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Learn from Al Capone dangers of higher cigarette taxes and fines

The Chicago City Council is considering higher taxes on cigarettes, as well as higher fines for those who sell them as "loosies" on the black market. | Joel Saget/Getty Images

As the rest of the country moves toward more sensible criminal justice policies by legalizing marijuana and reducing overly punitive sentences, the Chicago City Council seems headed in the other direction. The Council is considering anti-tobacco legislation that would increases taxes on cigarettes and double fines and impose jail sentences for those avoiding taxes by selling loose cigarettes (loosies).

While the penalties and higher taxes seem like a good idea on the surface, they ignore what we should have learned 80 years ago during the prohibition of alcohol, which is that harsh penalties increase illegal activity and violence, decrease the effectiveness of law enforcement, and criminalize the marginalized. And higher taxes have not been effective in lowering use rates; education, treatment and social influence win that award.

OPINION

It’s a simple matter of pricing. Chicago has the highest rate of cigarette taxation in the country and a captive market of tens of thousands of smokers. Yet nearby communities of Missouri and Indiana legally sell cigarettes at tax rates six to seven times lower. It doesn’t take a genius to see a moneymaking opportunity here. With a tax-differential per case (60 cartons) of more than $3,800 between Missouri and Chicago, a van carrying 50 cases could bring in $192,000 for a smuggler.

When you create an underground market for anything, you create a profit incentive for people to break the law. Once they do, many of society’s laws cease to apply. Criminals can’t appeal to the police for help, so when they’re robbed, violence is the means of recourse. And the threat of prison is not a deterrent, thereby remaining only a threat. So who would take such risks to import cigarettes into the city? Primarily two groups: Organized crime and the poor.

The vast majority of people who enter such a trade are just people on the fringes, trying to get by however they can and barely doing so. If they had more schooling, or there were more job opportunities, they’d be plumbers or secretaries or professionals. You can look down upon them for doing something illegal, but you might also ask yourself what you would do in their situation.

Regardless of what you think about these people, sending them to jail helps no one. It’s tremendously expensive, it gives that person a record that will make them even less likely to be able to gain legitimate employment in the future, and it wastes scarce law enforcement resources.

As a police officer for 34 years, that part of it is very important for me – the fact of how wasteful of law enforcement resources going after low-level street cigarette dealers is. Because when you’re talking about law enforcement resources, you’re talking not only about money. You’re talking about what that police officer isn’t doing when she’s out busting someone selling loosies. She isn’t investigating homicides, she isn’t investigating rapes, and because it’s much easier to arrest ten kids off the street, than to spend weeks investigating sexual assaults, the rapist continues assaulting women.

Adding to this problem is the fact that if you look at the universe of people committing crimes and the universe of people getting arrested and prosecuted for those crimes, they’re two different populations. People of color are much more likely than white people to enter the criminal justice system even given similar rates of offense. Eric Garner, who was choked to death while in New York Police Department custody last year, was there for selling loose cigarettes.

The Chicago City Council’s ordinance would further exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, criminalize more people of color and create more unnecessary opportunities for negative police citizen encounters. That’s the last thing Chicago needs.

Neill Franklin, a retired police officer who worked for the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police, is executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

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