OUR VIEW: Punishment doesn’t always fit the crime

By: A Daily Journal editorial

Before Antonio Espinoza appears in court on Sept. 17, we have one question we’d like prosecutors to answer.

Who is the victim in the crime he’s accused of committing?

Espinoza, an 18-year-old Rockingham man, faces three felony counts each of selling marijuana and possession with intent to sell or deliver marijuana, in addition to a felony count of maintaining a vehicle, dwelling or place for a controlled substance.

As the Daily Journal reported in Saturday’s edition, sheriff’s deputies say Espinoza sold marijuana to a confidential informant three times within the span of a week.

Espinoza’s arrest touched off a heated debate on the Daily Journal’s Facebook page. Perhaps the severity of the charges juxtaposed with the startlingly young face in the jail booking photo served as a catalyst.

The brief story on his arrest was shared 41 times, reaching 6,800 people, and generated 105 comments. Debate was more or less evenly split between those defending and those questioning the arrest.

Many readers said marijuana, a plant less harmful than alcohol and tobacco with no recorded overdose deaths in medical literature, should not be illegal.

Besides, they said, the amount he’s accused of selling — a total of less than three-tenths of an ounce — is within the misdemeanor possession threshold. So why slap an 18-year-old with four felonies?

Others argue that the drug-dealing carries social consequences and is linked to both violent crime and property crime. The small amount notwithstanding, it’s the sale — not the possession — that triggers the felony charges.

Both camps made a convincing case. The points they raised are ones we as a community ought to carefully consider.

Marijuana is a Schedule VI controlled substance in North Carolina. Though sheriffs have broad constitutional powers, they can’t simply ignore the law. Selective enforcement is a slippery slope.

Those who support legalization or decriminalization of marijuana should prevail upon state legislators to support cannabis bills that have long been bottled up in the General Assembly. As the list of states allowing medicinal and recreational use continues to grow, it’s a conversation whose time has come.

Back to the question we started with: In vice and narcotics cases, arrest reports typically list either “state of North Carolina” or “society” in the space provided for the victim of the crime investigated.

That means the defendant’s actions resulted in no demonstrable harm to any living, breathing, voting, taxpaying person. We sure hope judges and prosecutors take that into account.

As for the charges Espinoza faces, each count of possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana carries a presumptive sentence of 4-8 months behind bars.

Housing, feeding and clothing an inmate for that length of time costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Considering the amount of marijuana involved has a street value pegged well below $100, that should raise some red flags.

Recidivism rates for convicted felons are high. And for those who wish to stay on the straight and narrow, it’s tough to find a job. Many are forced to rely on public assistance.

Maybe society is the victim after all.

Where nonviolent drug offenses are concerned, it’s the punishment — not the crime — that picks our pockets.


A Daily Journal editorial