BreakPoint Blog

Law on the Lam

This story about a woman who escaped from prison, but 32 years later has now been caught, illustrates the insanity of tough sentencing against low-level drug offenders. According to the story, the then 19-year-old woman made some typical mixed-up choices to use heroin, and pleaded guilty believing it would help her at sentencing. Instead, the judge bushwhacked her with the max--20 years. She decided she couldn't take it and with the help of friends, escaped. She apparently went straight, was successfully married for 23 years and lived on false ID.

She's not the first, nor the last to get the treatment that the court gave her. One comparison for context that my friend Roberto reminded me of is the case of Sarah Jane Olson--of Patty Hearst kidnap fame. She was eligible for release after 7 years after the murder of a cop to which she was an accessory.

Why does this happen? A few observations: Draconian punishments do not work on people caught up in addictions. They are not usually able to respond rationally, even if they want to. But politicians responding to public fears apply tough rules anyway because we feel good about it.

Secondly, while drug use certainly opens a panoply of ever worsening consequences, the basic user or addict should be treated with alternative sentencing that addresses the root problem--out of a desire for long-term public safety and the redemption of the person. We don't do ourselves any favors by locking these kinds of users up for decades where they are virtually guaranteed to come out worse and with far greater "issues" than when they first arrived.

The woman who was recently caught and now is in custody and separated from her family, clearly demonstrated that she had the potential to clean up her life. How many more like her are rotting in jail at an annual average of $24,000 per person in taxpayer funds?


Hi Jeff, I'm confused as well as Allen as to the point regarding Sarah Jane Olson? This caused me to do some research. Your friend Roberto is mistaken. Sarah Jane Olson was never an accesory to the murder of a cop, it was for the murder of a bank customer near Sacramento, Ca., which she pleaded guilty to second degree murder for participating in that robbery. I might add that she only recieved 1 year sentence for this offence. She recieved 5 years and 4 months for her guilty plea for possesion of a destructive device with the "intent to murder" for the car bomb she placed under a police car that never went off. This term was extended to 12 years after a state prison board designated her a serious offender. Joel Rubin LA Times 3-22-08. I share your concern for our judical system needing reform, but it's imparitive that we are acurate in portraying our arguements. You made the comment Jeff that the mom recently arrested "made some typical choices to use herion" believing it would help her at sentencing. Her crime was not using herion but selling it! I did a fair amount of reading her story and I can't find anywhere that states that she was addicted to herion. The same holds true for Sarah Jane Olson, nowhere could I find any information related to her even taking drugs let alone being addicted! I just think it's neglegenct to use the two incidents to bolster your argument "Why does this happen" When clearly they were not drug "addicts" as you and Mark Earley asert in your articles. I agree with Mark Earley's statement that we need alternitives but using both your arguments tend to water down your positions when they are not acurate. Blessings on you Montie
Jeff, I agree. As libertarian-leaning as I may be, there is a place where maintaining purity of governmental philosophy doesn't quite square with its moral consequences. The legalizaton of drugs and prostitution are certainly steps too far. From a theological perspective, it completely makes sense that there's no perfect governmental philosophy. Admittedly, that kind of bugs me, but that's life this side of Aslan's Country...
I received the following comment to my post from "b": "That also illustrates the insanity of the contemptible war on drugs, Jeff. Legalize drugs. All drugs. Period." Well, that certainly takes the point to the other extreme. I cannot imagine a public good that would result. The economic and social costs would be incalcuable. The addictive nature of drugs would consume vast quantities of GDP draining income from necessary costs like food, rent, education, child rearing. Hospitals would be awash in drug-related cases. Marriages, work productivity, volunteerism would all take it on the chin. No one who is familiar with drugs would unleash such a hurricane of human misery just to see drug-related crime disappear.
Twenty years for a first-time drug use conviction? Yes, that is a raw deal. It is way out of proportion to the crime. It does no good for the criminal or for society.
Jeff, I'm confused as to the point you're trying to make re Olson. As much as her case and sentencing (and resentencing and resentencing and...) have been a mess, I struggle with the notion that she got a raw deal. Am I missing your point?