Pubdate: Fri, 03 Mar 2006
Source: Iowa City Press-Citizen (IA)
Copyright: 2006 Iowa City Press-Citizen
Author: Nicholas Johnson
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Hepatitis)


We have more problems than we deserve and more solutions than we've tried.

One reason? The way we treat those who offer solutions.

Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek is a case in point. Given the shrinking 
county budget, what with federal program cuts and tax waivers (TIFs), 
we're lucky Pulkrabek has the smarts and political courage he does. 
His increased use of electronic monitoring saved the county 882 jail 
days. Mental health and substance diversion programs also help. But 
the partisan flack started to fly at his suggestion the legislature 
re-think penalties for alcohol and drug abuse.

It was an odd target for Republicans. Pulkrabek's were the mildest of 
proposals from a conservative, Republican businessman and former New 
Mexico governor, Gary E. Johnson. Johnson thinks that "locking up 
nonviolent drug offenders is simply a waste of money." This 
triathlete, who avoids alcohol, drugs, caffeine and sugar, believes 
"any investment should be evaluated based on its returns. By that 
standard, the nationwide drug war is a failure."

Roughly half of all violent crime involves alcohol. Montana reports 
"85 percent of inmates are behind bars because of behavior caused by 
alcohol or drug abuse." No fewer than 25 percent of prisoners suffer 
from mental illness.

Does imprisoning these ill persons give us sadistic satisfaction? If 
not, and if the goal is crime reduction, wouldn't treatment make more sense?

It's more effective -- and humane. But it's also cheaper. As Gov. 
Johnson notes, "every dollar spent on treatment instead of 
imprisonment saves $7 in state costs."

He continues, "Instead of asking how many people smoked marijuana 
last year, we should ask if drug-related crime went up or down. 
Dealing with drugs through a medical model rather than a criminal 
model decreases prison rates, violent crime, property crime, overdose 
deaths, AIDS and hepatitis C."

All Sheriff Pulkrabek was offering for discussion -- with many other 
ideas -- was that small amounts of marijuana be punished with 
citations and fines. Pretty tame stuff compared to the Republican 
governor's proposals.

For this our sheriff was attacked as "irresponsible" because he won't 
"enforce the laws on the books."

No law enforcement agency can enforce all "the laws on the books." We 
wouldn't have prison space if they could. Priorities must be established.

During the 1990s we built 3,500 new prisons at a cost of $30 billion. 
In 1980, there were 500,000 Americans in prisons. Today it's two 
million. The cost increased even faster, from $7 billion to $50 
billion. At $20,000 to $40,000 a year, it would be cheaper to send 
them to the University of Iowa than to prison.

Can you say, "We're number one!"? We have more people in prison than 
any nation on earth. It's our country's primary public housing 
program. Only one country has more inmates per 100,000, and that's Rwanda.

How many elected officials do you know who are willing to identify 
real problems and options for solutions? Not many.

Democrats in Washing-ton now seem to recognize they must stand for 
something. But they've yet to decide what that might be.

Hillary Clinton tried it with health care. President George W. Bush 
with "no child left behind." Neither got much thanks ---- even from 
their beneficiaries.

I was luckier. As Maritime Administrator I pushed reluctant ship 
owners to use cost-saving "containerization." Now it's used for 90 
percent of cargo. At the FCC I finally convinced phone company 
executives that 800 and 911 numbers weren't as "impossible" as they 
insisted. While on the school board, some of the brainstorming from 
my biweekly education columns actually had modest impact.

So I understand what Sheriff Pulkrabek is trying to do and the 
difficulties in doing it. He's trying to prioritize tasks, increase 
efficiency, decrease violent crime -- and do it all for less than 
what we've been spending. Just like a conservative Republican governor.

If we want more public officials like Pulkrabek, we'd best cut the 
carping and join in the dialogue.   Nicholas Johnson teaches at the 
University of Iowa College of Law.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman