On March 10, 2008, Editorial, New York Times wrote:Prison Nation
After three decades of explosive growth, the nation’s prison population has reached some grim milestones: More than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars. One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34, are serving time, as are 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men.
Nationwide, the prison population hovers at almost 1.6 million, which surpasses all other countries for which there are reliable figures. The 50 states last year spent about $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections, up from nearly $11 billion in 1987. Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan and Oregon devote as much money or more to corrections as they do to higher education.
These statistics, contained in a new report from the Pew Center on the States, point to a terrible waste of money and lives. They underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety. The key, as some states are learning, is getting smarter about distinguishing between violent criminals and dangerous repeat offenders, who need a prison cell, and low-risk offenders, who can be handled with effective community supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug treatment programs, combined in some cases with shorter sentences.
Persuading public officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach to prison policy is a daunting prospect, however, not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry.
Criminal behavior partly explains the size of the prison population, but incarceration rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen. Any effort to reduce the prison population must consider the blunderbuss impact of get-tough sentencing laws adopted across the United States beginning in the 1970’s. Many Americans have come to believe, wrongly, that keeping an outsized chunk of the population locked up is essential for sustaining a historic crime drop since the 1990’s.
In fact, the relationship between imprisonment and crime control is murky. Some portion of the decline is attributable to tough sentencing and release policies. But crime is also affected by things like economic trends and employment and drug-abuse rates. States that lagged behind the national average in rising incarceration rates during the 1990’s actually experienced a steeper decline in crime rates than states above the national average, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group.
A rising number of states are broadening their criminal sanctions with new options for low-risk offenders that are a lot cheaper than incarceration but still protect the public and hold offenders accountable. In New York, the crime rate has continued to drop despite efforts to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders in prison.
The Pew report spotlights policy changes in Texas and Kansas that have started to reduce their outsized prison populations and address recidivism by investing in ways to improve the success rates for community supervision, expanding treatment and diversion programs, and increasing use of sanctions other than prison for minor parole and probation violations. Recently, the Supreme Court and the United States Sentencing Commission announced sensible changes in the application of harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences.
These are signs that the country may finally be waking up to the fiscal and moral costs of bulging prisons.
Though alternative sentencing for low-risk offenders is cost-effective, one of the most successful sentencing alternatives, the state's drug courts, is threatened with budget cuts. Instead of going to jail, nonviolent, low-level drug offenders work to get off drugs and straighten out their lives under the close supervision of a judge.
Participants have a low recidivism rate, but mere success is not enough to win over some policymakers. "Our judges are not social workers and they shouldn't be social workers," Senate Courts of Justice Committee member Ken Stolle told The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.
If the model works, why dismiss it? Cost? The Virginia Drug Court Association says the courts spend an average of $2,190 per participant per year. The cost to incarcerate that person for a year would be between $22,000 and $24,000 -- if he or she is an adult. The cost for a juvenile is more than $100,000.
The best long-term strategy for diverting people from prison, of course, is to keep them from breaking the law in the first place. The Pew study notes that high-quality prekindergarten shows a dramatic impact on at-risk children. One difference: They are less likely later to commit crimes.
Virginia offers preschool for some at-risk 4-year-olds, but Republicans are balking at Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine's push to expand the program. They should consider the costs, in more than money, if the state does not.
These are hard times in Virginia, and the state has to balance its budget. As Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk told The Pilot, justifying the cuts to drug courts, "In tough economic times, you have to make decisions that aren't easy or pleasant." Yes, but they shouldn't be dumb.
For every $1 that Virginia spent on higher education last year, the Pew researchers found, it spent 60 cents on corrections. It needs to change that equation, starting now.
The Liberator On-Line wrote:Progress in the War on Sharpies
Eight-year-old Eathan Harris was suspended from Harris Park Elementary School
in Westminster, Colorado.
His offense? He used a black Sharpie marker to color a small area on his
sweatshirt. When a teacher saw him smelling the marker and the spot on his
clothes, the teacher sent the eight-year-old to principal Chris Benisch, who
promptly suspended him for... substance abuse.
"This is really, really, seriously dangerous," Benisch announced, warning that
smelling the marker fumes could cause the boy to "become intoxicated."
Just one small problem: that's really, really, seriously... not true.
According to toxicologist Dr. Eric Lavonas, of the Rocky Mountain Poison
Control Center, non-toxic markers like Sharpies, while pungent-smelling, don't
get you high.
"I don't know whether it would be possible for a real overachiever to figure
out a way to get high off them," Lavonas said. "But in regular use, it's just
not something that's going to happen. If you went to Costco and bought 50 bags
of Sharpies and did something to them, maybe there's a way to get creative and
make it happen."
But in the zero-tolerance War on Sharpies, like the larger War on Drugs, truth
doesn't get in the way of action.
Indeed, according to local TV station KUSA, the incident has led Principal
Benisch to take the War on Sharpies to a new, um, high.
"We've purged every permanent marker there is in this building," he proudly
We can only hope Principal Benisch purges the school of pencils, too. After
all, we don't want kids exposed to the danger of lead poisoning, do we?
(Source: "8-year-old suspended for sniffing marker," KUSA)
McCain (and Cindy) On Drugs
Much has been made of allegations of youthful use of illegal drugs by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Meanwhile, his GOP opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has admitted that his wife not only illegally used drugs but walked away from criminal charges. The McCains have worked to make Cindy McCain's addiction into a political asset-despite the fact that she stole the drugs from a charity she directed and used them while mothering four young children.
In 1994, Mrs. McCain admitted that she had solicited prescriptions for painkillers from physicians who worked for an international charity that she founded, the American Voluntary Medical Team. She then filled the prescriptions in the names of her staff.
There are two ways to react to this behavior. According to the Betty Ford model, people can sympathetically respond to the oppressed and ignored wife of a busy politician who has bravely come forward to admit her overpowering addiction. Mrs. McCain took this posture when she first tearfully confessed her addiction. She and her husband repeated this performance in October, 2000, on the NBC program "Dateline."
The other possible public reaction is one of anger. Americans are prosecuted every day for such drug use. While most drug abusers purchase their drugs from street dealers, Mrs. McCain used her status as a charity director and senator's wife to cajole the drugs she wanted.
In fact, Mrs. McCain was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration after the agency was approached by a former staff member of her charity. The investigation resulted in no charges or prison time for her, and she entered a diversion program. While these records were not made public at the time, Mrs. McCain eventually confessed her drug use when she learned that a reporter was investigating the story.
Is Mrs. McCain to be judged as a pitiable victim or as a criminal felon? This debate is at the heart of the discussion of American drug policy. Should we deal with illicit drug users as victims or as criminals?
Let's examine Mrs. McCain's position in these terms. She is the privileged daughter of a wealthy family and spouse of an important politician, a person who had her own position of prestige and power. Should she not be held at least as accountable for her actions as an uneducated inner-city drug user? After all, she could enter drug treatment at any time she chose, unlike many drug users who find themselves in prison.
Moreover, Mrs. McCain was violating a position of trust by stealing from a charitable organization, using its money and medical expertise to fuel her drug use. Is this not morally more reprehensible than simply purchasing drugs illegally?
Finally, Mrs. McCain was the mother of four children at the time she admits to using drugs-between 1989 and 1992. Her children were born in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1991. In other words, Cindy McCain was using drugs while raising small children, one of whom she adopted while she was an addict. In most states, family services will remove children from a woman who is known to be an active drug addict, and she would certainly not be allowed to adopt a child while addicted.
John McCain is a hawk in the drug war. He advocates stricter drug laws, penalties and enforcement against drug sellers. He has had nothing to say about redressing our punitive approach toward drug users. Of course, McCain also supports family values. Yet if John and Cindy McCain were not well-off and influential, they might not have a family at all. McCain's lack of concern for street drug users contrasts sharply with the support and understanding his wife received. It's the old American double standard. For "straight-shooter" McCain, charity begins at home-and ends there.
This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
CHARLES M. BLOW on June 10, 2011 in NYT wrote: Drug Bust
Friday marks the 40th anniversary of one of the biggest, most expensive, most destructive social policy experiments in American history: The war on drugs.
On the morning of June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon, speaking from the Briefing Room of the White House, declared: “America’s public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of an offensive. This will be a worldwide offensive dealing with the problems of sources of supply, as well as Americans who may be stationed abroad, wherever they are in the world.”
So began a war that has waxed and waned, sputtered and sprinted, until it became an unmitigated disaster, an abomination of justice and a self-perpetuating, trillion-dollar economy of wasted human capital, ruined lives and decimated communities.
(Since 1971, more than 40 million arrests have been conducted for drug-related offenses.)
And no group has been more targeted and suffered more damage than the black community. As the A.C.L.U. pointed out last week, “The racial disparities are staggering: despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.”
An effort meant to save us from a form of moral decay became its own insidious brand of moral perversion — turning people who should have been patients into prisoners, criminalizing victimless behavior, targeting those whose first offense was entering the world wrapped in the wrong skin. It feeds our achingly contradictory tendency toward prudery and our overwhelming thirst for punishment.
Last week, the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a 19-member commission that included Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary general; George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state; and Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, declared that: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the U.S. government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.”
The White House immediately shot back: no dice. The Obama administration presented a collection of statistics that compared current drug use and demand with the peak of the late 1970s, although a direct correlation between those declines and the drug war are highly debatable. In doing so, it completely sidestepped the human, economic and societal toll of the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, many for simple possession.
No need to put a human face on 40 years of folly when you can swaddle its inefficacy in a patchwork quilt of self-serving statistics.
Jerry Clark wrote:Pondering The 'Drug War' & Its Costs
Far more often than not, we find ourselves more comfortable with what would commonly be viewed with “conservative positions.”Increasingly, however, we’re finding that the so-called “war on drugs” is a national “strategy” which is nothing less than a colossal failure and a very costly one at that.
Consider some of the following statistics and ponder with us what these mean for our society:
• we now have in excess of 2 million in our prisons
• together with state expenditures of about $31 billion, and the federal portion of the drug war at about $23.5 billion, mean a total expenditure for the year 2011 of about $54-$55 billion.
• ancillary costs, i.e. break-ins, murders and other crimes, some of which are never reported nor quantified.
• some statistics appear to indicate that illegal drug use is increasing in the youth population
• those in the business of supplying illegal drugs are amassing huge sums of money while fostering a climate of extreme violence to maintain their turf.
We wonder...if all of the violence, all of the associated crime and associated harm that the massive public expenditure on this "war" is the best way to deal with human beings hell bent on the use of mind-altering substances. Use is not declining, nor is its distribution.
Minor cracks have been made in some large distribution channels and a few successes achieved with respect to interdiction on our nation’s borders, but by and large, it’s pretty clear that the present state of affairs in this realm is pitiful. The anti-drug lobby has a huge incentive for the war to continue: tens of thousands of jobs are based upon incarcerating users, investigations and related crimes.
After an obviously predictable initial surge in overall use, might the legalization of drugs then kill the huge profit motive and put an end to the significant amount of property and related crime? Could this help create an atmosphere for treatment and education?
Banning anything in this country hasn’t worked. It didn’t work with alcohol, it made prostitution far more profitable, it’s resulted in higher sales of some highly controversial books and it certainly did nothing to stop the gambling industry. In the present climate, we wonder if the “drug war” isn’t just another misguided attempt to regulate an age-old behavioral failing, whose consequences are mainly suffered by the fools who engage in that activity, not society as a whole.
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