Treatment Not Prison

Over the past two years, drug policy reform has become one of the top issues on PCG’s agenda. For those who might wonder why, I offer the following comment of David Simon, producer of the celebrated television series The Wire in an April 2009 interview with Bill Moyers:

"The people most affected by this (the war on drugs) are black and brown and poor. It’s the abandoned inner cores of our urban areas… We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not…. These are really the excess people in America — our economy doesn’t need them."
"Capitalism is the only engine credible enough to generate mass wealth. But if everybody’s not benefiting on some level and if you don’t have a sense of shared purpose, national purpose, then all it is is a pyramid scheme. All it is, is — who’s standing on top of whose throat?"

An unfair assessment? Hardly.

Initiated under Richard Nixon in 1971 as an alternative to the War on Poverty, the "War on Drugs" has turned the United States into a prisoner nation. At any given moment, one of every 32 Americans is under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. Our per capita figure exceeds any other nation.

The impact on minorities, especially African Americans, is shameful and frightening: one study shows that a black male born in 1991 has a 29 percent chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life. More African Americans enter the justice system than enter college. Leaving prison with a felony on their records, they face a society that offers little hope of "a second chance." More than 50% are re-incarcerated within three years.

Two years ago, the Board of Protestants for the Common Good called for "the redirection of public policies, at every level of government, toward the treatment of all forms of substance abuse as a public health challenge."

Such a seismic change in national and state policy will not be won in a single year. But in this Advent season 2009, there is hope.

PCG staff this year are taking the lead in supporting HB 4222, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act. This legislation, first introduced in the Illinois House last year, provides that any person convicted of a "‘nonviolent drug possession offense" receive probation and the opportunity for drug treatment rather than prison.

The bill is modeled on California’s Proposition 36, which passed in November 2000. The precedent is promising. In its first five years, the new law resulted in more than 140,000 individuals receiving treatment instead of prison or jail time. The number in prison for drug possession offenses decreased by 32% and saved California over $500 million dollars in reduced prison construction and incarceration costs.

The "War on Drugs" did not create a racial underclass in American society but it has made it worse, much worse. Perhaps there is the possibility of atonement if all of us work together to reverse the damage in the months and years ahead. We will keep you apprised of the steps you can take as the General Assembly reconvenes in January, 2010.

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