In Growing Trend, Cash-Strapped States Reconsider Harsh Sentencing for Nonviolent Drug Offenders
Drug Policy Alliance Praises Michigan, Kentucky as Latest to Embrace
In an effort to cut budget costs while protecting vital services, Kentucky, Michigan and a number of other states are finding ways to reduce the large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders filling their prisons -- and draining their coffers. The measures, which include repealing mandatory minimum drug sentences and recommending treatment instead of incarceration for first time nonviolent drug offenders, allow funds to be dedicated to drug treatment and other public services proven to be far more cost effective and humane than mass incarceration.
"People across the political spectrum should welcome these decisions," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. "They curb wasteful spending, help nonviolent offenders to become productive, taxpaying citizens again, and preserve scarce funds to educate our children and protect our safety. How can you beat that?"
With states facing ballooning budget deficits across the country, legislatures looking for ways to cut costs are finding corrections policy a logical starting point: of the $5 billion spent annually to keep people convicted of drug crimes in prison, up to 75 percent goes to the costs of housing nonviolent offenders, according to the Sentencing Project. Advocates of reform also expect increased treatment spending to reduce recidivism rates for drug offenders, saving additional funds and improving public health.
Within the past month, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and others have all run stories on the trend. Some initiatives being made at the state level include:
Michigan's tough-on-crime Gov. John Engler signing legislation last month repealing the state's mandatory minimum drug sentences
Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey and North Carolina, North Dakota eliminating, or considering revising, mandatory minimum sentences.
The Kansas Sentencing Commission recommending a new policy under which people arrested for drug possession with no prior arrests will be placed in treatment instead of prison.
Kentucky last month began releasing 567 state prison inmates in a step to reduce a $500 million budget deficit.
Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a conservative Republican, asking his Pardon and Parole Board to find 1,000 nonviolent inmates to release early as a result of the state's budget crisis.
Such developments at the state level echo public opinion across the country. Last year a poll by Peter Hart & Associates revealed that over 60 percent of Americans oppose incarceration for nonviolent offenders and that effective drug treatment is preferable to prison for drug offenders - an option that is on average seven times less expensive.
"Locking up nonviolent drug offenders is the budgetary equivalent of banging your head against the wall -- it hurts a lot and achieves nothing," said Nadelmann. "Fortunately, smart state lawmakers are showing us it's possible - and feels right - to stop."
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