Empty the Prisons!!

I recently blogged about the sky-rocketing population in our nation’s prisons, reminding people that the United States imprisons more people that even Russia and Iran. Check out the article in The Economist at http://www.economist.com/node/16636027/print.

There are two reasons for this surge in prison population and the resulting surge in costs to the government for housing all these people.

1. Politicians, in response to rising crime levels in the 80’s (Once they peaked in those years, they’ve been falling ever since according to FBI statistics), all “got tough” on crime. The way they chose to do so was to pass more laws criminalizing more behaviors and increasing sentences. With every new politician who came into office, vowing to get tough on crime, the only way they could follow-up was to keep raising the penalties. This resulted in a huge increase in prisoners who now stay much longer than ever before.

2. The “War on Drugs” started under President Nixon sought to get the dealers and top people who were selling drugs in the U.S. Of course, some of these kingpins were caught, convicted, and sentenced. In my 30+ years of experience as both a defense lawyer and prosecutor, the reality is that most drug offenders are low-level users. Why? They’re easier to catch and convict. Even though these people fill up our prisons, they’re not the ones we really want to lock-up. Most are not dealers;–they’re users.

Consider that as the prison population ages, they will become “senior citizens” who will all need extensive medical care–can you imagine what that’ll cost us as taxpayers?

So, what to do about this?

There are two ideas:

1. Decriminalize some of the drug offenses. London tried an experimental program that offered hard-core heroin addicts free drugs. Sound crazy? They identified hard-core users, measured and controlled the dosages, and administered them by medical personnel. There was a corresponding drop in crime. How about decriminalizing marijuana? If we were to treat it like alcohol, control the purity and quantity, sell it only in licensed stores, and tax it heavily, that one drug alone may be able to pay for all the prisoners in custody today.

2. Establish diversion programs in the courts. A less radical idea than the first is to divert low-level drug offenders out of the criminal justice system. They would be monitored by probation officers, report regularly, and stay out of criminal trouble. This model is being used by many jurisdictions already with good results. Instead of sending these people to prison, they remain in the community under supervision unless they re-offend. It certainly eliminates a great percentage of the present prison population.

I can already hear the opposition to these ideas.

What do you think? Will this bring about the downfall of America? Let me know.

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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