Pubdate: Sat, 26 June 1999
Source: San Mateo Independent (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Mateo Independent
Page: 7A
Contact:  224 Cowan Road, Burlingame, CA 94010
Fax: (415) 692-7587
Author: George Boardman
Note: A resident of Burlingame, George Boardman is the Independent's copy


My Turn by George Boardman

We lost the drug war a long time ago, but there is hope that Americans may
soon quit throwing so much good money after the bad.

In California, the bad money can be found in the budget of the state
Department of Corrections, which continues to build prisons to house the
drug addicts who are regularly recycled through our criminal justice
system. The state currently has 33 prisons holding 160,000 inmates, a
population that is expected to grow to 200,000 in the next 10 years.

Many of those prisoners were convicted of crimes committed to support their
drug habits. When they are released, they are four times more likely to
commit another crime within five years than ex-prisoners who don't use drugs.

The typical response in recent years has been to build more prisons. Gov.
Gray Davis wanted to include $335 million in the next state budget to build
a new 4,600-bed facility, but Democrats in the state Legislature resisted
the move.

As Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D - San Francisco) put it: "We
need to do something about recidivism instead of building and building more
prisons. It is easier to get in to see (Mayor) Willie Brown ... than it is
to get into a drug treatment program in prison."

Burton's position reflects a new national trend away from incarceration and
back to treatment programs. At least 40 states have set up drug courts
where, with the consent of the district attorney, offenders are steered
toward treatment instead of jail.

There are now more than 600 such programs nationwide, which have sent more

90,000 people to treatment pro grams. The evidence suggests they are working,

According to Congress' General Accounting Office, 70 percent of the people
sent to drug courts successfully complete treatment. And treatment in place
of prison saves .about $20,000 per person annually, according to a study by
the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Even Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the director of national drug policy, supports
drug courts, saying they "constitute one of the most monumental changes in
social justice in this country since World War If."

So how are our national leaders responding to this new reality The same way
they always have - lock 'em up and throw away the key.

President Clinton's proposed drug fighting budget for the next fiscal year,
at $18 billion the biggest in history, spends nearly two-thirds of the
money on enforcement and interdiction of the drug supply, a proportion
unchanged since the Reagan administration. Treatment will get about $3
billion from the budget.

We all know how well enforcement and interdiction have worked; it will soon
be more difficult to buy tobacco than it is to acquire illegal drugs, The
big-time drug importers will continue to take the risks required to dump
their poison in the U.S. as long as we provide a large, willing market.

The only way to shrink that market and reduce the drug problem to a minimum
is to the educate the young before they get hooked and treat the people who
are addicted. This isn't as sexy or worthy of news coverage as fighting the
"war" on drugs, but it has one big advantage over our current policy: it
shows greater promise of being successful.

Don't expect the federal government to show the way toward a more realistic
drug policy any time soon. With red-meat Republicans controlling both
houses of Congress and Clinton trying to smooth the way for Al Gore in
2000, nobody's going to risk looking soft on drugs by advocating a more
rational approach to the problem.

California, which gets more credit than it probably deserves for starting
national trends, had an opportunity to make a major statement on the issue
in the 1999-00 budget. No state officers are up for re-election next year,
so you'd think they might be brave enough to defy conventional attitudes
about the drug problem.

Not a chance. The Democrat controlled Legislature compromised with Davis
and gave him $24 million to purchase theland for that prison; its
construction will be financed through state bonds. But they did include $6
million in the new budget for community based drug treatment programs and
$5 million for pre-release programs for prisoners.

They could have done some real good for the state by putting the entire
$335 million into treatment programs for prisoners who are there because
they got caught trying to finance their addictions. That should cut the
recidivism rate by at least 4,600, enough to avoid building the prison.

But such a move would require the courage to go against the dominant
thinking on the subject. The only place you'll find that word in Sacramento
or Washington is the dictionary.
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