Friday, December 4, 2009

Drugs and Prison

The American Disgrace.

For years, drug policy discussions have foundered on a fundamental dilemma: If illegal and addictive drugs are freely available in the nation’s prison system—and there is no one who says otherwise—then how can we as a society expect to control the consumption of drugs outside the prison walls? Moreover, should people be jailed at all for simple possession?

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan inaugurated the “war on drugs." From 1980 to 1997, writes Glenn C. Loury in his book Race, Incarceration, and American Values, the number of people in prison for drug offenses increased more than 1,000 %. Only one out of five drug convictions involved any sort of distribution beyond simple possession, says Loury, although there is often dispute about these numbers and how they are derived.

In “Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?” which appeared in the November 19 issue of the New York Review of Books, David Cole argues that African-Americans “have borne the brunt of this war.” While white drug offenders in prison increased by more than 100 % from 1985 to 1991, the prison population of black drug offenders soared by 465 %. Citing figures from The Sentencing Project, Cole asks whether we are willing to accept “a system in which one out of every three black males born today can expect to spend time in jail during his life?”

America’s prison disgrace is everyone’s problem, however. Cole informs us that a new prison is opened in the U.S. every week, and that imprisoning someone costs $20,000 a year and up. We spend $7 billion on jails in 1980. Today, writes Cole, the figure is $60 billion.

Where are we going wrong? The answer is straightforward, and unavoidable: The War on Drugs. According to FBI crime statistics cited by Cole, the U.S. last year arrested 1.7 million people for drug crimes. “Since 1989, more people have been incarcerated for drug offenses than for all violent crimes combined,” writes Cole. “Yet much like Prohibition, the war on drugs has not ended or even significantly diminished drug use.” In addition, “about half of property crime, robberies, and burglaries are attributable to the inflated cost of drugs caused by criminalizing them.”

At the heart of the problem lies a long-standing dilemma. The American prison system does next to nothing for drug addicts, except assure them of a steady supply. The justice system does not systematically help drug addicts avoid prison, or reintegrate them into society when they get out. And, since a high number of chronic drug abusers also suffer from other mental disorders, the lack of consistent, well-funded, effective programs for ex-offenders virtually guarantees a revolving-door cycle of repeated incarcerations. For those drug felons who are not themselves addicts, and who are in prison due to simple possession charges, a program of mass parole would ease prison crowding significantly. There is really no reason why many of the prisoners in this class should have been locked up at all, but for draconian legislation passed in the heat of passion—like New York’s Rockefeller laws--about one drug “epidemic” or another.

In addition to converting the swords of the drug war into the ploughshares of job programs, education, and housing assistance, we need to recognize and act upon the obvious fact that young people who are in school are far less likely to end up in prison. Schools are a far more cost-effective solution than prisons. In addition, a RAND Corporation study cited by Cole concluded that treatment is "fifteen times more effective at reducing drug-related crime than incarceration."

In the end, the need for action is undeniable. As Cole writes, “The very fact that the US record is so much worse than that of the rest of the world should tell us that we are doing something wrong.”


Adi Jaffe said...

Great post Dirk,
I've written about the unjust nature of our drug-crime system for a while now and it's good to have input from others.

In comments on a recent post people love to suggest that full legalization will resolve this issue. I think that's debatable, but what isn't in question is that the horrible system we have in place right now isn't working and needs to be changed.

My vote is for decriminalization and treatment rather than incarceration. Those who are looking for legalization are going to have to wait a very long time and I'm not willing to wait.

Dirk Hanson said...

That's why I like the general idea of harm reduction, which says that you do what you can--decriminalization and treatment--and work incrementally. I just returned from Europe. The Dutch didn't lower drug crime and cannabis use through blanket legalization--most societies aren't prepared to try that. Instead, they used smart decrim and social services and as a result don't put very many people in jail.

mike said...

thanks for the post.
1 in 3 blacks can plan on going to stat.
decriminalization is not a good you said in your response Dirk, if anything it is a gradual reduction on a drug by drug basis.

raj said...

That a very informative blog i come across regarding addiction.

thanks for the post

Swivelchair said...

Great post Dirk. The shadow drug economy/prison profit incentive has to be unraveled, and that's a tough one.

But the big question to me is: does drug or alcohol treatment actually do any good?

Decriminalizing use is, imo, blatantly obvious -- but, is there an addiction treatment that actually provides a benefit?

Dirk Hanson said...


Is there a reliable addiction treatment that works for most people most of the time? There is not.

As I was thinking about this question of chronic diseases, I ran across a study on difficult-to-treat asthma, which the authors called "an uncontrolled disease."

In the paper, the authors write:

"Difficult-to-treat asthma is characterized by uncontrolled symptoms occurring in spite of intensive treatment (corticosteroids and long-acting b2-agonists) for at least 6 months and is connected with severe obturation in the bronchotracheal tree. It still creates an important global medical and economical problem....the role of additional factors and co-morbidities having an influence on the course of asthma should be taken into account.
In summary, it seems necessary to introduce a unified system of registering and managing patients with severe and difficult-to-treat asthma, as was done for patients with chronic heart diseases."

This strikes me as reasonably related to the addiction treatment problem--a chronic, presently uncureable biochemical disorder, with a spectrum of treatments which are largely ineffective (at present) in the case of "difficult-to-treat" addiction.

Anonymous said...

prisons are a joke when it comes to helping anyone to do better,drugs are as bad if not worse than on the outside.I read this somewhere wanted to pass it along.biulding more prisons to solve crime,is like building more toilets to control diarrhea.

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