Jailing city drug addicts wastes lives, our money

March 29, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Most of the drug dealers I've met are drug addicts. They would not fit the TV version of a drug dealer: Bling-bling king, all smooth from drinking Remy and smoking weed, cruising the `hood in a shiny black Navigator, scooping up cash as he goes. The ones I've met do not own or lease motor vehicles; many of them live with their mothers. They sell drugs of the same variety they use. They do not make much money, and some of them wind up dead because they may have snorted dope they were supposed to sell or failed to pay their debts.

These low-level user-dealers visit Maryland courts a lot. They get arrested multiple times, for either possession of a controlled dangerous substance (usually cocaine or heroin) or possession with intent to distribute it.

Some, but not enough, end up in the drug-treatment courts that have been established in the state. But many more end up in our prisons where, facing mandatory sentences of from 10 to 25 years, they become $25,000-a-year burdens on taxpayers.

During the past two decades, in the prosecution of America's war on drugs, we have sent thousands of men and women into Maryland prisons. We've tried to incarcerate our way out of a public health problem (opiate addiction) that is the single biggest contributor to the social dysfunction that has ravaged long stretches of Baltimore, ruined families, kept generations mired in poverty, and driven up property and car insurance rates almost everywhere.

Putting drug addicts in jail without treatment is a waste of money.

Reforming courts, increasing arrests -- well-intentioned but a waste of time without a full-scale attack on the demand for drugs.

Anything less, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge told me a few years ago, is "an attempt to bail out a sinking boat with a rotten hull." The rot, in the judge's metaphor, was addiction.

You would think Maryland Democrats, who have controlled the General Assembly and the governor's office for most of the past 30 years, would see the utter failure of incarceration of drug addicts and want to turn the whole wretched system upside down -- if only to save taxpayers money in the long run.

Those in the House of Delegates had a chance to take another step in that direction within the past week.

A bill sponsored by Del. Curt Anderson and several other colleagues from Baltimore would have repealed a variety of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level dealers. The bill was heavily amended.

By the time it reached the House floor for a vote Friday, it would have simply made a second-time offender eligible for parole after serving half his 10-year mandatory sentence.

It's not much of a reform, and yet it still went down to defeat, with a couple of Republican delegates, including one from Southern Maryland, taking to the floor to announce opposition with hackneyed scare tactics about drug dealers preying on children.

Del. Brian McHale, a Democrat from Baltimore, also opposed the measure. "In my district, there are so many victims of crimes of repeat drug offenders," he said.

Of course, there's a reason McHale has so many repeat drug offenders in his district -- they remain addicted to drugs. They go to jail for a while, abstain for a while (maybe), then relapse. Relapse is part of recovery. Our laws say you go back to jail if you relapse.

Amazingly, Anderson managed to get his bill reconsidered, and it passed Monday night with the minor reform by a vote of 71-66.

In the opposition was Del. Richard Impallaria, a Republican from Baltimore County, who perpetuated the myth that keeping second-time drug dealers incarcerated keeps them from using drugs. "They're clean when they're in jail," Impallaria said.

I'm quoting some Republicans here, but obviously a lot of Democrats voted against this measure.

It now goes to the Senate, also controlled by Democrats.

Why is reforming this failed system and funding a new one taking so long?

Public opinion polls indicate that 65 percent to 75 percent of Americans believe drug addicts should receive treatment, not prison time. In June 2006, OpinionWorks of Annapolis released a survey of more than 1,000 Marylanders and found 67 percent supporting treatment over incarceration.

Baltimore, with the highest concentration of addicts in the state, needs a treatment network sufficiently funded to serve about 45,000 addicts. It has nowhere near that kind of funding.

We should open a hospital instead of another prison and send our addicts there for not only comprehensive treatment but a primer in life sciences so they can function as responsible and productive citizens. We should have public leadership -- starting with the governor -- on this issue.

In 2004, with a Republican governor in office, the Maryland General Assembly did something grand -- or at least it sounded grand. It embraced legislation aimed at directing drug addicts into treatment programs instead of prison.

And while there has been some progress, the state still spends far more to incarcerate nonviolent addicts than it does to treat them.

"For every dollar spent on drug imprisonment," the Justice Policy Institute reported last summer, "the state of Maryland invests an estimated 26 cents in the treatment of drug abusers referred by the criminal justice system."

The Drug Policy Alliance reports: "Maryland's prison population has tripled in the past 20 years, from 7,731 in 1980 to 24,186 in 2003." (Including local jails, it was about 27,000 on any given day in 2006.)

"During the 1980s and 1990s, Maryland's per capita state spending on ... corrections grew at four times the rate of increase in higher education spending."

We need to turn this upside down.dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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