On Father's Day this year, I thought it might be fun to pop our old home movies into the VCR. Everyone except our son John would be coming to our house to honor their dad, grandpa and great-grandpa. Many of the grandchildren and all of the great-grandchildren had not seen the movies, showing what their parents and grandma looked like, from infancy through high school.
I watched my sweet babies on the screen, first with amusement and then nostalgia. The scenes of John, especially, tugged at my heart. What a sweet, happy little boy he was - loving baseball and his neighborhood buddies, shooting pool as he got into high school, still enjoying going out to eat with Mom and Dad on Friday nights through high school graduation.
I remember taking him, just barely 18, to Iowa State, knowing he really wasn't ready to go away to school. He came home after the first year with mostly incompletes in all subjects except one: drinking. He was a changed young man. John drank with his construction buddies, drank with his school buddies, drank by himself.
My husband, Ray, and I watched in denial, horror and sadness before finally accepting that John has an illness; that he's an alcoholic. He married a great woman, had a beautiful son and a good job at Meredith printing. But he was jailed on DUI charges multiple times and eventually lost his job, his wife and son, and his self-respect. Then came methamphetamine addiction.
On July 3, he turned 50 in prison, serving his 10th year of a federal sentence on drug and weapons charges.
Today, when Ray and I visit him in prison, we again see a changed man, one who takes full responsibility for his actions. Yet he faces 12 more years in prison. That's not just a waste of John's life, but a waste of the nation's resources in keeping hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders like him behind bars.
First Alcohol, Then Meth
In his 20s and 30s, John had 30-day treatment several times. We now know that effective treatment and behavior modification take far longer. He'd go into treatment, then relapse, each time worse than before. As an alcoholic, he preferred booze as his drug of choice, but would use any drug someone would supply. On and on it went, getting and losing jobs, spiraling deeper and deeper into alcohol and drugs, finally living in squalor with so-called friends in the basement of an inner-city house.
At age 40, he discovered meth and was immediately addicted. As research now tells us, there is an addictive gene that manifests in different ways, such as obsessive-compulsive behavior, alcoholism or other aberrant behavior.
John would drive his "friends" to a small town to party with girls, drink and use drugs. He was driving (without a valid license, of course), when police found drugs in his car. All his "friends" denied any knowledge of the drugs. John alone was tried and convicted, sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. There is no parole in the federal system, and prisoners must serve 85 percent of their sentences. John will be 62 when he's released.
Based on reviews of his case by three attorneys, we believe his civil rights were violated at trial. But a one-year deadline to press for a new trial based on a claim of rights violations passed without our knowledge.
2.2 Million Behind Bars
John has said all along that he needed to be sent somewhere for longer than 30-day treatment, probably for several years, to learn about his illness and how to overcome it. But neither he nor we believe prison is the answer for nonviolent offenders, who hurt only themselves and those who love them. There's no evidence it works, and it takes people away from the support system of those who love them.
And consider the cost -- an estimated $23,000 a year to house an inmate in federal prison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Keeping John in prison for one year would come close to covering the tuition and fees for a student at any of Iowa's three public universities for their four-year undergraduate career.
There are 2.2 million Americans in prison today. The U.S. incarceration rate in 2004 was the highest in the world, at 724 per 100,000 population, according to a report by The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group. Second was Russia, at 564. For more than 30 years, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails has steadily risen, the report said.
Yet drug use remains rampant, while dollars for effective treatment are spent in separating people from their families, caged away like animals, without treatment, keeping them from becoming productive citizens. If you can find no sympathy for these addicts, at least be outraged at how your tax dollars are being spent.
Law changes are needed to bring back parole, double time for good behavior and release nonviolent offenders so they can start rebuilding useful lives. But politicians continue to campaign on punitive, tough-on-drugs platforms.
Contact your congressmen to demand that there be a complete change in our prison laws. Demand they represent the people's voice, rather than being concerned solely with getting re-elected. Let's put bad people away, but spend our tax dollars better. Murderers spend less time in prison than our son and others like him. Is this who we want among us? Murderers or drinkers?
Wasting Lives, Dollars
Our son readily laments that he was not a good father, son, brother or husband. Those regrets will be with him every minute of every day for the rest of his life. He longs to be where he can make at least some amends for what he's done. He's truly rehabilitated and is no longer a threat to himself or society.
He has received no education or addiction treatment in prison. What a waste of all resources, human most of all, but surely of dollars as well, to keep him imprisoned 12 more years. Is this overkill or just plain mean-spiritedness?
Fran and Ray Koontz live in Des Moines. Fran Koontz is a planning and zoning commissioner and president of the Accent neighborhood association.
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