Declare peace in war on drugs

April 06, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Given the nature and cost of the war on drugs - to the state, to the counties and the cities, to families, to businesses, to neighborhoods, to property values and insurance rates - nothing in the realm of criminal justice screams for more reform than our approach to drug addiction and related criminality.

In some way - directly, or through taxation, or in the costs of insurance for homes and motor vehicles - drug addiction touches the lives of every man, woman and child in Maryland. The same is true on a national scale. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain should all have plans for changing the country's current policies in two wars: the one in Iraq and the one on drugs. Both were launched on bad information, both have gone on longer than anticipated, and both have proved far too costly.

Here in Maryland, members of the General Assembly had an opportunity to begin a repeal of the drug war, and they blew it - again.

They rejected a modest reform of a system that has pushed the populations of our prisons and detention centers to historic levels.

The reform presented to the House of Delegates would have injected some common sense where badly needed. Instead of keeping laws that make felons of low-level dealer-addicts and force them to serve harsh mandatory minimums in prison - at a cost to Maryland taxpayers of up to $26,000 per inmate per year - the Smart On Crime Act supported parole for these offenders after a couple of years behind bars.

The change would have applied primarily to nonviolent offenders. It was aimed at the dealer-users - that is, mostly poor men and women who sell to maintain habits. The possibility of parole would have given judges some flexibility in how they handle these defendants, who need treatment, not prison.

For the past 25 years, mandatory minimums have been hallmarks of the federal and local wars on drugs; they are among the leading factors in the tripling of Maryland's prison population since 1980 and the reason why the United States now imprisons one in every 100 adults. Recognizing the failure and costliness of this approach, reformers in Annapolis wanted to give judges the discretion to grant parole to some nonviolent offenders.

Still, in this purportedly liberal state, even this minor repeal went down to defeat again. The help of Gov. Martin O'Malley, who vetoed the bill last year - on a radio show, he said that "drug-dealing is a violent crime" that needs to be punished - apparently could not make the revised bill a success. Republicans employed some demagoguery, calling the Smart on Crime Act the "soft on crime" act. Many Democrats wimped out.

O'Malley and the legislature keep missing an opportunity to put Maryland on the map for progressive reform.

They could make history by creating a holistic model for addicted criminals, starting with the nonviolent. Open up some space at Spring Grove Hospital Center. Give them treatment on demand. Teach them skills at "recovery camps." Put them to work in service to the community as a transition to employment in the labor force.

That's not an outrageous suggestion.

Nor is it something that would require great political courage.

Various 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 that 67 percent supported treatment over incarceration. But we're not there yet. Far from it.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, Maryland spends about 26 cents on treatment for every dollar we spend to incarcerate a drug addict. The Drug Policy Alliance reported that, in the 1980s and 1990s, the height of the war on drugs, spending on prisons grew at four times the rate of our spending on higher education.

We are speaking of billions of dollars - $97 billion spent by cities and counties from coast to coast, and that's a four-year-old figure.

That price tag - which does not include spending on federal and state prisons - is mentioned in a new report from the JPI.

"Jails are now warehousing more people for longer periods of time than ever before," the institute said. "Jails are filled with people with drug addictions, the homeless and people charged with immigration offenses. [America's jails] have become the `new asylums,' with six out of 10 people in jail living with a mental illness."

Nastassia Walsh, one of the report's authors, said: "These counties just cannot afford to invest the bulk of their local public safety budget in jails, and we are beginning to see why - the more a community relies on jails, the less it has to invest in education, employment and proven public safety strategies."

One could argue that Obama, Clinton and McCain all have bigger things to worry about - Iraq, the recession, the mortgage crisis - but in an economic downcycle, the kind of criminality described in this column will probably only get worse. We have had opportunities to prepare for this, and we didn't.

Locking up drug addicts, mindlessly warehousing people who could be productive citizens, being stingy with funds for treatment, limiting special drug-treatment courts, ignoring the extent of mental illness among the incarcerated, and maintaining the barriers to employment for offenders in re-entry - all of that is getting us nowhere, all of that is costly.

All of that should be considered the failed policy of the past.

But all of that is still what we have.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Thursday and Sunday. He hosts "Midday" each Monday through Thursday, noon to 2 p.m. on 88.1 WYPR, and writes the Random Rodricks blog on baltimoresun.com.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.