Friday, February 29, 2008
Addicts, Alcoholics Overwhelm Prison System
1 out of 100 Americans now in jail.
For the first time in American history, according to a study released by the Pew Center on the States, more than one in every 99.1 adult men and women are now in prison or in jail. States spent a total of $49 billion on prisons in 2007, compared to $11 billion 20 years ago. The United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country. China ranks second.
“For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn’t been a clear and convincing return for public safety,” according to Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project. The report says that higher incarcerations rates have not been caused by increased crime or a corresponding surge in population numbers. Rather, stricter sentencing policies, such as “three-strikes” laws, as well as longer sentences, are behind the surge. A PDF version of the full report is available here.
A Newsweek article by Claudia Kalb notes that the number of drug offenders in the federal prison system leaped by 26 per cent between 2000 and 2006. In addition, more than one out of every three women in prison are serving time for drug-related crimes.
In 2000, fed-up California voters passed Proposition 36, designed to steer nonviolent drug offenders into treatment and job training programs--but funding has been precarious. Other states, including Texas, have resorted to specialized drug courts and greater drug treatment efforts to cope with the overflow of drug addicts in the legal system. As John Whitmire, a Texas State Senator, told the New York Times (Reg. required), “we weren’t smart about nonviolent offenders. The [Texas] Legislature finally caught up with the public.”
The Pew study reveals that addiction is as firmly criminalized as ever. The compressed essence of the war on drugs is simply to put as many people in jail as possible. Obviously, long prison terms will not cure addicts of their condition, any more than long prison terms for diabetics would cure that condition.
As a forced cold turkey treatment for addiction, perhaps some would view prison as harsh but necessary. Yet drugs are known to be widely available within the nation’s federal prison system. As an inmate in an Oklahoma federal prison wrote in a letter to Time magazine: “If the Government cannot stop people from using drugs in a few fenced-off acres over which it has total control, why should Americans forfeit any of their traditional civil rights in the hope of reducing the drug problem?”
The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that promotes alternatives to jail time, said recently that as of 2002, 45 per cent of all drug arrests were for marijuana. Simple possession is the rule--only one-sixth of the imprisonments involved charges of marijuana trafficking.
According to Reuters, the latest drug czar, George W. Bush’s man John Walters, alluded to new research showing that “marijuana use, particularly during the teen years, can lead to depression, thoughts of suicide and schizophrenia.” Even assuming this dubious statement to be true, it would seem to argue against prison and in favor of treatment.
The American criminal justice system cannot support the burden of a continual flood of minor drug possession cases. Plea-bargaining—the accommodation that keeps the legal edifice afloat—becomes the rule of the day. The legal system would break down in gridlock if every drug defendant insisted on his constitutional right to a jury trial. Prison sentences are bartered and sold like pork futures, and the jury trial has become an unaffordable luxury. For those accused of drug possession, pleading innocent sometimes looks like a risk they cannot afford to take.
Drug prohibition itself is a major part of the reason why the more potent and problematic refinements of plant drugs keep taking center stage. Since crack cocaine is more potent, more profitable, and more difficult to detect in transit, it replaces powdered cocaine, which, in its turn, replaced the chewing of cocoa leaves. Just as bootleggers switched from beer to hard liquor, so international drug dealers switch from cannabis to cocaine whenever the U.S. enforcement engine lumbers off in the direction of marijuana interdiction and eradication.
If addicted crack dealers sometimes receive stiffer sentences than wanton murderers (and they do), then it is a double irony, since people convicted of drug offenses are often good candidates for rehabilitation. However, public treatment programs are overbooked, and private programs are out of reach for those with little or no health insurance.
Photo Credit: California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation