Sunday, July 29, 2007

Drug Policy Op-Ed In Newark Star Ledger

On July 23rd, the Newark Star Ledger published an op-ed by Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey. Since the start of my tenure with the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing, Roseanne has been stalwart friend to me personally and to the Commission as well.

Because the op-ed can no longer be accessed on the Web, I've taken the liberty of presenting here in its entirety:

Three incidents in the last few weeks may foretell a new day for drug policy in New Jersey. Newark Mayor Cory Booker spoke truth to power with a series of passionate statements on the devastating effects of the war on drugs on Newark, on poor urban communities and particularly young African-American men. The United States Conference of Mayors passed a resolution calling for a "new bottom line" for U.S. drug policy.

And the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics released its latest report showing the largest increase in the U.S. prison population since 2000. The United States now incarcerates 2.24 million people. This is the highest rate of incarceration in the world in both total prison-jail population and per capita incarceration rates. Higher than Russia, higher than China, higher than any tin-horn dictatorship in the world. Most state prison populations, including New Jersey's, continued to grow.

What fuels most this out-of-control prison growth? The failed war on drugs.

If you ask most Americans if we are winning the war on drugs, they will answer with a resounding "no." Drugs are purer and more available than ever before. The harms associated with drug abuse continue to cause suffering and death. And more to the point, the harms associated with the war on drugs have spun out of control, devastating the same communities this failed policy was supposed to protect.

The collateral consequences of the war on drugs are well-documented:

A massive U.S. prison boom.

One in three black men ages 20 to 29 incarcerated or under supervision of
the corrections system.

Millions of formerly incarcerated people facing bleak prospects for
economic or social stability due to stigma and legal bars to jobs.

Families torn apart and children of incarcerated parents doomed to follow
in their parents' footsteps.

The Conference of Mayors' resolution recognizes this failure and these collateral consequences and calls for "a public health approach that concentrates more fully on reducing the negative consequences associated with drug abuse while ensuring that our policies do not exacerbate these problems or create new social problems of their own, saves taxpayer money and holds state and federal agencies accountable."

The resolution declares that drug policies should be evaluated not on how many people are incarcerated but on how much drug-related harm is reduced and emphasizes the importance of supporting the communities most affected.

Booker recognizes this failed policy. He sees the collateral consequences every day in Newark - young men and women unable to get jobs or decent education, serving harsh sentences that disrupt their lives and make it impossible for them to recover economically or socially. He sees neighborhoods where more state and federal money is spent on putting people in prison than is ever spent on job training or other social supports. He sees the social and economic instability that comes when so many men are ripped from their families and communities.

New Jersey has the highest proportion of drug offenders as part of the overall prison population and the highest prison admission rate for drug offenses in the nation. In 1987, only 11 percent of state prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses. Today, drug offenders make up 32 percent of the population. And 81 percent of those incarcerated are black or Latino although those groups make up only 27 percent of the state's population.

New Jerseyans now pay a staggering $1.3 billion in corrections costs.

State corrections spending has grown at three times the rate of spending on higher education. There is an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Booker and the Conference of Mayors, sensibly, want to do something different. They want to redirect resources toward supporting families, not tearing them apart; toward building economic stability for individuals, not destroying it; toward reducing prisoner recidivism, not perpetuating the endless revolving door.

The time has come for new solutions and a new bottom line for drug policy in
New Jersey. The call has been sounded. Policymakers must respond.

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