Dec 1, 2006

A Nation of Incarceration

The Justice Department announced that a record seven million men and women - about 3 percent of the adult US population - were incarcerated, on probation or parole at the end of last year. Prosecutions for drug crimes are the biggest contributors, as drug offenders made up 55 percent of the US prison population.

One in every 32 US adults were involved in some stage of the criminal justice system last year, and America has dubious distinction of recording the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

The American effort to combat drug abuse by targeting users is counterproductive, and we spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year to house this poulation. A 1996 study estimated 78 percent of federal prison dollars were spent "incarcerating individuals who had a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse, were convicted of drug and/or alcohol violations, were using drugs and/or alcohol at the time of their crimes, or had committed their crimes to get money to buy drugs."

From 1985 to 2000 the state of Ohio increased spending on corrections at five times the rate that it increased spending on higher education. Higher education spending increased by 38% ($670 million) while corrections spending increased by 211% ($1.026 billion), and this is a sad reflection on this state's priorities.

In New York the annual operating cost of a prison bed is about $40,000, while the annual cost at an inpatient drug treatment facility is $17,000 (outpatient slots range between $2,300 and $4,000 per year). These cost savings do not reflect the productive value to society of free adults, nor the hidden costs in areas such as child welfare when parents are jailed.

It is time to change our methods.


-Sepp said...

Loretta Nall covered this too HM. Of that 55% of drug offenders, I'd estimate that 1% are the casual pot smokers who were either caught cultivating or, had well over an ounce when nabbed. The 49% are your dealers and couriers from the street level to honcho level. IMHO, marijuana laws should be relaxed or, even repealed. The folks I have known who smoked did so because alcohol disgusted them as well as the way people who use alcohol act while others used it for migranes or difficulties from having MS. I didn't mention crack dealers or smack pushers since I feel they are destructive and legalization of either of those drugs is out of the question.

historymike said...

I agree, Sepp, that "hard" drugs like heroin or cocaine are especially addictive, but I disagree that the best solution is to lock up users and small dealers.

Prohibition of any intoxicant creates undesired results, especially the rise of large criminal organizations to supply the outlawed substance.

I think there is a good argument in favor of decriminalization and/or controlled legalization, with tax revenues earmarked toward drug education and rehabilitation.

There will always be, in my opinion, a small segment of the population engaged in self-destructive behavior, but I think we should look upon addicts as "lost sheep" rather than "ravenous wolves" who seek to prey upon the rest of the flock.

-Sepp said...

I agree with most of that HM. However, those that are addicts do prey on the rest of us. Junkies and crackheads will steal anything and everything. Back in '88 I had a roommate who started using crack. I came home from work one night to find my stereo, tv, vcr and, turntable gone. This clown also traded his father's gun collection, his mom's hummel collection and his dad's car while they were gone for the weekend. They are ravenous wolves as far as I'm concerned.

Hooda Thunkit said...

"It is time to change our methods."

Mike, you're right. I think we should rethink all laws and penalties, but get tougher on the laws that we decide to keep, fully enforcing them.

To me, 3% just isn't enough, but right now, many of that 3% shouldn't be there.

microdot said...

I would like to add a big incentive to incarcerate in America is the out sourcing of the penal system. Many of the prisons in America are privately owned and operated and the Corporation that is the biggest owner is believe it or not, KFC! Kentucky Fried Chicken...the Colonel doesn't just do chicken! In turn, the prisoners are a source of labor which is used to pay for the system. Some of the companies that use American prison labor are Estee Lauder and Microsoft!
I think there are many other positiive ways to deal with casual drug use than destroying a life and enuring an individual to criminality.

historymike said...


I agree that, under the current system, drug addicts are like leeches. They will steal, cheat, and lie to get their highly overpriced drug.

If the network of illegal dealers were eliminated, and drugs were produced by corporations, prices would probably be chopped by 80%-90%.

A $1,500 kilo in Colombia jumps to $30,000 in Miami, and every middleman and dealer after that marks up the drugs.

If drugs were legal and controlled, addicts would not be stealing to finance these habits.

A $300-a-day heroin user would be spending much less, and be less likely to steal your TV.

historymike said...

Agreed, Hooda, that courts, cops, and jails are overloaded with petty drug offenders, and that less attention is paid to more dangerous criminals.

historymike said...


I'll have to read up more on this topic. It is a seedy side of the criminal justice system, and it sickens me that people might profit from inmates.

Certainly criminals owe something to their victims (I am thinking of murderers, assaults, pedophiles, and rapists here), but why should a corporation get to exploit prison labor?

Reminds me of Nazi Germany and the concentration camps.

-Sepp said...

HM, legalizing all drugs is a bad answer. A trip to the Netherlands will prove that to you. You can't really think that if heroine or, coke were made legal and affordable, addicts would actually start working to pay for it? No. In the experiences I've had with addicts, the next fix is the most important issue of the day and making a choice between getting high or, getting to work, getting high is always the priority. I knew two heroine junkies, one died in August, neither of them had jobs or, wanted jobs but, were always able to either score a dose or, get to the methadone clinic until the were able to score the "real" stuff. At this time, even the Netherlands is rethinking their drug policies since the country has become a magnet for junkies all over the world and their social service system is clogged with heroine cases who do nothing but drain it.

microdot said...

Sepp, I agree with you totally about the effects of hard drug use. I have seen too much of the reality of heroin addiction close up. I lived in a part of Manhattan that was ravaged by it in the early 80's. I had friends who I truly miss now dissolve before my very eyes.
I have been reading a lot of contemporary British literature and it seems like 3/4 of the urban population of Scotland are junkies...I even now feel that marijuana has been given a free ride
by the critics. The least of it's problems are the respiratory problems a lot of users suffer from in later life.( I know of at least 4 people who died of lung cancer after 50 from habitual pot smoking)
But, the current system does very little to actually deal with the individuals problems. Putting a person into a prison where they are with other people in prison for the same offenses creates a little society with its own warped values and rules. Junkies are extremely resourceful when it comes to dealing with the problem of getting drugs and any system that merely tries to punish and not deal with the individual will be thwarted!

Mark said...

Well, if more resources were put into solving these side problems, instead of quagmires like Iraq...and I'm not even talking "imprison every drug addict, dealer, etc." because that's impossible...

I'm just saying that these problems do not receive priority in our nation's governance, so adequate solutions are never found.

The Screaming Nutcase said...

Nixon declared a "War on Drugs" back in about 1970, and since then, by the government's own admission, drugs have become cheaper and more pure. Heroin has moved out of the inner city, and is so pure that our suburban kids can snort it (because if you don't inject it, you're not a junkie, apparently.)

Sure, we've locked up some hard core addicts, but we've also locked up some casual users who did have jobs until they were thrown in the lockup, and destroyed whole careers. (Ever try getting a student loan or a gov't job with a drug conviction on your record?)

Not to mention that the loss of civil liberties under the Terror War is miniscule compared to what we've lost under the Drug War. You can lose your house, car, and more without ever being convicted of a drug crime. And people are dying because paramilitary units are bashing down their front doors at 3AM; look at the guy in Virginia who was shot dead by a SWAT team (although that wasn't drugs; he was suspected of gambling on a football game. The officer was subsequently given 3 weeks without pay.) The Founders would be horrified.

By the way...ask any worker in any ED what the #1 problem drug is in America, and unless they're lying to you, they'll say "alcohol."

I'm not going to call legalization a good idea. What we have is so bad, and so ineffective, it's the only idea. After all, how many other transactions between two willing participants are criminalized?

Bonus link: cops who hate the drug war.

Monica said...
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