Mass Incarceration? Change the Drug Policy.

The theme of the conference was “Mass Incarceration,” but as I participated in the 2012 Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (a Chicago-based event that drew a national audience), I found myself thinking about the so-called “War on Drugs” more and more. It occurred to me that most of the talking points for exploring this subject also apply to the “War on Drugs.” Yet, for those engaged in education on the forefront of these two issues, “Mass Incarceration” seems like a milder term with which to begin a national debate that ultimately has to address characteristics of the more controversial “War on Drugs.”

“Mass Incarceration” and the “War on Drugs” cannot be divided into two mutually exclusive subjects of investigation. Mass incarceration refers to the ballooning effect that drug policy has had on the prison population over the last 40 years. Though our prisons house people incarcerated for crimes of violence, crimes against property, and sex offenses, the rate of occurrence for these offenses has fluctuated very little over the years. But, as a result of the “War on Drugs,” incarceration rates for drug offenses have seen a substantial increase. The Department of Correction reports that 70% of the current Illinois prison population is there for either drug possession, drug-related, or a drug-involved offense.

Our tendency to rail against “mass incarceration” and move cautiously, even timidly into a discussion concerning the “War on Drugs,” is nothing new. It can be seen when associated with tragedies like just occurred in Aurora, Colorado, just days ago on July 21, 2012. Polling results tells us that voters are uneasy when questioned about Second Amendment authority or gun control. But when asked about component pieces thereof, voters are overwhelming in favor of restrictions on the number of weapons and amounts of ammunition an individual should be allowed. Background checks, waiting periods, and bans on assault weapons all poll better when the term “gun control” is not used.

We as citizens criticize disproportionate minority contact, and the waste land of human potential created by felony stigmatization and disenfranchisement, but we tend to think of any retreat from the “War on Drugs” as throwing in the towel on the evils of addictions and giving up the dream of a sober society. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

What is really needed, now, are game-changing ideas and solutions brought to bear on what we currently understand as drug policy. The general public needs to understand that our drug policies do not necessarily address addiction as a disease for which there are successful standards of treatment with reasonably high, as well as cost-effective, cure rates. Our purpose in the “War on Drugs” has not been to return prisoners to useful citizenship; if useful citizenship had been our goal, we would have never used the blunt instruments of punishment, prison, and the public promulgation of criminal records. This is clearly becoming understood as a bitter medicine that causes more long-term distress and hardship than the disease it seeks to cure.

When we decide that it is time to have a substantive discussion concerning drug policy in our state and nation, “mass incarceration” will take care of itself!

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