Prison for drug offenses puts us all in shackles


i wanna be cool too!
Oct 22, 2005
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Illinois didn't set out to be second only to California in the number of people imprisoned for drug offenses. It never had a goal of locking up African Americans for drug offenses at a rate higher than any other state in the nation. And it didn't seek to spend $280 million a year to incarcerate those who break drug laws. Yet that is what happened, according to a new study that argues persuasively that our drug policy puts too much emphasis on incarceration and not enough on drug treatment.

If our aim is simply to punish violators, we're reaching our goal. No doubt many people are OK with that -- although even they would likely be surprised at the massive cost of doing so. But if our goal is to help people by freeing them from drug addiction and to help society by stemming drug abuse -- and we would argue that those should be our goals -- then our policies can only be viewed as a staggering and unfair failure. "Getting tough" on drug offenders is costing us hundreds of millions of dollars, and it's not effective, argues Kathleen Kane-Willis of Roosevelt University's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs, the author of the report. As she puts it, "We can't incarcerate our way out of this problem."
In 1983, Illinois locked up 456 people for drug offenses. By 2002, that number had reached nearly 13,000. And we're locking up more people for drug possession than we are for the more serious crime of drug sales. Most of those incarcerated drug offenders are black, despite the fact that whites and blacks use illegal drugs at the same rate but blacks make up just 15 percent of the state population. In 2002, about $280 million was spent solely on imprisoning drug offenders.
Those sobering statistics should make us question whether our drug laws are sound. Yes, we're locking people up, but is it doing any good? Are drugs any less prevalent? Have we reduced the cost to society? Shouldn't we try something else? The answers are obvious. "Our study suggests that treatment for drug offenders is more appropriate, more cost-effective and has better results than incarceration," Kane-Willis said. Her main recommendations are to divert people from prison to treatment and to develop a more comprehensive curriculum to educate children about drug dangers.
What about holding people accountable? As Kane-Willis notes, sending someone into drug treatment is requiring them to be much more accountable than locking them up -- and the treatment is by no means easy. As for society, locking people up is easy. But it's expensive, and it's not getting the job done. Let's hope our lawmakers are paying attention.

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