No Maneuver Room In The Drug War: The More It Changes, The More It Doesn’t

The relevant question is: What good does it do to keep non-violent users of drugs in prison? Does imprisonment do anything for them? Does it do anything for us? If so, what?

At about $20,000 a year per addict, the usual figure for the cost of incarceration, keeping penny-ante druggies in the slam gets expensive. If we put armed robbers behind bars for long periods, one effect is certain: They won’t commit serious crimes against the rest of us while they are there. I’m for long sentences for the violent. But against what is the imprisonment of non-violent users supposed to protect us? What do I get for my $20,000?

I’ve seen an awful lot of users arrested. Mostly they are a sorry lot, unprepossessing, not very scary. For example, the thirtiesish blonde woman in Chicago, caught buying crack from an open-air market. She was a bit unkempt, obviously not stupid, with a history of busts. She had a kid, and wasn’t raising her very well. She was sad. She was a mess. But she wasn’t a danger to anyone.

A stiff sentence, which was likely given that she was a repeat offender, wasn’t going to make her stop using drugs. Users come out and usually use again. She would probably keep using in prison. Lots of stuff gets smuggled in. There is nothing about prison that makes people suddenly have a conversion experience. You and I might think the fear of jail would make people stop. It doesn’t. How many drunks have you seen ruining their lives? Does fear of consequences stop them?

Five years and $100,000 later, the blonde would be back on the street, even more convinced that her life was a wreck, and thus likely to hide in drugs. Who will have benefited?

Now, one could argue that using drugs is a crime and punishment is in order: These people must be taught respect for law. Why? I don’t care whether she respects the law. I don’t myself in many cases, having seen it up close. She was going to be screwed up no matter whether she was costing lots of money in jail, or working as a hairdresser (which she did) and spending her income on crack.

There is a tendency both in law-enforcement and in many people in society to let the control of crime become a matter of hard-nosed escalation. A ten-year mandatory sentence doesn’t stop whatever it is? Try a fifteen-year mandatory sentence. It can get almost to be a battle of egos. For rapists and muggers, fine. The danger lies, I think, in taking a tough attitude without asking: Given the particular crime, is this a reasonable place to be hard-nosed?

What are the choices? There’s rehabilitation. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t work very well, but it costs less than prison. It seems to me that if we are going to do something that doesn’t work, the cheaper ineffectual course is preferable. Rehab at least occasionally does some good. More importantly, it provides a way of pretending we’re doing something about a problem that in fact can’t be solved. Sentencing non-violent users to rehab allows the legal system to engage in a sort of de-facto legalization without admitting that this is what is happening. Maybe this is the best we can do.

Actual legalization of drugs isn’t going to fly. Politically it is probably impossible. The effect might well be a huge increase in the number of addicts. (The point is much argued.) If we kept drug-use a felony, the considerable deterrent effect of the law would probably remain for the majority of us. If cocaine were legally available at Seven-Eleven, a lot of people would try it, “just once.” I remember the comment of a woman reporter of my acquaintance who told of trying coke once at a party. “That stuff was so good, I don’t (italics) ever (close italics) want to try it again.”

So take the non-violent offenders and stuff them into rehab instead of jail. If they stay screwed up, well, they would have anyway. If by chance they do clean up, so much the better. But I can’t see that putting a harmless hairdresser in the slam for five years produces any kind of payoff for anyone. Punishment for the sake of punishment is pointless.

I dunno. What I do know is that what we are doing isn’t working, and isn’t going to work. Either we try something else, or we go on forever as we are.

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