Addicted to incarceration

By Nick Milano

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You could hear them before they turned the corner. The clang of metal on metal. The trudging of dozens of feet down the corridor. The urging of two voices to make them move quicker. Then the prisoners in bright orange jumpsuits barged through the door and into the hallway.

I was sitting outside a Cambridge court with a group of fellow students waiting for the court to resume its daily docket. This was a special court, though – a drug court designated to finding alternatives to jail for drug abusers guilty of non-violent offenses.

The U.S. prison system rivals that of any in the world in terms of persons jailed. The statistics are just frightening. More people, over 2.3 million, are incarcerated in the United States than any other country in the world. Even the communist government of China imprisons fewer people than the democratically elected United States government – not to mention that China has over a billion people.

According to King’s College’s International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States even incarcerates people at a higher rate than Putin’s regime in Russia and the totalitarian dictatorship in Cuba.

And the statistics keep coming. According to last week’s Newsweek magazine, “Between 2000 and 2006, the number of drug offenders in federal prison jumped 26 percent to 93,751.” The story is much of the same in both state and local jails. This increase of people imprisoned for drug offenses ties nicely together with what the progressive think tank Political Research Associates calls a “six-fold increase in incarceration over the past three decades” to demonstrate that the United States penitentiary system is in dire need of repair.

At least the first steps were taken in December when the Supreme Court reiterated that federal judges need not be tied down by sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. NPR wrote that harsher penalties for people prosecuted for crack cocaine offenses usually spend 50 percent more time in jail than those in jail for powder cocaine.

Sadly, these changes are coming more than 20 years after they were written when it was believed that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine. It should not take another 20 years for the American gulag to be a part of history.

It used to be the accepted norm that addiction was the sign of weak morals. But last week’s edition of Newsweek reports how the science of addiction is beginning to be understood. It is becoming more and more apparent that being trapped in the haze of addiction by narcotics and alcohol is not the user’s choice.

Newsweek’s cover story details how geneticists have already discovered genes that predispose certain people to addiction, perhaps a better explanation for why only one in 10 people who try an addictive drug actually develop dependence to it.

Since 1956, the American Medical Association has labeled addiction a disease, not merely a conscious decision. Sure lifestyle factors play a role that cannot be ignored, but as Newsweek asks, lifestyle decisions can cause diabetes, but does this mean that one keeps that person from receiving insulin? The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse told Newsweek that, “The future is clear. In 10 years we will be treating addiction as a disease, and that means with medicine.”

If the science community is widely acknowledging that addiction is a disease, it is time for the United States courts system to do the same thing. It is inhumane to prosecute and lock up people who are suffering from a disease of massive implications.

Instead, like Cambridge, and many other municipalities across the country, traditional criminal courts should be replaced with drug courts. Designed to treat rather than punish many of the non-violent criminal offenders, drug courts have been proven to reduce the rate of repeat offenses better than traditional jail time, according to a Boston Globe article on the success of drug courts.

It is not healthy for a democratic society to put so many of its citizens behind bars. There are surely many legitimate criminals who have no business wandering around our streets and neighborhoods, but the facts show the system is failing.

That same Globe article notes that by 1997, “about 70 percent of those arrested for crimes nationwide were acknowledged drug users.”

Ben Franklin said insanity was doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results; drug courts have a record of actually rehabilitating those who walk through their doors.

I am a witness. Those men in the orange jumpsuits were about to welcomed into a treatment program instead of going to jail. Prior to this, my colleagues and I saw the happy faces of men and women on probation addressing their drug problems. The judge rewarded those who took the program serious with praise and applause from the courtroom audience.

Those who were struggling were threatened with the prospect of jail Addiction is not a choice. It is a disease. The too few drug courts recognize this; it is time the entire American courts system responded accordingly.

Nick Milano writes on Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]