Prison Reform and the Failing War on Drugs

With many important issues this election including the budget deficit, unemployment rates, social security, and medicare, it is not surprising that a lot of other issues are being put on the back burner.

One issue of importance to me is the over-population of our incarceration system.

The United States currently has an incarcerated population of 2.3 million. China, with quadruple the total population of the US, has only 1.6 million inmates. I believe that the United States needs to drastically reform our prison system, as it is clear that we are incarcerating too frequently, and for too petty of crimes. Nationally, we spend $47 billion dollars a year on criminal correction, which  has grown at a rate only secondary to medicare. Transferring non-violent prisoners out of prisons and into county jails or onto parole would be an easy way to cut into our budget deficit, while at the same time making the prison system much more manageable.

This map shows number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens

Part of the blame for our over-flooded prison system is the failed War on Drugs. The War on Drugs was a term coined byRichard Nixon in 1972 to describe the policies to limit availability and abuse of illegal drugs. Currently, 1 in 5 inmates in prisons are there for drug-related offenses. Despite this, illegal drugs like heroine and cocaine are even more prominent and cheaper than they were in the 70’s. The War on Drugs is simply failing. Many economists and sociologists have talked about a different method of drug control: legalization. At first glance, legalizing drugs like cocaine, heroine, and methamphetamine seems like a recipe for disaster, but it may be that legalization and regulation could be a practical solution. Furthermore, legalization might benefit the economy as well. Jeffrey Miron, an economics professor at Harvard, claims that legalizing all drugs would cut $65 billion in costs associated with enforcement and incarceration.

Although it is easy to see that the current prison is in need of reform, it may not be so simple to fix it. While we can potentially get the non-violent offenders out of the prison system, the US still has the highest violent crime rate of any country. The underlying problem is the widespread crime rate in the country, which is a problem that is much more difficult to solve. Whether the answer lies in welfare, education, I believe that the overcrowding of prisons is just the tip of a much larger problem.

Over-incarceration is a growing problem, but neither Mitt Romney or Barack Obama has spoken on the issue. I believe its time they did. Prison reform is a topic that encompasses issues including immigration and the drug trade, gun control, and even the budget deficit.



5 thoughts on “Prison Reform and the Failing War on Drugs

  1. Roger, I like that you chose a real hard hitting topic that doesn’t necessarily apply to the political polarization that many other people are posting about. In The Wire, which I posted about last week, there’s a famous scene where a character named Carver goes, “Girl, you can’t even call this shit a war…..Wars end.” Here it is ( start at 2:00). And this couldn’t be more true. For a long time now, gangs and drugs have dominated many of the major cities in America. Is it possible that in order to finally make real progress a bold move like what Roger is suggesting might be necessary?

  2. I actually just wrote a paper for another class regarding the implications of US drug policy on Latin American nations (specifically Colombia). It’s pretty amazing to see how much the United States’ War on Drugs impacts other nations. It’s just interesting to think about what the impact would be worldwide if we as a nation decided to decriminalize certain non-violent drug related incidents. Who knows what kind of impact that could have for our prison system domestically and for other nations across the globe?

  3. As much as I agree that many people serve jail time for crimes that should not be considered punishable through incarceration, I think the real problem lies with our education system. By using programs like D.A.R.E to educate the country’s youths about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, we help spread awareness about problems that can lead to someone spending time in jail. However, these programs are too few and far between. In high school, our only drug education was in health class, and it was not nearly as informational as any academic class. The curriculum for these courses needs to be revisited in order to better educate children on the future consequences of their actions.

  4. I think this was a really interesting choice to discuss. I remember in high school we had mock elections and almost every group was for the legalization and regulation to marijuana. But I have never considered the legalization of other more serious drugs. I feel like the medical benefits of marijuana make it a reasonable choice and the sale of it as a prescription or if they decided to sell it for recreational use, would definitely help boost the economy. As for cocaine, heroine, etc. however, some things should stay illegal. There need to be consequences for using such drugs.

    I agree that education is where it all begins though. The younger we start educating children on the dangers of drug abuse, the more likely they will remember the information and stay away.

    • Ha ha. Now I will sound a little like Meg. I am doubtful that after the money spent on education to reduce drug use, it has made much of an impact. I need some data to back this up, but since we can throw out ideas here.

      I think counter drug programs for youth would be better off to provide alternatives, meaningful education in other areas, and work opportunities. One way to get at the supply problem is, rather than trying to arrest people who enter the drug trade to make money, see if many of them can be wooed away by other legit jobs. Look, most people would rather make a little less money and not risk jail and death then make a lot more and risk prison and death.

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