Nebraska Drug Use: Drug Offenders – Treat Them or Build More Prisons?

As you have probably read more than once, offenders with some connection to drugs make up the greatest percentage of people in our prisons. Often, the criminal commits his/her crime either under the influence of drugs, or to gain money to support a drug habit.

But many of the prisons in the U.S., prison population has doubled or tripled over the last 20 years. Are people committing more crimes? In fact, national statistics show violent crimes on the decline by over 30%. What, then, accounts for this huge increase?

You can blame a good part of it directly on our `get tough on drugs’ policy. The increasing incidence of drug use, the death of youths by overdose, (and also some very famous persons), and the connection of drugs with other crimes, have created this mindset of `lock `em up and throw away the key’.

This phenomenon spread across the country. Prisons were being built in record breaking numbers. Private industry was getting on the bandwagon, erecting prisons and bidding on housing, (or warehousing), offenders.

And the bill for this is getting higher and higher. But what are we to do? Ignore the problem? Let uncontrolled drug trade flourish?

Drug trade wouldn’t be a lucrative business without clientele. If we throw the `buyer’, (user), into jail without significant rehabilitation programs while he/she is there, we’re just taking the customer out of the marketplace temporarily.

Another unproductive aspect of locking the user up is that the person may have a family and children he is supporting. (I’ll stick to the pronoun `he’ for most of this article, as we have many more men imprisoned than women-still recognizing that the drug offender can be a woman, too.) While he is incarcerated, who is supporting that family? Too often, we, the public, are. You say, it’s worth it?

It costs $ 20,000.00 to $ 30,000.00 a year to house an inmate, depending on the state. What do you think a good drug rehabilitation program would cost?

There are some drug rehabilitation programs in some prisons, with follow-up after the inmate is on parole. The program is often limited to a specific number of inmates and staffing of the program is constrained by budgetary concerns. After the inmate has completed what is often an initial 60 day program, he is back living with `general population’, not necessarily the best place for someone who is undergoing rehabilitation trying to accomplish a mindset change!

Private rehabilitation drug programs are expensive-in house programs are well over $ 100/day. But divide that into the $ 30,000.00 per year housing costs at the prison, and you could have many, many days of intense treatment!

So, what’s the answer? Do we keep building more prisons? Do we keep taking more breadwinners away from the family? Do we keep creating more felons, with the monumental consequences of wearing that label? (A convicted felon nearly always has serious difficulties finding decent employment once he is released. Today, in healthcare- hospitals and nursing homes are prohibited by law of hiring felons. Most countries won’t let a felon in for a visit/vacation. And the list goes on.)

California took a bold and innovative step. Their Proposition 36, passed by 61% of the electorate, imposes treatment rather than imprisonment for first-and many second -time drug possession offenses. The conviction is then automatically removed from the person’s record after he or she completes treatment.

California expects to divert as many as 36,000 offenders from prison annually, with this new law. Their legislative analyst’s office estimates that the program could save California between $ 200-$ 250 million every year!

One challenge facing California is that there aren’t nearly enough drug treatment centers to handle the expected influx of diverted offenders. Drug rehabilitation centers are just as scarce in virtually every state.

Let’s get off the statistical `train’ for a moment, and let me relate a specific case of which I’m personally aware.

A 31 year old man, living in one county, was a marijuana user. He was gainfully employed, and unfortunately also had an alcohol problem. Let’s call him Sam, (not his real name), for ease of relating the story.

One day, at Sam’s place of employment, a diner, (which happened to be in a different county than where he lives), a customer he had befriended, asked him if he knew where he could “…get a joint”. Sam, an ever-obliging, friendly type, said, “I’ve got some”, and the customer gave him $ 5 for one cigarette.

As fate would have it, that same customer was caught by the police, later, smoking marijuana. At that time, (this was around 1995), the police in that area were trying to break up a fairly large marijuana distribution `ring’. They told this man that he would not get `busted’ if he would set them up with the person who sold him the `joint’.

Shortly thereafter, the `customer’ brought an undercover police to the diner. He said his `friend’ wanted a joint, and asked Sam if he had some marijuana. Sam was a little leery about `selling’ a joint to a stranger, but his friendly customer assured him the guy wasn’t a policeman. So, the joint passed hands.

The undercover policeman then said he would like to buy more.

Sam said he knew where to get it, and they agreed to meet at Sam’s house on another day. It happened, and a small bag of marijuana passed hands.

Then the handcuffs came out. Sam was arrested, and offered the same deal: “Tell us who your supplier is, and we’ll let you go.”

As is so often the case, the small fry won’t `squeal’ on the big fish, and Sam’s loyalty cost him a jail term.

What kind of a penalty is associated with this crime of Sam’s? Bad luck for Sam-he had sold marijuana to an undercover policeman in two counties! (Just by driving a short distance down the road from his job to his home!)

In county where he sold to the policeman, he pled guilty and was sentenced to one to two years. While in county jail, he was taken to court in the second county, and got another sentence of up to 7 years, suspended, if he successfully served his first term and didn’t violate his parole conditions.

The end of the story is that he spent 8 months in county jail, and 16 more months on probation.

There was absolutely no `treatment’, rehabilitation-nothing in county jail. Occasionally, there was an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting, but sometimes the facilitator didn’t show up. (I’m happy to say that Sam came out of the ordeal `clean’, and has been clean and sober and an upright citizen for the last 7 years, in spite of the system!) This case was in New Hampshire.

Back to the alternatives:

Arizona established a program 4 years ago, instigated by a citizen’s initiative! In Arizona, people convicted of drug possession have their sentences suspended, are placed on probation and assigned to a drug treatment or education program. Those who violate probation may be ordered by the court to participate in intensified drug treatment, community service, home arrest, etc.-anything short of prison. Their statistics showed the persons were getting off drugs.

In 1998, the state saved $ 5 million in prison costs while spending $ 2.1 million on substance abuse treatment.

In Nevada, a pilot program is releasing 150 inmates six months early on the condition that they participate in a court supervised treatment program for at least a year.

Both Nebraska and Ohio are considering similar proposals to those of California and Nevada.

In Utah, drug offenders make up 22% of the prison population. They are looking at options such as day reporting centers, court supervised treatment programs and electronic monitoring.

Possessing marijuana is still a criminal offense in most states. Are we filling our prisons with users who offer no real danger to society? It’s time to seriously look at alternative options to locking up drug users. We could save a lot of money, keep families together, and with good rehabilitation programs in place, ensure that many users would not re-offend.

Maxwell Sargent is one of the writers and supporters of My Life in the City, a human interest online magazine with articles by and about local people, business, places, events and history. He is a former New Hampshire State Representative. Much of what he writes is based on that experience.

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