Jail time for drug crime pays off

July 02, 2002|By Hal Riedl

THERE ARE about 23,660 men and women in Maryland prisons. Overcrowding has reached crisis proportions. Is this a good time to find better ways than the lockup to manage drug offenders and other nonviolent offenders?

Critics of incarceration point out the disproportionate number of blacks committed to Maryland prisons for drug offenses. Some suggest that the war on drugs has been largely a war on black men.

But what these critics do not say, and may not know, is that alternatives to incarceration have long been sentencing practice in Maryland.

You don't get sent to prison in Maryland for your first nonviolent or drug offense; you get it for your fifth, or worse. Maryland judges, especially in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, where most offenders are black, are not eager to slam the first-time drug offender. The typical imprisoned drug offender has had several bites at the apple of probation and drug treatment and has failed.

What happens all the time is that a nonviolent or drug offender on probation commits a new crime. To relieve the court dockets, especially in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, the offender gets identical sentences, running concurrently, for the new crime and the one for which he's on probation. It's a system of multiple offenses for the price of one. It eases the burden on overworked prosecutors, defenders and judges, and it primarily benefits African-American offenders.

It is a misconception to believe that locking up nonviolent drug abusers is a waste of limited and expensive prison space.

The word nonviolent has no reliable meaning.

In the world of street drugs, the allocation of market share is enforced by violence. This is the main contributor to the homicide rates in Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

The drug buyers, whom we are encouraged to feel sorry for as victims of an illness beyond their control, nonetheless are the ones who demand heroin and cocaine in the first place. To absolve them of blame for violence is like saying that johns are not responsible for prostitution. It is beyond dispute that the drug offender, violent or nonviolent by some definitions, is central to the violence and degradation that infest the places where many law-abiding black Americans have to live.

It is crucial to understand that the greatest benefit of incarceration is the drop in crime.

It is no accident that crime fell as more repeat offenders went to prison. A drug-using burglar - I have spoken to hundreds of them, and burglary is officially defined by Maryland law as a nonviolent offense - can cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in property loss and damage. This is why, when we calculate the costs of incarceration, we must remember the crimes prevented simply by keeping offenders off the street.

Is auto theft violent or nonviolent? How do you feel about returning to your car and finding it gone? Carjacking has burgeoned as the young men who fancy your car decline to wait until you're out of it.

Those who say we don't need to lock up drug offenders make the assumption that we know how to treat drug abuse. We don't. Relapse is to be expected. This is why incarceration should be seen as one of the tools of drug treatment. The price of refusing treatment should be the lockup, to force treatment on unwilling offenders.

To be sure, incarceration is a tool that can be managed better. Most drug sentences could be shorter, even for repeat offenders - just long enough to complete a treatment program inside and prepare for release. Community supervision should be so strict that drug relapse is caught immediately and the user returned either to prison or to inpatient treatment.

Offenders have to realize that if they test positive for drugs, fail to report, or violate any other rule, they will be right back in the lockup. Any laxness in enforcing the rules of supervision turns the whole system into a joke and puts the public safety, especially the safety of poor blacks, at risk.

Hal Riedl is a Maryland corrections professional. His views are his own.

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