Is Selling Drugs the Way Out?
I recently read an article in "The Nation" magazine by journalist Sasha Abramsky titled The War Against the War on Drugs. This article details how state budget deficits across the country are pushing politicians, state prison and law enforcement officials to reconsider the premise that we can incarcerate our way out of America's deep-rooted social and economic problems. This idea came to prominence in 1980 when Ronald Reagan and the law and order 'tough on crime' crowd supplanted LBJ's 'Great Society' with a new 'Mean Society' based on their knee- jerk reaction to the upheaval of the 1960's: riots, the drop- outs and hippie groups, civil rights protests, Black Power movement, etc. Attempting to accomplish and maintain this mass incarceration has greatly contributed to the current economic crisis which is bankrupting state budgets.
The article gives examples of different ways states are trying to deal with budget crisis. One example is California. California is currently under Federal Court order to release 55,000 prisoners and improve medical and mental health care. Yet California has a 10 Billion dollar prison budget and the state budget is in a 24 Billion dollar hole! One of California's answers for alleviating the short fall, I find almost amusing, if it wasn't so tragic in it's probable outcomes. California's answer is a bill in the state legislature to legalize the sale of Marijuana in California. The bill has been discussed on NPR radio and other national media. Ca1ifornia's state House is seriously considering this bill. Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is not dismissing the idea. His office has been careful to stress they dont advocate the bill, but the Governor did concede he thinks the time is ripe to debate the issue. Here is what I find amusing about this.
I have talked in detail with numerous inmates preparing to make parole and how they will try to make a living and remain out of prison. Many of these men are ex-drug dealers and think they have the perfect plan. They believe they cannot obtain a well enough paying job to live the lifestyle they desire. For one reason or another, that job is very illusive. Uh, maybe no qualifications and no initiative to get any. Ah, you think? Eureka! I know, sell Marijuana. They reason that, firstly, it is very lucrative and a less dangerous or seedy business than pushing harder drugs, i.e., Cocaine or Heroin. Secondly, Law Enforcement agencies don't pursue marijuana sales as aggressively. I have always argued against this stating the ills it does to communities and individual lives, usually to no avail. Well, I guess our government leaders and drug dealers think a lot a like.
Seriously, I want to stress to you there is a movement to change this mass incarceration in our country. That movement needs well thought out solutions not just money gimmicks. The economic crisis has created the perfect storm to make the hard liners rethink their mantra of 'tough on crime' and consider 'smart on crime'. I want to encourage you to take part in this discussion. A solution of mine that would help the State of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has 4,847 prisoners serving life sentences, 581 of them have over thirty years in prison. I am one of those 581. Pennsylvania spends on average over $50,000 a year on each one of these men and the amount goes up each year as they age and contract the illnesses of old age. To have thirty years in prison, except in very rare cases, you are over the age of 50. Numerous studies have invariably shown that men over 50 with more than twenty five years in prison, for any crime, have recidivism rates that dip below zero percent to a decimal percentage. Comparatively, other prisoners recidivism rates have remained steadily in the high 70's and above for decades. Basically we, lifers and long timers, dont come back to prison. The government does these studies and knows these truths. But the politicians have repeated the 'tough on crime' mantra for so long they have become frozen in their inability to act on the truth. They have convinced themselves and their constituents of a fallacy that leaves no room for dialogue. So nowhere in the discussion about the current budget crisis in Pennsylvania do we hear talk of reducing the prison population by releasing some of these harmless old men. There are proven inexpensive and safe ways to accomplish this and save the state approximately $30 million dollars a year. Where is the dialogue?
On the National level, Virginia Senator Jim Webb has legislated a blue- ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Reform, with a mandate to put all questions on the table during its eighteen month tenure. Please write, email or call Senator Webb's office as well as the Commission and take part in this discussion. Senator Webb, in a recent floor speech stated, We have 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's known prison population. Either we have the most evil people on the earth living in the United States or we are doing something dramatically wrong.
Well Pennsylvania has the country's largest number of lifers per prisoner of any state in the Union. What does that say about Pennsylvanians? Jesus admonished us all that we should look after the least of us and the prisoner. Well, selling marijuana is no moral solution. I ask you where will these sales of marijuana have the greatest negative affect? What communities suffer from these sales? The same communities that will suffer from budgets cuts? Communities that already have an over abundance of alcohol and cigarette abuse? Where? There is an old political adage that says 'as California goes , so goes the nation. Is that where we are heading? Can't we find a better solution than selling weed. That solution has failed again and again for the under-educated, desperate, morally corrupted, drug dealer trying to find a new softer way to get rich and stay out of prison, while exploiting the misery of others with immunity?
Is that the best we can come up with in a moment of fiscal crisis? I believe we can do better. Please participate.
Robert Wideman, AP3468
P.O. Box 99991
Pittsburgh, PA 15233