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Incarcerating for Disease

Why we must stop Incarcerating Drug Addicts to save our Communities

Incarcerating for Disease

Last week 60 Minutes had a fabulous piece where they interviewed Michael Botticelli, the Director of National Drug Control Policy, or “Drug Czar” for short (but don’t call him that to his face). You can find the transcript and the video here.

In the past several years it has become more and more apparent that drug addiction is not a choice for most people. As conservative Republican Chris Christie has said repeatedly, no one tells a lung cancer patient who smoked all their life that they got what they deserved and refuses them treatment. However, that’s exactly how we treat drug and alcohol addiction, and have pretty much always done so. Comedy genius Mitch Hedberg had a bit about this 20 years ago. And we are still in the same position we were then.

Botticelli said, “We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people. Not only do I think it is really inhumane, but it’s ineffective and it cost us billions of dollars to keep doing this.” All that is true. However we still have politicians in this state who consistently vote to make punishments harsher. Who consistently refuse to support meaningful changes in our drug laws. Sure they will give you platitudes about drug courts and alternative sentencing and blah, blah, blah. Those programs do work MUCH better than incarceration. But at the end of the day, these are just band aids on the overwhelming problems that incarceration for addiction causes. Drug courts are not provided enough money to provide help to all who need it. Judges aren’t given discretion to sentence people to drug courts without the permission of the local district attorney, many of whom have created rules that keep out the people who could benefit the most.

In the midst of a huge societal attitude change regarding marijuana, Oklahoma remains in the dark ages by not only sending people to prison for its use, but making first-time possession a felony if you are within 1,000 feet of a school or park. Doesn’t matter that such a rule covers a lot of areas. Or that if marijuana is locked in a safe, you happen to have a child in your house. You can go 10 hours away and either would be completely legal. Here you are nailed with a felony.

What I think people fail to realize is that charging people with felonies has severe consequences, and not just for the offender. 10% of America’s population has a felony conviction. While Oklahoma statistics are hard to find, it would shock me if that percentage was not higher for Oklahoma. This does not include another large percentage of the population who have been arrested for a felony, and even though their case was ultimately dismissed, the charge still appears on their background check. This essentially makes them ineligible for most jobs that pay more than minimum wage. Heck, I have been told by clients that fast food places wouldn’t hire them because of their non-violent criminal record. Can you seriously tell me that hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans who struggle to get a decent job doesn’t impact our economy? Our tax base?

I want you to really think about the indirect costs of this issue as well. If people are unemployed or underemployed, we, as Oklahomans, are now paying for housing assistance, for food stamps, for child care assistance, for welfare, and any number of other societal costs. We are forcing people to raise their children in poverty, which in turn creates a vicious cycle of poverty and costs to the state. All because politicians feel like they have to be “tough on crime.” 

A recent report says that the year after we had a 600 million dollar decrease in state revenues, we are looking at another 900 million dollar decrease this next fiscal year. We MUST realize the damage that our immoral drug policy of incarceration is doing to our economy. We MUST talk to our legislators and quit letting them give us the D.A.C. talking points and hold them accountable for their decisions which cost Oklahomans BILLIONS of dollars a year. People addicted to drugs need TREATMENT, not criminal records. Until we, as a state, start realizing this, we are doomed to keep throwing billions of dollars down the toilet.