Pubdate: Wed, 10 Oct 2007
Source: Tribune, The (Greeley, CO)
Copyright: 2007sThe Greeley Publishing Co.
Note: typically publishes LTEs from circulation area only
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the 
DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)


Colorado's prison system is like an out-of-control carousel. In 2005,
for example, 9,800 new inmates got onboard just as 8,600 parolees
stepped off and headed for home -- up from 1,400 in 1980.

Nowadays Colorado towns and cities are struggling to cope with the
special services needed by this ever growing number of new parolees
returning home each year.

America's lock 'em up drug laws are keeping this merry-go-round
spinning faster and faster. Nationally, the portion of inmates leaving
state prisons after serving time for nonviolent drug offenses has shot
up from 11 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2005. Here is how this
trend plays out in Colorado.

Colorado prisons held only 2,600 men and women in 1980. By 2006 that
number grew to 22,000. Today Colorado's incarceration rate -- the
number of state prisoners per every 100,000 population -- is 466. In
1980, it was only 96.

While the enforcement of federal and state drug laws has not lowered
the availability or use of illegal drugs, those laws have done more
harm than good for drug users, taxpayers and local

. Drug Users. Instead of dealing with drug abuse as a health issue in
education and treatment centers, drug laws have sent thousands of
otherwise law abiding citizens to prison. But prison time can backfire.

Life behind bars is an ideal environment for non-violent inmates to
become socially alienated and to learn new criminal skills from other
inmates. Upon their release, many drug users are likely to pose a
greater risk to society than when they entered prison.

. Taxpayers. Colorado's prison merry-go-round would stop turning if
not for the generous contribution of more than $460 million each year
from state taxpayers. And nationally it costs much more to enforce
drugs laws that don't do what the lawmakers say they were intended to
do. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in
Washington estimates that U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $1
billion a year just to lock up 33,600 state and 10,700 federal
marijuana offenders. Most of these people are peaceful, motivated
citizens. They do not belong behind bars.

. Parolees. Once their prison phase ends, parolees face an uphill
struggle as they try to put their lives back together. Trouble finding
jobs and a place to live are common problems and force many
ex-convicts to seek help from local agencies.

But instead of fixing the root cause of this problem, federal and
state officials are turning to churches and social service agencies to
salvage their failed policies. As one New York correctional officer
remarked recently, "Our dump-'em-on-the-street with $40 is not
working. We need help."

Faith-based service grants from Uncle Sam are already being used by
communities to cope with newly released inmates. The Council of State
Governments, the National Association of Counties and the Urban
Institute are all addressing re-entry issues. And the push is on to
get United Way and Big Sister/Big Brother organizations involved.
Trouble is, those efforts address only a symptom of the problem, not
the problem itself.

What to do? About one-half of all U.S. inmates are nonviolent
offenders. Would it not make a lot more sense to solve the returning
prisoner crisis by drastically cutting the number of nonviolent people
cycled through Colorado's prisons and sent back to their hometowns
every year?

Policy makers in Denver need to stop sending non-violent offenders to
prison and increase the use of nonprison punishments, including
treatment for drug abusers and support services for other nonviolent
offenders. This would drastically slow down Colorado's prison
merry-go-round, save taxpayers a lot of money and shrink by up to
one-half the number of ex-inmates headed back to local communities
each year.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake