Pubdate: Wed, 24 Oct 2007
Source: Wisconsin State Journal (WI)
Copyright: 2007 Madison Newspapers, Inc.
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty 
Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.
Cited: National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)


Wisconsin's prison system is like an out-of-control carousel.

In 2005, for example, 7,700 new inmates got onboard just as 8,800 
parolees stepped off and headed for home -- up from 1,600 in 1980. 
Wisconsin towns and cities are struggling to cope with the special 
services needed by this 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 non-violent drug 
offenses has shot up from 11 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2005. 
Here is how this trend plays out in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin prisons held only 3,700 men and women in 1980. By 2006 that 
number grew to 21,400. Today Wisconsin's incarceration rate -- the 
number of state prisoners per every 100,000 population -- is 386. In 
1980 it was only 85.

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 communities. 
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 nonviolent 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.

Wisconsin's prison merry-go-round would stop turning if not for the 
generous contribution of more than $700 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 do not belong behind bars.

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. Faith-based service grants from 
Uncle Sam are already being used by communities to cope with newly 
released inmates. Trouble is, these efforts address only a symptom of 
the problem, not the problem itself.

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

Policy makers in Madison need to stop sending non-violent offenders 
to prison and increase the use of non-prison punishments, including 
treatment for drug abusers and support services for other non-violent 
offenders. This would drastically slow down Wisconsin'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