December 19, 2002
Could budget problems slow the War on Drugs?

Holofernes points me to this NYT story about how state budget battles are affecting the War on Some Drugs and other crimes:

After three decades of building ever more prisons and passing tougher sentencing laws, politicians now see themselves as being forced to choose between keeping a lid on spending or being tough on crime.

As a result, states are laying off prison guards, or giving prisoners emergency early releases like those in Kentucky. Some states have gone so far as to repeal mandatory minimum sentences or to send drug offenders to treatment rather than to prison in an effort to slow down the inflow of new inmates.

And in other locales, prosecutors or courts have placed a moratorium on misdemeanor cases like shoplifting, domestic violence and prostitution.

I've already advocated drug law reform as a way of saving money in our bloated corrections allocation. As noted in this recent Chron story, Texas spends some $73 million annually incarcerating small time drug offenders (most of which come from Hang 'em High Harris County, incidentally). That's a drop in the $5 billion budget shortfall bucket, but you gotta start somewhere.

Aside from the budget issues, I have the same problem with these kind of drug busts that I do with increased DUI intolerance, namely that we're criminalizing a larger and larger portion of our population. A felony arrest has huge repercussions on a person's ability to get a job, find housing, and get credit, not to mention losing the right to vote. This in turn imposes all kinds of other costs on society, and for what? Are you safer in your home now that Harris County has sent thousands of recreational stoners to the hoosegow?

Some day, some politician will connect the dots between our endless desire to git-tuff-on-crime and the many ways in which it costs us, and will have the courage to ask if this is really the best way to do business. I can only hope it will be sooner rather than later.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 19, 2002 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack