenders who pose a real threat to society, not people who happen to possess a small stash of marijuana for their own personal use. Law enforcement and the court system must devote valuable time and resources to these cases, and multiple sources have found that members of minority groups are disproportionately targeted for marijuana possession. Too, most of the known health, addiction, and public safety concerns associated with legalizing recreational marijuana also apply to the alcoholic beverages which are legal for recreational consumption by adults 21 and older in all fifty states, and it’s likely that an individual may simply substitute one for the other to achieve a similar desired effect.
I would like to see more studies done on the long-term health effects of recreational marijuana, because they still aren’t well understood in the health and scientific communities. Additionally, critics of legalization point out valid concerns regarding secondhand smoke and environmental resources used to grow marijuana plants, meaning laws restricting the public use of recreational marijuana and the amount of marijuana plants that can be grown should be implemented (PC) . But based on the success of states that have legalized recreational marijuana and the growing public support for it, I believe that, overall, we are now at the point that recreational marijuana should be legalized, or at the very least decriminalized, nationwide (See Francisiosi and Hartwig).
List of Consulted Works
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). (n.d.). Marijuana Arrests by the Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/gallery/marijuana-arrests-numbers
Angell, T. (2018, Sep. 24). Marijuana Arrests Are Increasing Despite Legalization, New FBI Data Shows. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2018/09/24/marijuana-arrests-are-increasing-despite-legalization-new-fbi-data-shows/
Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). (n.d.). Drug War Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-war-statistics
Francisosi, A. (2018, June 18). 12 Pros & Cons Of Marijuana Legalization. Retrieved from https://honestmarijuana.com/legalization-of-cannabis-pros-and-cons/
Hartig, H., Geiger, A. W. (2018, Oct. 8) About six-in-ten Americans support marijuana legalization. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/08/americans-support-marijuana-legalization/
Marihuana Policy Project (MPP). (n.d.). Decriminalization. Retrieved from https://www.mpp.org/issues/decriminalization/
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (upd. 2019, Sep.). Is marijuana a gateway drug?. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-gateway-drug
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (upd. 2019, Sep.). How does marijuana use affect school, work, and social life?. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/how-does-marijuana-use-affect-school-work-social-life
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). (n.d.). State Info. Retrieved from https://norml.org/states
ProCon.org (PC). (2018, Nov. 13). Should Recreational Marijuana Be Legal?. Retrieved from https://marijuana.procon.org
United States Drug Enforcement Administration (USDEA). (n.d.). Drug Scheduling. Retrieved from https://www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling
Williams, T. (2016, Oct. 12). Marijuana Arrests Outnumber Those for Violent Crimes, Study Finds. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/us/marijuana-arrests.html
When I first started this assignment, I was already in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. However, I quickly realized that the issue is more complicated than I originally thought. Different states have enacted different laws and policies, with some choosing to simply lessen the punishment for marijuana possession (decriminalize it) rather than legalize it. Major health organizations have come out opposed to recreational marijuana, because the long-term health effects are still not well understood.
I decided to stick with my original position, as I don’t believe prison time is warranted for adult possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, just as someone should not be sent to prison for drinking an alcoholic beverage with similar personal health and public safety justifications. I also found the disproportionate arrest rate for members of minority groups to be deeply concerning. As public opinion gradually shifts to become more in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana, I ultimately want to be on the right side of history.
Final Summary and Personal Reflection
This course has helped me to better understand many aspects of the criminal justice system. In particular, the risks and complexities of being a street cop, the rights of accused criminals, the structure of the court system, the role of judges, juries, attorneys or public defenders, and other court staff before and during a trial, and what life is like for inmates behind bars.
The first few assignments focused on what it was like to be a street cop, the upsides and downsides of the profession and the toll it took on the officers’ personal lives. It hadn’t occurred to me beforehand how much stress a police officer is placed under while on duty. Sometimes, the decision to fire at a suspect must be made within seconds, and the consequences of that decision can be serious or even fatal. These decisions are scrutinized later on with the benefit of calculated analysis and hindsight, neither of which is available to the officer during those few seconds. But there are upsides to being a cop in that he or she can receive a sense of satisfaction from carrying out his or her duty to protect the community. With later assignments, the focus moved to other topics, ranging from the “broken windows” theory, to a transgender inmate alleging infringement of her rights, to Trump administration policies on immigration, to NYPD reformer Jack Maple.
One assignment in particular dealt with a nurse at the University of Utah Hospital who believed she was in the right and protecting her patient’s rights, while the officers on the scene felt otherwise. It was disturbing but necessary to watch, as it shows the consequences of an abuse of power by police. Unfortunately, the U.S. criminal justice system is an imperfect system containing many people with differing opinions and roles within it. There has been corruption present in most parts of the system over the years, from the politicians at the top to the prison guards and street cops at the bottom.
Most would agree there continues to be real inequality present in the criminal justice system. Wealthier defendants are more likely to get acquitted or receive lighter sentences due to their high-profile status and ability to afford a high-priced attorney, while defendants with a darker skin color are more likely to be arrested and receive harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as defendants with a lighter skin color. These are problems that the criminal justice system must seek to overcome in order to achieve more just outcomes for society at large.
Finally, I’d like to have seen this course use a more up-to-date textbook. The criminal justice landscape is constantly changing, and more recent developments are not reflected in Criminal Justice in Action 7th Edition. For example, since the book was published in the year 2012, eleven states have passed laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Furthermore, during this time the widespread “me too” movement has exposed some major flaws in the criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to rape and sexual assault crimes. These are only two reasons among many why a newer textbook should be adopted for future iterations of this course.