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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Helping Mexico, Helping Ourselves

Today's Boston Globe has an OpEd by Mr Derrick Z Jackson on sentencing in drug cases.  I have some fundamental policy disagreements with Mr Jackson, but when he is right, he is right--and often he is.  This is one of those cases.

There are two issues here.  The larger is the very high rates of incarceration in the United States, especially for minorities.  The other is the fact that we are putting people in jail for drug use when we should be putting them in treatment.

What does all of this have to do with Mexico?  Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state on our southern border because of the criminal transportation of drugs across its land, so those drugs can be smuggled into these United States.  That is to say, our demand for illegal drugs is helping mightily to create their nightmare.  Not just their nightmare, but also a nightmare for Columbia and other Latin American nations.  And what about the poppy growing in Afghanistan, where profits help finance the Taliban?

One of the things we could do is legalize illegal drugs and then tax them, the way we tax cigarettes and alcohol. I have flirted with that idea, but I am not yet ready to take the leap of faith that says repeal of Prohibition (The Twenty-first Amendment), which pretty much worked for alcohol, would work for drugs.

I believe that before we take the radical step of legalizing drugs (medicinal marijuana excepted, which should be legalized now), we should make a concerted effort at rehabilitation.  Not the cut rate approach, but one that is serious and invested in for the long term.  If we have a 40% success rate it would represent a major reduction in our prison population and thus a major reduction in the number of students in the school of criminal action--the prisons.

I would argue that we need to set up hospital like settings and work on long term treatment, counseling and vocational training.  Especially with the economy the way it is, there is no need to rush people in and out of treatment.  Let them have a chance to really build a new life.

Do I expect there will be folks who drop out along the way?  Absolutely.  We are dealing with our fellow human beings.  Some will drop out at various stages along the way.  But, a 40% success rate will still be great.  The idea that by allowing no failures we make life better for the police or the courts is foolish and short sighted.

Here is a conclusion from 1999 by the New York City Comptroller on Drug Treatment Programs (DTP):
Our first major research finding is that successful completion of DTP’s exerts an independent and considerable impact on reducing recidivism rate.  The recidivism rate for those who successfully completed DTP’s was 38.5 percent, almost half the rate (73.6 percent) for those who did not go or failed to complete programs.  In our sample, for a typical unemployed probationer with or without previous convictions at the time of his arrest or re-arrest, successful DTP participation reduces the chance of recidivism by approximately 30 percent.  Our finding demonstrates that sending probationers with drug problems to DTP’s and ensuring their completion of the assigned program is an effective way to prevent recidivism.
The other side of the coin is that drugs and crime are related to some degree.  If you are addicted and can't get your drug of choice due to lack of money, you will look for ways, legal and illegal, to get that money.

The "War on Drugs" is going much more poorly than any other war we are engaged in at this time, including Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been at it for a couple of decades. It is time for a new strategy and new tactics.  Not to bring up a whole new fight, but the Surge in Iraq was not just about increasing the number of US Service members in Iraq.  It was about changing how we did things.  The same should apply to the war on drugs.

And, in order not to short change Mr Jackson, the distinction between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine is a mistaken policy based upon mistaken knowledge at the time.  We need to move on and correct this error, both for the future, but also, in terms of those serving time in prison, for the past.

This is the future of the United States we are holding in our hands and we need to take action and do it now.  It isn't about new buildings, but about applying people and time to a very serious problem.

My parting cheap shot--if you are for health care, you should really be for drug rehab.  It is a medical as well as an economic and legal issue.

Regards  --  Cliff

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