Time for new tactics in costly drug war

February 24, 2003|By Kurt L. Schmoke

MARYLAND HAS a chance to revisit its drug policies in ways that it hasn't for several decades because of the pledge by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to "work together to get nonviolent drug offenders out of jail and into treatment programs, where they belong."

Within days of Mr. Ehrlich's vow in his State of the State address, Democratic Dels. Salima Siler Marriott and Curtis S. Anderson, both of Baltimore City, and Pauline H. Menes of Prince George's County introduced legislation to divert nonviolent offenders into treatment, abolish mandatory sentences and return discretion to judges, and grant drug offenders the same "good time" credits that are given to nonviolent offenders.

A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute - along with decades of experience with using prisons as the primary tactic for combating drug use - argues forcefully for moving in the direction that Mr. Ehrlich has proposed and the legislation prescribes.

When I first called for a re-examination of the war on drugs in 1988, Maryland's prisons had 13,572 inmates and a $475 million budget. Today, Maryland prisons hold 23,752 inmates with a budget approaching $1 billion, giving prisons the fastest-growing budget in the state.

A survey by Mother Jones magazine said that Maryland's per capita spending on corrections grew during the 1980s and 1990s at four times the rate of per capita spending on higher education. With Maryland facing a $1.8 billion shortfall and 30 state departments facing cuts, corrections is slated to receive an increase, along with $92 million in construction funds - the biggest prison construction increase in a decade.

Drug abuse is the single largest category for which Marylanders are incarcerated. More than one-third of annual entrants to Maryland's prisons are drug offenders.

More than one-half of Baltimore's young African-American men were under some form of criminal justice control in the early 1990s. Four of every five Maryland inmates are African-American, and Latinos are the fastest growing population in Maryland's prisons.

With this enormous level of expenditures and government control, one would expect that the war on drugs would be won by now. Yet drugs are just as easy to come by on Baltimore's streets, and Baltimore's arrest rate for cocaine and heroin is 10 times the national average.

While the report reveals some disturbing data, it also points to some hopeful trends that mark an opening for policy-makers to rethink the war on drugs.

Six states - all with Republican governors - closed prisons last year. In Louisiana, the state with the nation's highest incarceration rate, state Sen. Charles Jones authored legislation abolishing mandatory sentences and returning discretion to judges, a bill signed by Republican Gov. Mike Foster. Similarly, Michigan, Connecticut, Alabama, Mississippi and North Dakota all repealed mandatory sentences. These policy shifts often had a strong bipartisan flavor to them.

Since 1999, voters in California and Arizona overwhelmingly passed ballot initiatives diverting nonviolent offenders from prison into treatment. Fully 30,000 inmates have been diverted into treatment in California since 2000, and the number of licensed drug treatment slots has increased by 68 percent. The California Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that this initiative will save $1.5 billion during its first five years.

Surveys show increasing dissatisfaction with the war on drugs and a yearning for a more sensible approach.

According to a 2001 Pew Research Center poll, three-quarters of Americans believe the war on drugs is a failure. In a Hart and Associates survey last year, 75 percent of Americans approved of sentencing nonviolent offenders to probation instead of prison, and a majority supported eliminating mandatory sentencing and returning discretion to judges.

These findings cut across party lines - more than two-thirds of Republicans favored treatment and probation for nonviolent offenses, and a majority favored "tougher approaches to the causes of crime" over the policies of the past. A 1998 survey by the University of Maryland, College Park found that 60 percent of Marylanders supported giving judges discretion to sentence nonviolent offenders instead of mandating imprisonment.

The institute's report recommends diverting carefully selected nonviolent criminals and drug offenders into treatment instead of incarceration. Some of the money saved by this would be spent on treatment for would-be prisoners and some used to stave off cuts to education and social services.

The proposed legislation goes a long way toward making the governor's words and the institute's recommendations a reality. Perhaps with Republicans and Democrats uniting on this issue, there's a chance to forge a bipartisan middle ground on Maryland's approach to the thorny problems of substance abuse.

Kurt L. Schmoke, dean of the Howard University School of Law, is former mayor and state's attorney for Baltimore City.

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