GUARDIAN GUEST OPINION
By Dr. Richard Jay
At a time when Idaho’s state budget crisis threatens to cut essential state services and corral prisoners in warehouses, perhaps it is time to reconsider a long-recommended plan that would be all pluses for the state.
It’s simple to explain: Repeal the law making “drug” use a penal crime. Note that this is not saying to make the trafficking in or manufacture of those drugs lawful, or reduce the penalty for doing so. It is simply saying that we should stop putting people in prison for using drugs.
This one simple act could have dramatic beneficial effects on the addict, the finances of the state and various important state programs. And it would cost less, not more, to implement it than does our present policy.
The benefits are many, but a few jump right at us:
-Stop imprisoning people for an offense that rarely causes violent harm to anyone else. (Other laws handle violence or injuries.)
-Permit consequences to the user more appropriate to the degree of the offense (such as mandatory treatment), rather than overkill with prison time, which often turns users into serious criminals.
-Permit rehabilitation programs (which we now say we can’t afford) that might have some chance of working – which prison almost never does.
-Save jobs, marriages, families and reputations from permanent damage.
-Save the state and its taxpayers from the horrendous continuing acceleration (without an end in sight) in outlays to finance new prisons and penal costs.
-Leave the saved money for education, health programs, environmental improvements and countless other needs that we now struggle to, or fail to, finance.
-Free funds to pursue and bring to justice the manufacturers and traffickers in illegal drugs – operations that are now grossly underfunded.
-Encourage drug users to seek help with their problems, which imprisonment does not.
Such a proposal would, no doubt, bring the wrath of those who benefit from terror tactics and mindless fear-mongering, but it should be possible to find legislators from both parties (who do not think with their glands) who could jointly develop and present the proposal as a nonpartisan one, and one that unlike our existing imprisonment response might create some real benefits and solutions to a problem that prisons simply cannot help.
Dr. Richard Jay of Boise is a retired professor of economics.
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