The War on Drugs Has Failed. It’s Time to Rethink Our Prison System.

It’s clear the system is broken.

Last week, Canada made history when both the House of Commons and Senate passed legislation legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. After the governor general approves it, the country will have retail systems ready in just a few months and will focus efforts on studying the drug instead of demonizing it.

How the War on Drugs Started – and How It Failed

Unfortunately, the strong commitment to curbing the use of drugs through increased enforcement and harsher prison sentences has backfired in the long-run, costing excessive taxpayer money and ruining millions of lives.

Nearly 50 years ago, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "public enemy number one." In 1971, the administration offered a ‘tough on crime’ approach as the solution to growing drug use. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was subsequently passed, establishing five schedules for drugs that explain their appropriate medical use and abuse potential (according to the federal government).

Unfortunately, the strong commitment to curbing the use of drugs through increased enforcement and harsher prison sentences, as the 1970s approach entailed, backfired in the long-run, costing excessive taxpayer money and ruining millions of lives.

On March 8 of this year, Pew Charitable Trusts released a brief on the relationship between imprisonment and drug problems. The data presented showed no relationship between prison terms and changes in drug abuse, a finding that undermines the longstanding narrative that drug use can be curbed through incarceration. The organization suggested policymakers instead enact strategies that are proven by research to work better and save money.

This need for a different approach is evident.

Between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population rose almost 600 percent, but the self-reported use of illegal drugs has also increased. Further, a third of the released population commits new crimes and gets arrested again. In one example of these failures, Tennessee ranks fifth out of all 50 states in drug imprisonment rates. Meanwhile, New Jersey ranks 45th, but their drug use rates are almost identical.

Being tough on crime has simply not curbed drug use, and funds would be better spent researching drugs like marijuana—similar to what Canada plans to do—and figuring out the potential harms and benefits.

The System Can Change If It Fosters Freedom and Financial Responsibility

The Pew brief also examined which policies have worked to combat abuse, pointing to law enforcement and sentencing strategies that have a more positive impact. One potential course of action cited in the brief is ending mandatory minimum sentencing, which forces judges to sentence offenders for a minimum amount of time depending on the crime.

Pew advised that there should be a greater focus on substance abuse treatment for drug abusers rather than extended sentences. Ultimately, locking people up for long periods of time is costly and does not deter drug use, and alternative strategies should be implemented to allow for true rehabilitation among drug users before they are sent back into their communities.

Fortunately, some solutions are being offered. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, which would legalize marijuana and expunge the records of those with possession convictions. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced similar legislation in the House this year, and though neither bill is likely to become law, the growing demand for change is evident.

Further, the FIRST STEP Act, introduced by Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), recently passed the House. This bipartisan legislation would give federal prisoners access to vital programs and prepare them for successful reentry into civilian life after they are released. These solutions will not solve all the problems with our current prison system, but they are a step in the right direction and indicate that viable solutions exist.

If three out of four prisoners released from prison are arrested for a new crime within five years, it’s clear the system is broken.

Reducing recidivism, as Collins' and Jeffries' bill aims to do, is a worthy goal. With generally modest upfront costs, helping people leave prison with the ability to be productive members of society is a good thing. After all, one of the main reasons for putting a person in prison is ostensibly to rehabilitate them until they are prepared to be valuable contributors to their communities. If three out of four prisoners released from prison are arrested for a new crime within five years, it’s clear the system is broken. Paying for services that help lower recidivism can save money in the long-run because fewer people end up going back to prison and are able to live their lives freely.

Certain states like Washington, Colorado, and California have legalized cannabis for recreational use, and many others have done so for medical use. These states, along with Canada, serve as role models for a policy that saves taxpayer money, removes harmless individuals from the prison system, and encourages scientific research.

Reform Is Preferable to Out of Control Spending and Fractured Communities

In the United States, local, state, and federal governments spend about $80 billion a year running prisons and jails. Some of that cost is justified, as there are dangerous criminals who should be locked up for committing heinous crimes. But throwing nonviolent drug offenders behind bars for decades is simply not necessary.

Most of the costs are forced upon the families, children, and communities of incarcerated people. Once released from imprisonment, former inmates earn less money and die earlier than those who have never been incarcerated, and this undoubtedly adds to the massive social costs.

In 2016, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that when accounting for the social costs of incarceration, the price tag for the American prison system jumps to over $1 trillion. Most of the costs are forced upon the families, children, and communities of incarcerated people. Once released, former inmates earn less money and die earlier than those who have never been incarcerated, and this undoubtedly adds to the massive social costs.

However you look at it, imprisoning people is expensive. One out of five of those incarcerated in local, state, and federal prisons is a nonviolent drug offender. Releasing these people would offer savings upfront and also curb the long-term growth of criminal justice spending by lowering recidivism rates.

The national debt continues to tick upward, and Congress doesn’t seem eager to address it before the elections in November. Lowering the cost of imprisonment and giving people their lives back, however, is a simple and moral bipartisan victory.

Further Reading

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