Second, current law focuses much more on incapacitating dealers of crack than of powder cocaine. Sale of 5 gm of crack cocaine triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in a federal prison, whereas it takes 500 gm of powder cocaine to trigger the same minimum 5-year sentence. This 100:1 ratio in the amount of powder cocaine required to trigger the same penalties as crack suggests that local crack dealers are receiving the same penalties as powder cocaine wholesalers and importers. The current penalty for sale of small amounts of crack cocaine has certainly imposed large costs of incarceration on society, as well as obvious costs on the individuals imprisoned (see Covington, 2000b). The value of the law depends on the degree to which it disrupts drug markets and on the extent to which incarcerated street level dealers are replaced.
How much have the recent increases in incarceration thinned the ranks of major traffickers, importers, and local distributors? To what extent is there replacement and how rapidly does it occur? Do the social costs of current rates of incarceration outweigh the benefits? In particular, with the growth of the population incarcerated for drug offenses, a critical question that must be addressed is the impact of imprisonment and sentence length on post-release consequences. Does the prison experience inhibit (through individual deterrence) or promote (through criminalization), further drug offending or other criminal activity, particularly by ex-offenders who participate in the drug markets as an economic activity? The committee would like to be able to answer these pressing questions, but the answers are elusive.
Blumstein (1993) has argued that replacement of dealers largely negates any incapacitative effects of incarceration. He highlights the large growth in the drug arrests of non-white juveniles after 1985, well after the growth in arrest of non-white adults began in 1980. Their arrest rate for drug offenses almost tripled between 1985 and 1989, a time when the nation’s incarceration rate for drug offenses also almost tripled (Blumstein and Beck, 1999). He associates the recruitment of juveniles as a supply-side response to the growth in demand and as replacements for the incarcerated adults (Blumstein, 1995).
The committee concludes that little is known about the effectiveness of law enforcement operations against retail drug markets. In particular, the consequences of increasing or decreasing current levels of enforcement are not known. It is not known whether a significant decrease in law enforcement activity would lead to a significant increase in drug dealing and use. Nor is it known whether a significant increase in law enforcement would have the opposite effect.