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Prison Song

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“All research and successful drug policy show/That treatment should be increased/And law enforcement decreased/While abolishing mandatory minimum sentences/All research and successful drug policy show/That treatment should be increased/And law enforcement decreased.” 
Prison Song – System of A Down

We here in the states sure seem to love our wars – the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on poverty. Pick a cause and someone somewhere has probably “declared” war against it. While some of these so-called wars are worthwhile, some, when couched in the vernacular of “war” seem a little bit silly – take the war on drugs and specifically mandatory minimum sentencing for first-time drug offenders.

Mandatory sentences were first enacted by Congress in 1986. The country was deep in the throes of the crack-cocaine epidemic and many on Capital Hill thought a get tough approach would be the cure for what ailed us. Under mandatory sentencing, judges are not allowed to consider the merits of the case, if you’re brought in with a gram (roughly the amount of sweet-n-lo in one packet) of LSD, you’re going to Federal prison for five years. The results of all this is an exploding prison population that places a huge financial burden on the Federal Government. To wit – the number of prisoners serving drug sentences – many of them mandatory sentences – increased from 24.9 percent in 1980 to a peak of 61.3 percent in 1994. During the same period, federal prison operating costs rose from $319 million to $1.9 billion, or 242 percent based on constant dollars. The 2005 annual federal prison budget is $4.7 billion, and it costs more than $23,100 per year to incarcerate a federal prisoner (Federal and State Prisons: Inmate Populations, Costs and Projection Models," GAO, 1996; Bureau of Prisons, 2004).

Now, before you go thinking I’m the one hitting the crack pipe, let’s get a few things cleared up. I’m most certainly not for legalizing everything under the sun – free meth for all doesn’t fly in my mind nor do I want to walk down the street and see a bunch of junkies stooped over with needles hanging out of their arms. But perhaps it is time for us to take a good hard look at the absurdity of the situation we’ve created.

In a 1997 RAND Corporation Drug Policy Research Center study entitled “Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers Money” the case for increasing treatment was made pretty clear. “Treatment of heavy users is eight to nine times more cost-effective than long sentences in removing cocaine from the market, and conventional enforcement is twice as cost-effective.”

So under our current policy, we increase an already exploding prison system, we leave those in need of treatment at the hands of their fellow inmates creating a worse monster and expect our drug problem to go away. It seems to me that it pretty much boils down to simple economics – no demand, no supply; less demand, less supply. Treating users has proven effective thus lessening demand.

I won’t even get into how much of a strain chasing down decoy pot runners across the U.S.-Mexico border puts our Customs and Border Protection agents under as the heroin makes it way into the states. Nor will I get into how at least one drug currently labeled illicit does about the same amount of “damage” as drinking one too many at the pub. That’s a different column for a different day.

In a very cold and calculating view, those who supply drugs are, at their core, business people who are currently making a lot of money. Once their product has gone the way of the laser-disc; wanted by a very select few, they’ll jump out of the drug game for something else. Whatever that is, I’m sure we’ll declare war on it.

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About Mr. B

  • Turning Leaf Angel

    I very much agree with your perspective as I continue to be frustrated, (and at times nearly repulsed) by the lack of economic consideration, political insightfulness, common sense and general compassion demonstrated by our policymakers, (RE: Mandatory Minimums).
    I am most disturbed by the adverse impact that these unfair sentencing stipulations have on the lives of children and families. Let’s face it, it is seldom the kingpins or big-time traffickers that suffer the consequences, but rather the everyday man/woman, who got in a little too far over their head because of addiction and/or financial situations. These are fathers and mothers who, in the absence of their disease/disorder, could not only contribute well to society but could additionally perpetuate healthy family functioning, if provided treatment as opposed to lengthy and unfair incarcerations.
    I want to clearly assert to fact that I am in no way promoting, upholding or justifying the abuse of substances, for I am familiar with the devastation that this can cause on families. Yet I find it so incongruent with what our nation is supposed to represent, that we would lock away these nonviolent offenders for excessive lengths of time while child molesters, rapists and murderers are readily provided a second chance per limited sentencing and/or through parole.
    It is amazing at the number of people in the United States who are completely unaware of the fact that there is NO federal parole. When persons charged with a drug offense are assigned a mandatory minimum of five, 10, 20, 20+ years, they are to do every single day behind bars.
    Thanks for the opportunity to get on my soapbox for a while.

  • Mark

    A very interesting article.
    Good author.