A growing number of states are renouncing some of the long prison sentences that have been a hallmark of the war on drugs and instead focusing on treatment, which once-skeptical lawmakers now say is proven to be less expensive and more effective.And isn't this chart amazing?
Kentucky on Thursday became the latest to make the shift when Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law a measure increasing spending on rehabilitation programs and intensive drug testing. The law also reduces penalties for many drug offenses and may allow some traffickers and users of smaller amounts of drugs to avoid prison.
Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are among those that have pending bills to reduce penalties for drug offenders, in some cases by directing defendants into treatment programs. Similar laws have taken effect in South Carolina, Colorado and New York in recent years. States have maintained stiff penalties for more-serious drug crimes.
While the changes are part of broader belt-tightening efforts, they also reflect a growing belief among state lawmakers that prosecuting drug offenders aggressively often fails to treat their underlying addiction problems and can result in offenders cycling in and out of prisons for years—a critique long voiced by groups that advocate in favor of defendants' rights.
"If you just throw everyone in jail, it's terribly expensive and they get out and they are in the same boat," said Tom Jensen, a Republican state senator in Kentucky who voted in favor of the law.
That matches the pattern in Texas. In 2009, according to DPS' Uniform Crime Report data (pdf), Texas law enforcement made 133,191 arrests for drug possession, or 88.9% of all arrests for drug-related crimes. Further, 57.9% of all drug arrests in Texas that year were for marijuana, also mostly for user-level possession. Reducing small pot possession charges to Class C misdemeanors would free up county jail space and generate extra fine revenue at the local level. Meanwhile, in 2007 the fiscal note for a bill by state Rep. Harold Dutton, which would have reduced less-than-a-gram drug possession penalties from a state-jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor, estimated the measure would have cut state jail admissions by more than 8,700 per year. If passed along with reductions in marijuana penalties, the 8,700 extra misdemeanants would be more than made up for by clearing tens of thousands of pot cases from county courts and jails. Rep. Dutton has filed the same bills this session, and one of them is scheduled for a hearing in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee next Tuesday. (If the state really wants to save money on prison costs, they'd get even more bang for the buck by ratcheting down penalties for 1-4 grams to a state jail felony.)
Imprisoning drug addicts for possession isn't the sole driver of mass incarceration, but it's a big contributing factor. During a time of scarce resources, it makes sense to focus limited incarceration resources on more serious, dangerous offenders at both the state and county level. It's a fixable problem.
H/T Sentencing Law & Policy.