Tuesday Talks: Drugs & Criminal Justice

On Tuesday, August 9, Greater Scheme contributors John Buterbaugh and Patrick Wood discussed drugs and criminal justice with guest contributor David Liggera.
JOHN BUTERBAUGH: Okay, so, we’re discussing Drugs & Criminal Justice today. David, why don’t you start off by touching on some of the issues you’re seeing and some potential solutions to those problems.
DAVID LIGGERA: I suppose the first example that comes to mind is Obama’s recent commuting of… 214 drug-related sentences? The idea that a minimum punishment exists for possession, and that it’s as byzantine as it is, is truly worrying.
JOHN: I think Obama commuting sentences is a good step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the problem is that there are so many more of these cases at the state level, and I haven’t heard of many instances of governors commuting drug-related sentences other than Terry McAuliffe in Virginia. His motivation was different though. He wasn’t trying to eliminate non-violent offenses from a felon’s record but rather he wanted to restore voting rights to people convicted of a crime, many of whom were African-American.
DAVID: That too – current drug laws seem to disproportionately affect minority populations. It really is worrying, especially with regards to voting rights. Does possession really warrant surrendering such essential civil liberties?
JOHN: Absolutely not. I mentioned in an article earlier that the War on Drugs was a deliberate attempt to discriminate against the black community. It’s simply destroyed their community rather than stop drug addiction. We need to focus on treating it as a public health issue, and we need to put the pressure on our elected leaders to change it.
PATRICK WOOD: I agree. The Drug War is deeply racist in its implementation and enforcement. Some of the evidence is extremely clear. For instance, whites and blacks use marijuana at very similar rates, yet black Americans are punished for it 3-4 times as often. Stiff penalties for drug use do very little to curb addiction. In fact, jail time lowers one’s employment prospects after release, which may lead to more drug use, or perhaps violent crime. I think all drugs should be decriminalized, if not legalized.
John is absolutely right, it’s time to treat drug use and drug addiction as a serious public health problem, not a criminal one.
JOHN: I wanted to ask either of you guys how there is such a high incarceration rate in America. There surely is no way all though inmates are in there for drug-related “crimes,” but is there? What am I missing here?

DAVID: Absolutely! I think such a change in public perception would be vital to bringing forth positive changes.

Don’t use this in a paper, but this page suggests that the prison population exploded in the 1980s, and that most offenders (60%) are nonviolent. (The Facts about American Prisons: Separating economic myths from economic truthsreason.com)
PATRICK: I think Ending the War on Drugs would decrease our inmate population by over a third. I believe about a third are currently there for drug-related offenses. Others may be there for something they did as a result of their inability to make a living in an honest way – a criminal record hampering employment opportunities.
JOHN: There are still 40% of them being violent offenders. Was law enforcement creating harsher sentences for less serious violent crimes? And would eliminating the drug offenders from our prisons knock us off from having the #1 highest incarceration rate in the world?
PATRICK: I imagine lowering the population by 33%+ would do so, absolutely.
JOHN: I think Patrick brings up a good point. The recidivism rate, or the rate at which people continue to commit undesirable behaviors, is an issue.
PATRICK: I think the Drug War actually induces people to engage in illegal activity they otherwise wouldn’t. The clearest example is someone who is a nonviolent hard drug user or seller who is mixed with violent inmates in prison and emerges without job prospects. S/he may turn to violent crime after release.
JOHN: If we use the data from PrisonStudies.org, it looks like the U.S. would drop down a few places but it would still be the industrialized nation with the highest incarceration rate. But that recidivism rate could be an indirect result of drugs and that would go down more if we help those on parole get a job and move on with their lives.
DAVID: Pretty much – I mean, compare our prisons to those in, say, Norway. We seem to focus much more on punitive methods (Ie, we’re going to punish you as hard as possible) rather than, well, more restorative methods. I agree with both of you, prisoners simply aren’t given tools to move toward another path.
JOHN: And the Netherlands has such low crimes they are taking prisoners in from Belgium, I think! Why don’t we do that? If we’re addicted to incarceration because it does provide jobs, why don’t we just import prisoners, like, I don’t know, from Guantanamo Bay? (And they were taking in prisoners from Belgium because they wanted to fill in prisons.)
PATRICK: Can I just butt in to say how sick it is that we have private prisons? This is a whole industry that wants/needs a high incarceration rate.
JOHN: But how do we challenge that? How do we get rid of that? It’s a big money deal. It’s quite a Goliath, and I feel like David without a stone.

PATRICK: Raising our voices is a start. And David beat Goliath. Progressive outrage over this system has even gotten Hillary Clinton, a centrist Democrat, to say it’s flawed.

DAVID: Admittedly, I don’t have a stone right now! And yes – I do think that public perception about private jails and drug sentencing is starting to change in a more progressive manner. It really just does seem like something that will just take some time to change.
JOHN: And what is the real difference between privatized prisons and public prisons? It sounds like taxpayers are still paying for the privatized ones. So, what? Is it like a 5% discount? Buy one prisoner, get one free? And I’m partly joking, but I think that’s fair because the whole system sounds like a real joke.

PATRICK: It is. And not only do we have people in prison for silly reasons, we have placed them in uncaring hands. The more the private company that owns and runs the prison skimps on providing for the inmates, the more money they make.

DAVID: It’s truly disgusting.

JOHN: Now I’d imagine at least one of you has seen Orange Is the New Black. What do you think of the show presenting an accurate picture of the system? Do you think it’s a truthful depiction or is it simply a show that aims to be entertaining? I know it’s based on a book about real events so…
PATRICK: Interesting you should mention that. In OITNB, Litchfield prison goes from public to private and the quality of living of the inmates goes from poor to abysmal.
DAVID: I’ve actually never seen it! I don’t watch much TV.
JOHN: I mean, I know for sure they took some liberties with the characters and all…
DAVID: I hate to say it, but it makes sense. Now every liberty and luxury the prisoners have is a hit to your bottom line.
PATRICK: I like that they included “Crazy Eyes”. A staggering percentage of gen pop in our prisons suffer from mental illness.
JOHN: And they probably don’t do enough to treat those people.
DAVID: Or anything at all, really.
JOHN: It really seems like an excuse not to take any responsibility for other human beings. And they just play it off as criminals being criminals and deserving everything they get
DAVID: Yep – gotta love the Just World fallacy.
JOHN: Are either of you familiar with Bryan Stevenson’s work? He just published Just Mercy — it looks really interesting.
DAVID: I am not!
PATRICK: Sadly I am not either.
JOHN: It’s a memoir about his experience defending an innocent man on death row. He touches on the issues with criminal justice. One example is that we don’t treat veterans with PTSD when they come back to the states and they up having either health or behavioral issues, get locked, become homeless, what have you. And it’s a greater cost to society to have people without homes. They had a housing first program in Utah that eliminated the costs of law enforcement and health interventions when they simply gave people homes.
PATRICK: Ah, yes, that was initiated when Jon Huntsman was governor. There are few Republicans I’d be happy seeing in the White House, but Huntsman might be one. It seems obvious in a way. I’m glad someone actually did it.
DAVID: It definitely was a step in the right direction!
JOHN: All right, I gotta go get dinner, guys. Let’s meet again next Tuesday.
PATRICK: Thank you for hosting this, John. This is a hugely important topic, and I’m optimistic positive change will arrive soon.
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