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What should jail sentences for drug crimes be? This survey asked Americans
Addiction Now has developed infographics based on a survey of 1,000 people who were asked what they thought would be appropriate sentences for drug crimes. It’s pretty different than what they really are.
While it’s true that Pew Research Center, working with data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, has recently reported that 2016 reached a 20-year low in the number of people incarcerated in the U.S., it’s nonetheless still the case that no other country jails as many of its residents. In 2016, there were about 2.2 million Americans doing time, about 1.5 million in federal custody and another 741,000 in local jails.
Many of these inmates are being held for non-violent drug crimes, with sentences formulated during an era when experts believed harsher consequences would lower drug use. This hasn’t happened, and it’s recognized these days by most Americans that the sentencing system is plagued by unfairness and bias, and that it pointlessly destroys lives and communities.
As a result, in 2013, the Obama administration released new guidance that awarded judges more leeway to reduce sentences for non-violent defendants. The Trump administration apparently disagrees, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolling back that guidance in order to encourage the dispensation of the harshest penalties possible. Sessions' action is out of step with American opinion and the data on recidivism, as are the many antiquated laws still on the books.
Addiction Now recently polled 1,000 Americans to learn what they thought appropriate types of punishments and their optimal durations would be. Juxtaposing those opinions against the actual sentences in a series of infographics does nothing to dispel the image of a nation with too many prisons and prisoners.
All infographics by Addiction Now.
Is there discrimination in sentencing?
The first most obvious problem with our judicial system is the uneven way it’s applied to those outside the white upper-middle classes. Addiction Now asked respondents about the degree of racial discrimination they see in sentencing and sorted their answers by their race and their political party affiliation: Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, and Republican. Next, they asked about socio-economic bias, again sorting the response racially and then by party.
Clear majorities of most groups recognized both types of bias with the exception of Republicans, only 47% of whom agreed that sentencing is racially biased.
The biggest disconnect—no surprise—is with marijuana. While recreational smoking is now legal in 29 states, and 64% of Americans support legalization, the drug sentences being handed out, even for simple possession, are still draconian. With the chart’s 60% of Americans believing there should be no sentence for grass possession—and another 25% suggesting probation only—a whopping 89% of U.S. laws stipulate an average of five months jail time for being caught with weed.
It’s much the same split between what we want and what we get for those charged with selling marijuana.
In much of Addiction Now’s polling, the public leans more toward probation than the laws do. It’s likely that probation seems gentler, and maybe it is, but it also has its own dark side. Some judges hand out life-ruining, long-term, consecutive probations that seem to never end, as in the case of rapper Meek Mill.
For users of methamphetamine, the gap between the public and courts isn’t so extreme, with most respondents, 31%, preferring sentences of 13 months of probation and alternatives. “Alternatives” throughout the Addiction Now survey includes:
- residence in a community treatment center
- home detention
- community service
- some custody
For dealers though, Americans and judges are on the same page as far as the form of punishment goes, if not its duration. 46% of the former suggest 66 months in jail and the latter actually hand out 96 months of cell time.
Let’s do these together:
- crack cocaine
- powdered cocaine
It’s felt by many that the first one is the drug of choice for non-whites and people with less money, while the powdered stuff is more often associated with the white-collared. There may be evidence of this in the difference between the amounts of time in jail for possession of either drug. With crack, one can expect to be inside for 18 months, for powered, just five. The same is true for selling, with those convicted of trafficking in powdered cocaine serving 10 months less time.
What the public expects for using either crack or powder cocaine is roughly the same: 30-31 months of probation and alternatives.
Maybe it’s all the bad publicity meth gets—or socio-economic or race bias—but amazingly, infamously hard drug heroin seems to elicit a less harsh reaction than methamphetamines in this survey. It’s a more suburban, upper-middle-class drug these days. In trafficking, things are even fishier: Less time in jail both according to the public and the courts. Hm.
So, what would we do with prisoners if we fixed this?
Addiction Now also asked people what kind of reparations, if any, should be made to those who are languishing behind bars now or who’ve done so in the past.
As with the earlier racial discrimination question a majority of all political affiliations—except Republicans—said pardons for those wrongly jailed are in order. Beyond that, for all other questions, there’s general agreement except for the one asking if the government should financially compensate the offenders, with, again, Republicans being least enthusiastic about the idea.
There’s definitely a gap here between the sentences Americans think are reasonable and what the courts hand down. In the face of an accelerating opioid epidemic, it’s incumbent upon us to analyze all of the data that’s been collected to ascertain the best ways of restoring drug offenders to productive paths. One thing we know: It’s not about building more prisons.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."