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Reducing the Prison Population Incarcerated for Drugs

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Drugs have been a part of all areas of American culture for years, including social and political. A large segment of the population seems to spend their time on the desire to get high! From looking at history, this isn’t a recent occurrence.

As long as people have existed, drugs have also existed as a part of their lives. Drugs which are now illegal, such as opium, coca, marijuana, and psychedelics, were used for thousands of years for medical as well as spiritual reasons. Since these drugs have been a part of human culture for centuries, why is it now looked upon as criminal behavior which takes up huge amounts of society’s economic, political, and social resources in an effort to remove access to them?

Criminalization of Drugs

There are many answers, some based in reality, as to why drugs are now illegal. One of the answers has nothing to do with visible facts, or any scientific basis relating to the possible risks associated with these drugs. Instead, the answer has to do with the people associated with these drugs and their sale. The people associated with these drugs are what makes these drugs worthy to be considered illegal in order to criminalize their drug use.

On average, most citizens, who are considered “upstanding,” usually envision the more marginal members of society when they think about drug use, instead of leaders of the community, political leaders, and people like the president of the PTA. These same attitudes are mirrored by modern law enforcement dealing with drugs. It’s been this way for a long time.

The idea that certain racial and ethnic groups are associated with the use of drugs and their abuse is so ingrained in the minds of the public that it’s sometimes difficult to realize this association isn’t completely based in reality. These associations have been prevalent in the United States for over 150 years, and they are the reason many difficult to explain situations are part of law enforcement as well as the American judicial and penal systems.

Inexplicable Situations About Drugs

One noticeable situation is the make-up of the racial population in American prisons. While it would make sense that the ethnic and racial percentage of the prison population would correspond to that of the country, it isn’t even close.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which keeps tabs every month on these things, the April, 2015, statistics for inmates were 59.1% white and 37.5% black. According to the 2010 U.S. census, people considering themselves white consisted of 75.1% of the population while only 12.3% considered themselves Black or African American. The discrepancy between Black prison population compared to the non-prison population is a major indicator that national attitudes about who may be guilty of criminal behavior is influenced largely by racial prejudice.

The incarceration rate of African-Americans is approximately 2,300 per 100,000 people, which is a shocking figure. The ratio of black to white incarcerations is about 6 to 1 in the United States. Just looking at these figures it’s easy not to realize that the incarceration rates for groups such as Latinos and whites in the United States is also relatively high, but not as astronomically high as in the black population.

The incarceration rate for whites in the United States is approximately 400 per 100,000, which is approximately 2 to 2.5 times the total incarceration rates in the most punitive Western European countries and approximately 5 to 6 times the rate in less punitive countries.

Legislators, the general public, and others who study such matters, are becoming increasing aware of the fact that one main reason behind this disparity relating to the number of black inmates in prisons in America, as well as the total number of inmates, is the simple reason that more people are incarcerated in America for drug offenses than in other developed countries.

Newsweek magazine ran an article a few years ago about Dr. Josiah Rich’s first-hand account of this situation. Dr. Rich has spent 16 years going to prisons in and around Providence, R.I., on a weekly basis to treat inmates who were being held on drug-related offenses. Each time, he wrestled with the ethical question of whether the inmates incarcerated for drug offenses had really done something wrong, or whether the American prison system was doing something that was worse. “What I see are not bad people,” he said. “Predominantly, I see people with a disease.”

More than half of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S. have histories of addiction and substance abuse. While not all of the inmates have been imprisoned on drug-related charges, arrests for drugs have been steadily rising since early 1990. In 2007 there were 195,700 arrests, although many of them were for crimes such as burglary which were committed in order to feed their drug addictions.

Dr. Rich, who is a Brown University professor of medicine and community health, is concerned that refusing or ignoring the need for these inmates to receive treatment for their addiction, many prisons are missing the opportunity to cure them, which would cut down crime in the future. According to the DEA, treating drug addition would reduce the rate of recidivism rates from 50% to about 20%. According to Dr. Rich, “Our system has taken the highest-risk and most ill people and put them in a place where they have constitutionally mandated health care.”

Drug Addiction Treatment for Prison Inmates

The attitudes of Americans toward drug crimes may be changing, since a recent Pew Research Center poll indicated earlier this year that approximately 66% would prefer illegal drug offenders to be rehabilitated rather than incarcerated. The telephone interview poll of 1821 adults was the first large survey in 13 years to find out what American opinions were on drug policies. Surveys such as this reflect whether public perceptions are shifting about drug abuse. Do people increasingly feel addiction is a public health issue that should involve medical help, or a crime requiring punishment?

The poll reveals that the majority of Americans consider drug abuse to be a serious problem, which is the same way they felt a decade ago. Although how they feel about it hasn’t changed, how they feel the drug crisis should be handled has changed. Out of those surveyed, 67% think the Obama administration needs to emphasize treatment rather than punishment for illegal drug users, while only 26% think jail time is the best option. The people who believe governments should eliminate minimum mandatory sentences for illegal drug crimes increased to 63% in 2014 from 47% in 2001. This shift addresses the wider issue of the best way to deal with illegal drug offenders so it helps not only the individual drug abuser but also the community at large, rather than just locking them away.

The past few years have found that some people in the justice system are looking more favorably to treating drug addicts in addition to or instead of incarcerating them. Some states, such as Ohio, offer treatment to first-time drug offenders as well as some second-time offenders. Nationally, though, this isn’t the norm. Last year a report was released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicating only 1/5th of inmates incarcerated for drugs were given some type of treatment. With tight budgets forcing many states to decrease existing drug treatment programs, this number may decrease further in the near future. Pennsylvania and Kansas have already cut back, and Texas and California may be next.

Decriminalization of Illegal Drugs

As marijuana increasingly becomes decriminalized, it may have the effect of reducing prison populations. With changing attitudes about the drug, medical marijuana can be used legally in 23 states and also Washington, D.C. Marijuana has also been legalized for recreational use in two states, which may be an indication of things to come. While “hard” drug use may remain a legal issue, removing marijuana from the legal equation would definitely be a positive way to reduce law enforcement resources assigned to this problem.

Many arguments and ideas have been discussed about the decriminalization of marijuana as well as hard-core drugs. In some ways the arguments are similar to the experience the country went through with alcohol prohibition. However, while drug use is rooted in both economic and social factors, laws prohibiting drub use doesn’t address the reasons why people use drugs in the first place. While legal and illegal use of drugs may be recreational, poverty and despair are some of the root causes people turn to drug use. Only by addressing these underlying causes will there be hope of significantly decreasing the number of problematic drug users.

Due to the high demand in the U.S. for drugs, Mexico is deep in a state of crisis. The drug market in the U.S. is driven by demand, with millions of people demanding illegal drugs. Due to the fact that production and supply of some of these drugs is illegal, a huge market for them exists, introducing violent crime cartels that are way too eager to exploit the demand.

With the American political climate today, the decriminalization of drugs appears to be extremely unlikely, even if it was considered. The treatment of drug addiction in prisons may have a chance of impacting the recidivism rate and help to reduce prison overcrowding. Unfortunately, with the lack of funding, this may not be able to be accomplished. What is more likely will be the continuation of the current piecemeal, stop-gap approach that is currently being used. Perhaps with the current civil unrest throughout America, it will lead to some genuine reforms dealing with the incarceration of illegal drug offenders.

Sevens Legal, APC
Criminal Defense Attorneys
3555 4th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92103
Phone: (619) 297-2800

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