The Prison Crisis

The prison population in the United States reached two million people in February, and it continues to expand rapidly, seemingly unrelated to and disconnected from any effective crime control goals. The US has the world\’s highest incarceration rate per capita and also has the largest prison population in absolute terms. With less than 5 percent of the world\’s population, the US now has one quarter of the world\’s prisoners.

The expansion of the US prison population is not due to violent offenders being locked up, although every politician justifies \”get tough on crime\” policies as a solution to the threat of random criminal violence. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the thousands of new people imprisoned each year are either drug offenders-dealers and even those busted for simple possession-or drug users committing property crimes to support their expensive habits. Approximately 85 percent of arrests in Baltimore, for instance, are either directly or indirectly attributable to drugs. Eighty-five percent of the increase in federal prisoners from 1985 to 1995 were drug offenders. Police arrest more than 1.5 million people per year for drug offences, including 700,000 per year for marijuana possession or sale. Mandatory sentencing laws have all contributed to the rise in incarceration.

Spiraling incarceration rates are disproportionately and unfairly targeting racial minority populations-almost one in three African-American males born today will be sent to prison. Although only fifteen percent of the nation\’s cocaine users are African-American, approximately proportional to the Black population in the US, African Americans comprise 40 percent of the people criminally charged with powdered cocaine violations, and 90 percent of those convicted on crack charges. 74 percent of those receiving prison sentences for drug-possession are non-white, although whites use far more drugs than minorities.

The War on Drugs has completely failed to stop drugs from being used and traded in the United States, despite enormous costs both in human lives and money wasted in prisons. According to Drug Enforcement Agency estimates, less than 10 percent of drugs are seized by government officials, despite $50 billion per year spent on the War on Drugs.

Despite the War on Drugs, illegal drugs are easier for kids to get than alcohol. Almost 90 percent of high school seniors, for instance, have consistently reported that marijuana was \”very easy\” or \”fairly easy\” to obtain in annual studies from 1975 to 1998.

And the War on Drugs hasn\’t even made drugs more expensive. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, heroin and cocaine prices have consistently dropped since 1980, as the Drug War has intensified. At the same time, drug purity, along with overdoses, injuries and death, have increased.

As the incarceration crisis intensifies, it\’s time to consider alternatives: getting rid of inflexible mandatory sentencing laws and implementing harm reduction to replace the War on Drugs. Harm reduction, including needle exchange programs, drug treatment, and alternatives to incarceration which breaks up families and communities, aims to deal with drug use and abuse by attacking the harms drug use causes, rather than attacking people who use drugs. A California Department of Health study found that for each dollar spent on treatment saves 7 dollars in other social costs. Yet despite this calculus, there isn\’t enough spending to give meaningful access to treatment programs. Drug addicts need access to treatment on demand, without waiting lists.

Hypocritical politicians want to continue locking up non-violent drug offenders for a long period of time hoping it will somehow accomplish what an 80 year war on drugs, with trillions of dollars spent and millions of people imprisoned, has failed to do. Does George Bush, widely reputed to have used cocaine and other drugs and a fierce advocate of the War on Drugs, really believe that he would have been better off if he had been thrown into prison a few years back when he was \”young and irresponsible\”?