America’s law enforcement history has taught us many lessons about the unintended consequences laws can have on society. We have learned that laws can increase violence, cause substances to become even more dangerous, create higher societal costs, be disproportionately enforced and even more importantly that some laws can be wrong. It is important to consider these lessons as we continue to challenge current law and push to create new laws for our society.
Laws can create increased violence
Recent research has indicated that some laws can create the incentive for certain offenders to be even more violent. The National Bureau of Economic Research provided compelling evidence in their studies of California’s three-strikes law that such laws may actually further push lifetime offenders to commit more violent offenses in order to maximize gain and profit. The study shows that arrests of offenders under the three-strike laws are about 20% more likely to be arrested for crimes involving violence compared to similar peers not under three-strikes jurisdictions .
Laws can be disproportionately enforced
When laws are enforced disproportionately, the entire community and general society is impacted. The group that experiencing bias may feel personally attacked and threatened, while society at large may concern over the values of equality and the overall fairness of the system . The largest example of this is highlighted by the drug war statistics. Human rights advocates point to glaring statistics that blacks account for about thirteen percent of all illegal drugs users but are arrested at rates almost three times as high as white users .
Laws can make substances even more dangerous
Richard Cowan coined the phrase the “Iron Law of Prohibition,” to describe this phenomenon. He argues that as laws become stricter and more intense against a substance, the illegal substance becomes more potent and dangerous. This fact is most clearly highlighted by the 1920’s experimental prohibition against alcohol. During the ban, the unregulated black market alcohol became very dangerous. Bootleggers had the incentive to make their alcohol more potent and the quality of alcohol was severely undermined by unexperienced moonshiners. The drink often varied in potency and was adulterated with dangerous substances. The national death toll attributed to poisoned liquor went from 1,064 in 1920 pre-prohibition era to 4,154 five years later .
Laws can increase societal costs
Harsher sentencing laws inevitably lead to increased monetary and social costs as more people are being arrested and staying in prisons longer. To highlight this, many point to the impacts of mandatory sentencing laws across the nation. In 2008, the cost of corrections was an estimated $75 billion. This cost has quadrupled over the past twenty years during a period of punitive sentencing guidelines .
Laws can be wrong
The most important lesson we can learn from past historical law enforcement is that sometimes laws can be wrong. The Supreme Court has turned down several laws that were contrary to constitutional rights. The most glaring and famous of these decisions was when the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education . This landmark case shows how laws can be passed and enforced for years until they are challenged.