Friday, April 18, 2008

Musings on Criminalization and the Drinking Age

The issue of the legal drinking age seems tied to wars. We send young men and women off to fight and potentially die at 17 or 18 years of age and it seems inconsistent to many legislators to then say that these citizen soldiers are not competent enough to drink alcohol responsibly. So seven states are now proposing to lower the drinking age to 18.

Three states would lower the drinking age only for soldiers while four states (including my home of Minnesota) want to lower the drinking age for the entire population.

Kentucky, Wisconsin, and South Carolina have introduced legislation to lower the drinking age for troops to 18.

Four other states - Missouri, South Dakota, Minnesota, and most recently Vermont - would extend the privilege to the general population. However, South Dakota would only allow 18-20 year olds to buy low-alcohol beer. Advocates of a lower drinking age argue that teenagers are drinking, and that the secrecy encourages binge drinking among young people.

"Our laws aren't working. They're not preventing underage drinking. What they're doing is putting it outside the public eye," Hinda Miller, a Vermont state senator, told reporters yesterday, after a committee took up her bill to study lowering the drinking age.

"So you have a lot of kids binge drinking. They get sick, they get scared and they get into trouble and they can't call because they know it's illegal."

While the move would be popular with college students and other young people obliged to pay for fake ID if they want a night on the town, there is concerted opposition to lowering America's drinking age.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other pressure groups say raising the drinking age a generation ago has cut traffic related deaths among young people by 13%.

States that do lower their drinking age would also pay a heavy penalty under current legislation that would require them to forfeit 10% of their highway fund from the federal government. |US states consider lowering drinking age - Guardian|
What I think is interesting is the threshold for determining that an policy's enforcement is not worthwhile from cost-benefit perspective.

Prohibition in the 1920's was abandoned because of its many negative effects, including empowering organized crime. Similar arguments are made for legalizing some "soft" drugs such as marijuana.

You cannot totally stop people from using drugs and the negative consequences in terms of gangs, corruption, racialization of injustice must all be considered.

Prostitution is another frequent candidate for legalization. And with sex work such as pornography being legal, it seems inconsistent to ban escort services for doing the same thing, just not filming it.

The recent Eliot Spitzer case showed that prostitution is very common in American society and very rarely prosecuted. Spitzer was singled out because of his position (and party affiliation perhaps).

But there are other crimes that we cannot [totally] stop, but we never consider decriminalizing. For instance, pedophiles have high recidivism rates, but I'm not aware of anyone who has seriously suggested decriminalizing it.

I think one key difference between substance abuse and prostitution on the one hand and pedophilia is that substance abuse and prostitution are a consensual crimes while pedophilia is a crime of violence and/or coercion.

Many people probably reject my premise that we should even use a cost-benefit analysis to determine what actions we criminalize and what actions we merely tolerate. People object to substance abuse or prostitution on moral or religious grounds.

To my mind religious grounds are not acceptable bases for legislation since we live in a multi-ethnic society with a host of religions and the government should not privilege one religious view over another.

The government should base its laws on public policy. Of course, public policy often becomes a code word for the majority's religious views. But it shouldn't be that way. Public policy should be the outcome of our best sociological research into the cost-benefit analysis of criminalization versus legalization.

Update: It's probably naive of me to think that politicians and agencies wouldn't "game" any cost-benefit system to justify whatever religious viewpoint they hold, or the prejudice de jour, similar to the ways the Bush administration used specious arguments to justify torture.

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