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Friday, January 07, 2005

Prisons and drug crimes

This morning I heard a story on MPR about one of the early priorities in the legislature this year: criminal justice. The governor wants to expand two correctional facilities to help ease the shortage of beds in our prison system. For now, House Republicans seem to be opposed to this plan, preferring to send prisoners to a private prison in Appleton (they never do pass up an opportunity to privatize some critical function of government, like basic protective services). Senate Democrats seem to support the governor's expansion plans, but at least Senator Jane Ranum believes that we should take a look at how we deal with nonviolent drug offenders.

I'm about as opposed to the "War on Drugs" as anybody out there. I am tired of reading stories about how much we are spending on dental care for prisoners with "meth mouth" when little old ladies and young working adults have no dental care at all. The per diem costs of prisoners in the state prison system was quoted at $77 in the story (though this sounds a bit low to me). One quarter of the prison population is in prison for non-violent drug crimes (this number also sounds low). That's a lot of money for a lot of people who shouldn't be there.

There probably aren't many people around who share my view that drugs should be legally available at stores, taxed, and regulated like any other product. But the data clearly shows that drug treatment programs cost less and reduce the rate of recidivism. Throwing people in prison to look "tough on drugs" is a waste of money that we don't have. I think that the legislature should fund an expansion of prisons, but only if coupled with a program to treat these non-violent drug offenders instead of incarcerating them. We need some sanity in how we deal with addiction.

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