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March 24, 2005 - The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)

Column: Prison Not Best Way To Deal With Drug Use

By Roger Lauen And Daniel R. Merkle, Guest Columnists

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The state has built several new prisons -- adding more than 10,000 prison beds -- since 1988. The huge state deficit doesn't appear to deter prison promoters; they want to build another prison for almost $200 million, even though responsible alternatives exist. During this period, the state population grew 32 percent while the state's prison population grew a staggering 172 percent.

What's behind all this demand for more prisons despite the fact that crime has declined 21 percent between 1989 and 1999 and police arrests per crime are reported 13 percent down during the same period?

First, the failed "war on drugs" has filled jails and prisons with non-violent offenders who often have substance abuse and mental health problems.

Second, prosecutors' filings per arrest are up 40 percent and, as counties experience tremendous budgetary shortfalls, it is time the public demands that prosecutors focus on crimes against people and property.

Third, an overwhelming majority of the drug war defendants are poor and a disproportionate number are African American males. We must find a better way to deal with drug use, since we know it takes place in all racial and income groups.

Fourth, perhaps the most important group of decision-makers is state legislators. Although the '80s and '90s were periods where "tough on crime" was a favorite campaign slogan, genuine political leaders now realize they have to focus on being "smart on crime" and must develop sound and responsible alternatives to incarceration. The goal is to make our communities safer, not blindly punish people because they make mistakes.

Washington state and some local communities have made some good decisions over the past few years as we have begun downsizing the war on drugs. These suggestions will reduce prison-bed demand without risking public safety:

Tell legislators to support alternatives to incarceration and shorter sentences and reinvest the savings in treatment, job training, transitional housing and education. Let's give the new Department of Corrections director, Harold Clarke, an opportunity to work with others in further developing these alternatives as he has in other states.

Amend laws that mandate fixed and unreasonably lengthy prison sentences -- particularly for non-violent offenders and older inmates where studies show the possibility of re-offending is much lower and their health care costs are much greater.

Stop making charge, plea bargain, sentencing and prison release decisions based on crime type and give judges and corrections officials more discretion to evaluate the circumstances of the offense and the particular treatment and supervision needs of the offender.

One-third of the inmates released from the state's prison return for either technical rule violations or a new crime. This is an unacceptably high rate of recidivism and we believe Washington state can do better. To increase the success of returning inmates, we need to bolster the community treatment services (substance abuse treatment, employment services, affordable housing) and reduce structural barriers (12 percent interest rates on court-ordered fees; prohibiting licensure of select trades). If those community programs are better funded and more widely available to offenders, police and prosecutors will be more inclined to divert low-risk property and drug offenders to those programs in lieu of a prison sentence.

Washington state needs money for colleges, universities and human services, which all have higher demand than the existing supply provides. Let's start putting money into something we can be proud of and invest in our intellectual and economic future and the health and safety of our communities.

Roger Lauen, Ph.D., is a retired criminologist who lives on Bainbridge Island. Daniel R. Merkle, J.D., is the executive director of the Center for Social Justice in Seattle.

© 1998-2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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