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Jailhouse Blues

460,000 busted for drugs--and counting

By Kelly Virella

NEARLY one quarter of America's prisoners--almost 460,000 people--are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses, reports a disturbing new study released by the Justice Policy Institute, a think-tank advocating criminal-justice reform.

That number reflects a staggering increase in drug-related convictions over the past decade--from 38,541 in 1986 to 148,092 in 1996. The cost of incarcerating these nonviolent drug offenders nationwide will rise to $9.4 billion this year, the report says.

"America does indeed have a drug problem," states Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute and co-author of the report. "And that problem is that we've focused on imprisonment as the near-exclusive solution to substance abuse, while giving short shrift to treatment and prevention."

Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Michigan, used the occasion of the report's release to introduce legislation that would divert more nonviolent drug offenders from incarceration to rehabilitation. "The casualties from this nation's drug war have continued to mount, with no end in sight," says Conyers. "Only by breaking the cycle of abuse, trafficking, and incarceration can we find a way out of this nightmare."

"We are spending $9 billion to guarantee recidivism," a senior member of Conyers' staff added. "Without intervention, these offenders will end up in jail for life or get out and become permanent SSI [disability payment] recipients."

The legislation Conyers proposed is an omnibus bill aggregating several drug reform initiatives, including more funding for treatment, alternative sentencing guidelines, greater post-treatment support, and a new program to ease the offenders' re-entry into society.

In an important departure from previous legislation, Conyers' bill would vest federal judges, rather than prosecutors, with the discretion to divert nonviolent offenders to treatment. Prosecutors who must choose between treatment and incarceration face a natural conflict of interest, Conyers' staff member said.

Though their actions may not yet reflect it, political players over a wide spectrum are starting to agree that treatment for drug abuse is more effective than punishment. However, the definition of "treatment" has become a contentious battleground, with legislators locking heads over issues such as who should qualify for treatment, how extensive it should be, and who decides which offenders to treat and which to jail.

Conyers' bill notwithstanding, most of these battles are being fought at the state level. In Arizona, the runaway success of a quite extensive treatment program has inspired reformers in other states to push their treatment laws further. Californians, who already have special "drug courts," will soon vote on Proposition 36, a statewide initiative that would mandate treatment over incarceration for certain drug crimes, instead of just making treatment an option.

Although the proposition would save an estimated $100 million to $150 million a year, opponents of the measure argue it is the wrong approach. "Proposition 36 will seriously undermine effective drug treatment in California by preventing judges from instituting sanctions like short periods of jail time to change the behavior of uncooperative patients," said the spokeswoman for Californians United against Drug Abuse, a group opposed to Proposition 36. These opponents describe the measure as a ruse that "decriminalizes drugs" and prefer that greater funding be allocated for more treatment under the current system, in which judges divert offenders from incarceration on a case-by-case basis.

The spokesman for the California Campaign for New Drug Policies, the organization that pushed Proposition 36 onto the November ballot, denied these characterizations of the measure. "What it boils down to is that we want to make everyone presumptively eligible for treatment--making treatment the norm, not the exception. We want to treat 95 percent of drug offenders, as opposed to the 5 percent we are treating now."

Similar battles are being waged in states across the nation, where harsh drug laws are taking serious social and economic tolls. In New York, a judicially driven reform effort has proposed to divert 10,000 drug offenders into treatment instead of incarceration. Michigan recently modified its mandatory sentencing system--one of the oldest in the country--to be less harsh for drug offenders.

DESPITE these changes, and although only 36 states have mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses, 48 states have drastically increased their drug-related incarcerations since 1986. California, Louisiana, and New Jersey led the pack with increases of 134 percent, 106 percent, and 85.6 percent, respectively.

Even without mandatory sentencing laws, many states have corralled more drug users into prison by policing more aggressively, issuing longer sentences, and abolishing parole, explains JPI's Schiraldi.

"Also, racial profiling and targeting neighborhoods that are predominantly black have created an influx into the criminal-justice system," he says. The statistics in the report echo this observation. "Blacks are incarcerated for a drug offense at a rate 14 times that of whites," the report states, "while survey data reveals that five times as many whites use drugs as blacks."

All of these issues were addressed in detail at the July 29 Shadow Convention in Philadelphia, emceed by media celebrity Arianna Huffington, and will be re-addressed at an Aug. 11 Shadow Convention in Los Angeles, both gatherings geared to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

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From the August 3-9, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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