Pubdate: Wed, 09 Feb 2011
Source: Anderson Independent-Mail (SC)
Copyright: 2011 Independent Publishing Company, a division of E.W. Scripps
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel is back in the news, this time 
on the op-ed page as he writes in favor of the legalization of 
cocaine and marijuana. Readers might recall (unless they've been 
under a big old rock) that Ravenel spent 10 months in federal prison 
on a cocaine conspiracy charge and is still on probation for three 
years. (His defense at the time was that he was not buying cocaine to 
distribute but rather to "gift" his friends at parties at his home.)

Fast-forward to 2011 and his contention - not entirely inaccurate - 
that drug abuse "isn't a problem to be solved within a criminal justice model."

Ravenel spent those 10 months "studying the drug war extensively," 
finally determining that billions of dollars spent to fight a drug 
war in the United States was wasted money.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police disagrees with 
Ravenel's stance, as does the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 
citing statistics that report drug use in the U.S. is half of what it 
was 30 years ago. A spokesman for the latter organization also said 
that cocaine production in Colombia has dropped by almost two-thirds.

The statistic that interested us most, however, was that "we're 
successfully diverting thousands of nonviolent offenders into 
treatment instead of jail." That's according to Rafael Lamaitre, 
associate director for public affairs for the Office of National Drug 
Control Policy. Legalization, said LaMaitre, is a drastic step that 
isn't necessary to successfully fight the drug war.

But easing sentencing for nonviolent crimes - and the possibility of 
releasing some prisoners early - could help the

S. C. Corrections Department balance its budget and allow it to 
devote more resources to rehabilitation during and after incarceration.

Last March, when the S.C. Senate approved sentencing reform that was 
designed to reduce prison populations, people convicted of nonviolent 
crimes made up almost half of the state's 25,000 inmates. Nearly one 
in five inmates was imprisoned for drug crimes, followed by burglary, 
check fraud and driving under suspension, according to Sen. Gerald 
Malloy, who advocated education and supervision rather than "throwing 
low-level offenders in prison." Such a move, Malloy, chairman of the 
Senate's study committee on sentencing reform, told The State 
newspaper, would turn such offenders "from tax burdens into taxpayers."

Despite years of not wanting to appear "soft" on crime, lawmakers 
finally embraced the changes for financial reasons: Incarceration 
costs $14,500 per year while supervised probation costs around 
$2,000. Sentencing reform was signed into law last June.

On Tuesday, the South Carolina Budget and Control board gave the 
State Department of Corrections more time to get its budget fixed, 
taking no action on extending its deficit through the fiscal year 
that ends June 30.

Earlier this month, Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Mike Fair, 
R-Greenville, offered a stark scenario to eliminate the deficit: 
release inmates early and close two prisons. He warned, however, that 
it would take time to reshuffle remaining prisoners and the savings 
would be in the future, not immediate.

So why not release nonviolent prisoners early? Gov. Nikki Haley's 
spokesman Rob Godfrey said the governor opposes any early releases. 
That's shortsighted, if releases are conducted properly and with 
reason behind them rather than simply as a measure to balance the budget.

Don't release prisoners without supervision. Don't send them back 
into the neighborhoods to simply recreate their original crimes. Give 
them a support system to get their lives turned around, to help them 
find work, to aid them to become, as Malloy put it, taxpayers instead 
of tax burdens.

Ravenel made some good points about the futility of incarceration for 
nonviolent drug crimes. And after reading his accounts of 
conversations with some of the drug offenders he met in prison, we 
would agree that some of the sentences are out of proportion when 
held up against other crimes.

It would take serious and in-depth study to decide if legalizing 
drugs, as Ravenel advocates, would benefit society.

But considering the early release of nonviolent criminals, including 
drug offenders - and giving them assistance to return home as 
productive members of society - could be of benefit to both.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom