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February 7, 2006 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)

Editorial: Find Alternatives To Prison

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Milwaukee County leads the state in the rate at which it sends defendants to prison for low-level, non-violent, drug-related offenses.

Does this county feature a bigger share of hanging judges than do other counties? Milwaukee County judges themselves don't see it that way. They told researchers they hated relying on prisons so heavily but lacked other options.

The state must give them those options. Wisconsin's practice of putting large numbers of non-violent offenders behind bars is wreaking all manner of havoc, as noted by a new study.

It is pauperizing the state, weakening inner city families and neighborhoods, ruining the job prospects of many residents and making hardened criminals out of low-level offenders.

The state is moving in the right direction but not fast enough. It has set aside a pot of money for drug treatment in lieu of prison, but it has failed to put sufficient funds in that pot. The study recommends putting in an additional $22 million a year -- advice the state should heed.

The Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Alliance commissioned Justice Strategies, a research organization, to do the study. The alliance is working with WISDOM, a Wisconsin group that consists of 125 congregations from 15 religious denominations and that promotes greater use of treatment and less use of imprisonment for drug users.

The study identified 2,900 current prison inmates with low-level, non-violent offenses and sparse criminal records. Taxpayers are keeping them in prison at a cost of $83 million a year.

Treatment and supportive services, in contrast, would cost taxpayers just $23 million a year and be much more effective in cutting recidivism.

The study notes that rates of illegal drug use are similar across racial lines. Imprisonment rates vary drastically, however, for non-violent drug offenses. The rate is four times that of whites for American Indians, nine times that of whites for Latinos and 37 times that of whites for African-Americans.

Treatment instead of prison would soften this harsh example of racial inequity.

Wisconsin leads the Midwest in per-capita expenditures for corrections. Minnesota, for example, spends half as much as Wisconsin does.

Minnesota, which boasts the nation's lowest rate of repeat offenses, relies more than does Dairyland on community-based alternatives to prison, the study notes.

The practice of imprisoning non-violent drug offenders is decimating the inner city, separating children from their parents, removing men from families and giving many Wisconsinites records that put many jobs out of reach -- raising the chances that they will offend again.

Gov. Jim Doyle and Madison lawmakers should read and heed this research report.

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