Save money. Save lives. Stop jailing pot smokers
Today as state budgets are strained to the breaking point, it seems like a good time to examine all state facilities with a view to reducing them wherever possible. Who can fault Enlightened Self-Interest? Programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be sacrosanct, as well as programs to alleviate hunger, homelessness, etc. So what’s left? Well—there are penal institutions that have been growing by leaps and bounds. It’s even a growth industry with the construction of privately-run prisons a source of competition throughout small-town America. And it’s strictly an American phenomenon. Globally, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Prison growth has been fueled by tough drug enforcement, stringent sentencing laws, and high rates of recidivism—the re-arrest, re-conviction or re-incarceration of an ex-offender.
That racism is well and alive in this country is demonstrated in its prisons where African Americans are imprisoned at 8 times the rate of white people and Hispanics are imprisoned at 3.5 times that of whites. About 38% of the total prison population is African American and 22% is Hispanic. In the total U.S.
population African Americans make up just 12.6% of the total and Hispanics 16.3% according to the last census. The law itself could be said to reflect racism in that penalties for smoking cocaine, for example, are less than using crack cocaine, a form generally preferred by African Americans. (A book which I believe to be as important today as was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” during Civil War days is Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” in which she provides facts and figures showing that incarceration targets African Americans.)
There has been an increase in prison populations from 500,000 to 1.8 million in the last two decades. Just how much is this costing taxpayers? Well, in Minnesota the estimated annual cost of maintaining a prisoner is $41,364. By the end of 2008 there were 9,406 such prisoners or an increase of 50.8% since 2000, which figures out roughly at $37,800.000. There is also an aging prison population which requires medical care and occasionally hospitalization.
So, how would one start reducing a prison population? The public certainly doesn’t want violent criminals let loose on the streets. Of course not. But there is an alternative. Non-violence is the word and there are lots of prisoners who fit that category. There has been a 77% growth in the last several years in the number of inmates who were committed to prison for nonviolent crimes—most of them for possessing or selling recreational drugs. That, nationwide, nonviolent prison population is larger than the combined populations of Wyoming and Alaska. There are three times as many nonviolent offenders in U.S. prisoners as in the total nonviolent prison population of all the European Union nations.
We could empty the prisons of nonviolent offenders. They might be under probation or parole for a while, but the taxpayers would be relieved of the cost of maintaining them. It’s actually not a preposterous idea. Minnesota has actually taken a step in that direction: its sentencing law change during the 1980s drastically slowed prison growth and reserved prison space for violent and more serious offenders while establishing a network of support programs for less serious offenders.
The vast majority of the offenders were guilty of possessing or using marijuana that can be found growing in Minnesota, composed of dried leaves, stems and flowering tops of the hemp plant. There are many who contend that alcohol usage is worse in many ways and gradually social acceptance of marijuana has continued to climb. By the 1980s, over 80% of high school students said they had easy access to marijuana. By 1988, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s administrative law judge, Francis Young, concluded that, “Marijuana may well be the safest psychoactive substance commonly used in human history.”
A 2009 CBS News poll found that 41% of the people polled said they thought that the use of marijuana should be made legal and 52% were opposed. A previous CBS News poll found 31% in favor of legalization in all cases, with another 7% saying they would favor legalization if marijuana were taxed and the money went into the federal budget.
Endorsement of the legalization of marijuana usage has come from an unusual source—LEAP, “an international organization of criminal justice professionals who bear personal witness to the wasteful futility and harms of our current drug policies. Our experience on the front lines of the ‘war on drugs’ has led us to call for a repeal of prohibition and its replacement with a light system of legalized regulation, which will effectively cripple the violent cartels and street dealers who control the current illegal market.” There is no question but that legalizing recreational drugs would reduce—maybe eliminate?—the criminal activity in Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia in connection with their sale.
The following information from the LEAP website must be continually updated as it provides the time of day as well as the date in its recap, which follows.
2012 Drug War At A Glance
Federal Spent $14,370,950,929
State/Local Spent 24,494,452,399
Total Spent $38,865,403,328
All Drug Arrests 1,586,509
Cannabis Arrests 818,638