Pubdate: Sun, 24 Jul 2016
Source: Day, The (New London,CT)
Copyright: 2016 The Day Publishing Co.
Author: Ryan V. Stewart
Note: Ryan V. Stewart is a Western Connecticut State University
student. He lives in New Milford.
LEARNING FROM EUROPE ON DRUG POLICY
America’s drug policies are largely misguided.
Many people, from common citizens to seasoned politicians, are aware of this, and have sought to change these laws in response to the needless incarceration of indulgers and addicts and, as a consequence, an ever-expanding population of prison inmates – the largest in the world.
However, the ethos of the War on Drugs has, since the early 1970s, remained a powerful motivation for lawmakers and justice officials to maintain the status quo.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of Jan. 30, 2016, the U.S. prison population was made up in large degree of drug offenders, with 46.6 percent of all inmates having been incarcerated for such offenses. The second-largest group of inmates by offense, classed under “Weapons, Explosives, Arson,” made up just 16.9 percent.
Among all inmates, most sentences imposed fell within the range of five to 10 years in prison.
To make matters more concerning, the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice released a study in 2012 that found that the aggregate cost of prisons in 2010 in 40 participant states was $39 billion per year, and that the annual average taxpayer cost among all of these states was $31,286 per inmate.
Plus, according to the World Prison Brief, published by the U.K.-based International Centre for Prison Studies, between September 2011 and September 2013, there were 2.24 million prisoners in the United States, accounting for 22 percent of the global prison population.
It is clear that if the U.S. really wants to lessen the burden it places on taxpayers it must stop packing its already overpopulated prisons with minor drug offenders.
This is also a more ethical choice: Minor drug offenders – many of whom are financially destitute, mentally ill, or addicts of some kind – – can, instead of spending years behind bars, and subsequently being unable to procure employment after their stay, be given rehabilitation, or better employment opportunities, or at least spend a lesser prison sentence being re-integrated into a normal life and livelihood, rather than facing relatively severe punishment.
This set of practices – based in harm reduction – better resembles the policies of a number of central and northern European nations, and it has served those countries well.
In an October 2013 report titled, “Sentencing and Prison Practices in the Netherlands: Implications for the United States,” also by the Vera Institute, its authors conclude, “The German and Dutch systems are both organized around… rehabilitation. This is in contrast to the corrections system in the U.S., where … rehabilitative aims remain secondary.” The authors of the report state that “In Germany and the Netherlands, incarceration is used less frequently and for shorter periods of time. Both countries rely heavily on non-custodial sanctions and diversion, and only a small percentage of … offenders are sentenced to prison.
In most cases prosecutors divert offenders away from prosecution or judges sanction offenders with fines, suspended sentences, or community service.”
Unlike many U.S. jurisdictions – the states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, where cannabis is legal for recreational use ( with certain restrictions ), being exceptions – a number of European countries have decriminalized or legalized certain drugs ( marijuana or otherwise ), and have distinguished drugs based on their relative dangers and potentials for addiction.
Subsequently, these countries have focused mitigation efforts on more harmful “hard” drugs, more so than the outright use of drugs, whether “hard” or “soft.” Take Dutch drug policy, for instance, in which drug use is more often treated as an issue of public health, rather than a punishable offense, and in which marijuana is legal for recreational use ( under strict conditions ), whereas highly addictive substances like heroin and methamphetamine are not.
Swiss drug policy is also more pragmatic: Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health notes, for example, that that country’s approach to drug-related issues is comprised of “the four elements ( of ) prevention, therapy, harm reduction, and law enforcement,” and that Switzerland aims to reduce substance abuse problems by being proactive in the areas of “primary and secondary prevention… treatment ( abstinence-based, substitution, prescription ),” and “harm reduction.”
European drug policies – especially those of continental, and particularly central and northern, Europe – have a more reasonable basis than those of the United States. This country, if it is serious about the motto “freedom and justice for all,” ought to promote prison reform, treating prisons as places of rehabilitation, not punishment, and institutions necessary for the sake of public safety, rather than avaricious businesses.
It ought to also reform its drug policies in line with rational thinking, rather than age-old biases and the fantasy that minor drug offenders are deserving of incarceration and needless punishment.
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom