Category Archives: Decriminalization

Sentencing Hiccup

What formula can we use to convert size of mistake into years of your life? A friend recently passed along a story about a soldier from Fort Hood who shot and killed his friend in a misguided attempt to cure him of the hiccups.

As someone who develops hiccups routinely, my immediate thought was “Thank goodness none of my friends own a gun!” Then I read the article. Turns out this guy got 3.5 years for involuntary manslaughter. And now I’m wondering: How do you convert idiocy into years in prison? Are we afraid that if he doesn’t go to jail that he’ll continue to kill anyone whose diaphragm is acting up? Were years shaved off the sentence because he was already suffering from losing a friend? And of course: How many years would a Black soldier have been given?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have an answer to any of these questions. And in the time that I’ve been researching this stuff, I haven’t seen anyone else whip out a calculator. (To be fair, I choose my sources pretty selectively, so I might’ve missed this.)

Let’s say that a bunch of decision-makers read my blog and call a meeting to order and set a formula. What variables should they include?

How about this: instead of seeking the right number of years to punish someone, let’s seek the right number of years to prevent this crime in the future. And if the answer is “0,” don’t assume that you’ve miscalculated.

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New Jersey diversion program sparks familiar debate

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is promoting the use of treatment before prison for low-level drug offenders. Though Christie promotes this as a money saving venture and is interested in diverting only the lowest-level offenders, it’s still lovely to see any moves away from expanding the prison system.

Ironically, the most significant objections to this move come from advocates for addicts. Elizabeth Thompson of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance argued, “It takes months for the general population to get help, but if you get arrested you’d get help more quickly. I question the fairness of that.” Check out the story here.

True dat, Ms. Thompson. But what’s the real problem here: that people who have committed crimes might receive the kind of assistance that would allow them to stay drug – and crime – free? Or that New Jersey has thus far failed to provide enough resources for everyone to get the help they need in a timely manner?

Fifteen years ago, a similar debate went on in New York state. Corrections Officer unions were up in arms about the public education grants that incarcerated people were receiving which made college education in prisons a possibility. CO’s in New York facilities were cheesed off that incarcerated people were getting free college educations while they couldn’t afford to send their children to college.

Instead of this race to the bottom in which no one wins, Thompson and other critics should be asking why the government can’t shell out money for drug treatment resources for all. Certainly if they weren’t paying to incarcerate roughly 7,000 drug offenders they’d have some extra bill$ to throw around.

Oh, and the folks who objected to the use of public education grants for incarcerated people were successful. Grants for higher education were revoked, and college programs were pulled out of correctional facilities state wide. I’m pretty sure that the working class still has just as much trouble paying for their kids’ education, but on the bright side at least we’re not coddling those darned criminals anymore.

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Fruit for thought: The War on Drugs

It’s comforting to think that the War on Drugs is fought something like the Civil War: an army of American cops and judges and politicians bands together to take down a rebel army of foreign and domestic meanies who are bringing drugs and trouble into this country so that they can afford in-ground pools and classic cars. Each army hauls out their  muskets and as long as we keep throwing money at the War on Drugs our criminal justice system shall prevail.

Tragically, I don’t believe that there really is a neatly organized Drug Army out there just waiting for some tricky-ass general to take them by surprise after a nice long Christmas bender (or something like that). As Kentucky State Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown put it:

“I don’t think we’re getting the worst drug lords into the prisons. We’re just getting the people who went out and got caught. It’s the low-hanging fruit.”*

So much for the Civil War model. Maybe the War on Drugs looks more like this:

Charming illustrations aside, I would be one sour grape if I was the low-hanging casualty in the War on Drugs. Since we haven’t figured out a great way to stop drug use or drug-related violence through penalizing the fruit, mayhaps it’s about time to try something different?

*I pulled that quote from the Pew Center’s wonderful report “One in 100: Behind Bars in American in 2008.” Check it out for terrific facts and figures.

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Harm minimization

In 1999, Portugal had a serious drug problem. One percent of the nation’s people were addicted to heroin. Folks were dying of overdoses, health complications, and H.I.V. due to sharing needles. The prisons were full, and the government was exasperated.

In a last ditch effort to do something, Portugal decriminalized personal drug use. They still prosecute drug dealers and traffickers, but people with less than a ten-day supply of pretty much any drug are generally sent to counseling, not prison. They call this “harm minimization” because it’s focused on reducing violence, disease, overdoses, and other threats to the health and safety of both addicts and the rest of the population.

I recently read Michael Specter’s “Getting a Fix,” a New Yorker article that compares Portugal’s approach to that taken in the U.S. He asks whether the “harm minimization” approach is working: Are incarceration rates down? Hospitalizations due to drugs? HIV and AIDS? The answer, for Portugal, is yes.

But he misses what I believe is the more important point when he fails to discuss the qualitative benefits of resisting the urge to incarcerate folks picked up once, or twice, or even ten times for simple possession. Above all, those people are allowed to continue living their lives. They can be productive employees, parents, partners. They won’t have to worry about re-entry stresses like finding a new job, getting a driver’s license back, or simply re-learning how to grocery shop. 

I like the phrase “harm minimization.” It’s an appropriate description of the way we approach loved ones with substance abuse issues. If you find out that your mother is an alcoholic, for example, you might be angry or frustrated, but my guess is that your ultimate goal will be to minimize harm – help her recover from her dependency while impeding as little as possible on the rest of her life. In fact, the vast majority of legal and illegal substance dependency problems are already treated this way, in America and elsewhere, through family intervention, private treatment, and emotional support.

No ones likes when someone they care about has an alcohol or drug problem, but we don’t typically advocate for our friends and family to be incarcerated, either. As a nation, Portugal has starting treating their citizens as though they care about them, and their families. Wouldn’t it be neat if we adopted a similar national stance?

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