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Why do we need to treat nonviolent drug offenders rather than imprisoning them? Well for starters, being in prison does absolutely nothing to address the source of the problem. Does being in prison help the drug offender curb their craving for drugs? Does it help the person deal with the reasons they have started using drugs in the first place? Absolutely not. These individuals, (drug offender) often find themselves in an even worse situation once they are in the system, especially now since they will have a criminal record thus leading to a very difficult time once it comes to obtaining employment. No matter which way you spin it, the taxpayer is paying for it no matter what. Whether it is through rehabilitation or prison, even the cost of fighting this war on drugs, the taxpayer finds themselves paying billions of dollars a year. As long as there is a demand for these drugs, the supply will always be there. In the opinion of the writer, one of the ways to stop this vicious cycle is to somehow stop the demand; sending people to rehab can stop this problem of overcrowding, as well as creating a career criminal.
In the following review, I will give some insight to the real problems of overcrowding as well as going over what some of the effects of being behind bars does to someone who is not a career criminal. I will examine what the drug and crime cycle are and how legalizing a certain drug could help to stop most of these current problems.
Determining if Crowding have Negative Effects
Cox, Paulus and McCain (1994) has insisted the overcrowding of our prisons not only have the potential to have a negative, undesired effect on the inmates but also because with the abundance of different housing standards it can involve billions of dollars in construction costs. As early as the 1970's, there has been interest among researchers to try and unravel this surge in crowding, resulting in many different studies ranging from field studies to laboratory studies. Observations from a fourteen year study on over 175,000 inmates and information collected from over 50 institutions in 12 separate states found that the degree of negative consequences associated with overcrowding depends on a broad range of factors, such as space, number of inmates in a unit, bunk type, time in the cell, and the nature of the environment. In addition, violent inmates confined together responded more negatively than nonviolent inmates confined together. (Cox et al., 1994)
In California alone, the state operates 33 prisons with a combined population of 171,000 as of May 2008. According to Auerhahn (2004) the incarcerated drug offender population in California has changed substantially over the past twenty years. Drug offenders are the fastest growing segment of prison populations in the United States. In November 2007, 61 % of California voters cast ballots to support Proposition 36, The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act. The Act mandates probation and treatment, rather than incarceration to nonviolent drug offenders convicted of possession offenses. Offenders who have been convicted of a serious felony, and (or) concurrently convicted of a misdemeanor or felony unrelated to drug use are excluded from the provisions of the Act.
Drug Courts: Probation and Rehabilitation
An additional problem that plagues the way the system operates the drug courts is how different courts view the definition of violence. In some states, possession of a small amount of drugs may be considered as nonviolent; however, possession of a larger amount warrants the term violent offender. Thus, drug dealing is considered a violent offense, and as such, a drug dealer could be excluded from drug court programs. According to Saum, Scarpitti, and Robbins (2001) money for drug court programs target first time nonviolent offenders, rather than those with any previous history of violence or those charged with more serious crimes. Their research focused on factors predicting drug court program outcomes, age and criminal history being related to success in drug court. Factors such as race and gender, the number of drug charges and a client's length of treatment did nothing to relate to the drug court outcome. The violent individual is a definite cause of concern to both the public and the criminal justice system. The actions of the violent person can have major impacts on the lives of all who are involved with that person, including friends and family, strangers, and public servants. As Hollin and Palmer (2003) explained, treatment approaches for violent offenders become more focused and complex, so the need for more in-depth tools is needed.
There are serious financial burdens placed on society that results from the processing and incarceration of drug offenders. On average, the annual cost to incarcerate an inmate is estimated to be about $46,000, where treatment is at around $6,000. O'Callaghan, Sonderegger, and Klag (2004) say offenders who complete drug treatment programs have better outcomes than those who do not. Without treatment, 9 out of 10 drug offenders will re-offend and return to drug use after leaving prison. As a result, investing time in to treatment programs has come to be seen as producing benefits.
To save the taxpayer money there needs to be an end to putting nonviolent drug offenders in jail. Although legalizing drugs could be one solution, it is politically impossible. Other options include placing drug offenders in halfway houses and requiring attendance at rehabilitation sessions.
Public Views and Disenfranchisement
Along with the years spent in prison, and the many more years spent on probation or parole, an offender is met with a cruel, and often times impossible world. Not only is it hard to find a job with a criminal record, most felons and many non-incarcerated felons are disenfranchised and stripped of many of their rights as well as being barred from voting. According to Manza, Brooks, and Uggen (2004) "Stripping citizens who receive a felony conviction of the right to vote is a harsh penalty in a democratic society characterized by universal suffrage." (283) Additionally in their findings they have evidence that between 60 and 68% of the public believes that felony probationers who have served their entire sentence should have their voting rights restored.
Impact of Legalizing Drugs
Now depending on which side of the fence you are on, the topic of legalizing marijuana is a very lengthy debate. According to Neighbors, Geisner, and Lee, (2008) the optimism regarding the effect of enforcement and strict drug policy regimes, and drug-related concerns along with increased support for harm reduction strategies are gaining popularity across much of North America. However, there are many people in the United States who use cannabis. Despite having a higher number of cannabis users than Canada, the United States has the fewest advocates of legalization. Furthermore, a survey published in USA Today revealed that 34% were in favor of legalization. A few Western societies have already begun liberalizing their drug policy, and in many others legalization is attracting more and more support. Bretteville-Jensen (2006) mentions that legalizing marijuana could affect the number of users, as well as having a decrease in price. There are many out there who also believe that marijuana creates a "staircase" effect, meaning that users of hard drugs say they started out using cannabis. However, new studies have shown that many ecstasy users say they have never tried illegal drugs before ecstasy. If this is widespread it will undermine that whole theory.
The literature found has proven to be very broad, and many delicate approaches have to be met in order to orchestrate better options. If more programs are made available and are found to be successful, they stand to provide unique benefits to individuals struggling with crime and drug use, as well as to the community as a whole. These include financial savings and a release from the criminal justice system. Diversion programs and perhaps legalization of cannabis represent a promising alternative.