The conservative approach to dealing with nonviolent drug offenses favors treatment over incarceration. Two Wisconsin Republicans agree.
Where are the conservatives?
Republican leadership in the Legislature gives conservatism a bad name by trying to flood our city streets with handguns or block stem cell research that could save millions of lives.
But while the GOP's leaders are trying to dangerously liberalize gun laws and opposing pro-life medical research, some Republican politicians truly believe in sound conservative principles of fiscal responsibility and promotion of family values.
Two Republicans, state Senator Carol Roessler of Oshkosh and state Assembly Representrative Garey Bies of Sister Bay, requested a study to document the savings, both in money and lives, that would result from moving Wisconsin toward drug treatment instead of prison for nonviolent drug offenses.
Among the startling findings in the study by Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis of Justice Strategies, a New York-based research organization, is that Wisconsin currently is incarcerating 2,900 low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with very limited criminal backgrounds who are in need of drug treatment.
Wisconsin taxpayers are paying a whopping $83 million a year to lock up people who are not endangering anyone other than themselves.
Any true conservative would wonder if there might possibly be a way to cut such an enormous government expenditure that often returns ex-offenders to the community more dangerous and less employable than they were before going to prison.
The obvious answer is spelled out by Justice Strategies. The average cost of prison in Wisconsin is $28,622 per prisoner. High-quality, community-based drug treatment with wrap-around support services would cost a fraction of that, $6,100 per person, plus less than $2,000 per person for probation supervision.
Of course, everyone already knows drug treatment works better than prison in dealing with addictions. That's why middle-class and upper-class families seek treatment when a parent or a child has a drug or alcohol problem.
Addiction is a medical problem for anyone who has insurance or the financial means to pay for treatment. It is only a criminal problem among the poor.
Wisconsin stands out nationwide for its alarming overuse of incarceration for African-American, nonviolent, first-time drug offenders, according to an introduction to the study.
That has been the driving force behind the state's most publicly embarrassing racial distinction. Wisconsin ranks No. 1 with the highest rate of incarceration of African Americans of any state in the nation, according to the Sentencing Project.
Remember when we sophisticates used to look down on racially ignorant states like Mississippi and Alabama? Now, we've become Mississippi and Alabama.
Justice Strategies documents the blatant racial disparity. African Americans make up just 6 percent of Wisconsin's population, but account for 47 percent of the state's prisoners and 64 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses.
African Americans in Wisconsin are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites and 40 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.
There is nothing conservative about a system that continues to pour billions of tax dollars into a bottomless hole while tearing apart our most vulnerable families and communities. A conservative's dream would be a system that improved people's lives by treating drug and alcohol addiction while saving taxpayers three or four times as much money as the state spends.
That is exactly what Justice Strategies proposes. Researchers Greene and Pranis estimated that spending just $10 million a year for comprehensive, community-based treatment for individuals who would otherwise be incarcerated would reduce prison costs by $30 million to $40 million a year.
Actually, it would be good politics for conservative state Republicans to take the lead in reforming the current system of over-incarceration that wastes not only tax dollars, but also human lives.
That is because Justice Strategies laid many of disparities in the current system squarely on the office of Democratic District Attorney E. Michael McCann of Milwaukee County.
In mid-year 2002, for instance, there were more people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses prosecuted in Milwaukee 1,520 than in all of the other 71 counties combined 1,370.
Those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes accounted for nearly one third of the growth in prisoners coming from Milwaukee in the last 10 years.
In many states, it is uncommon for anyone convicted of low-level drug sales to be sent to prison unless he has a prior felony conviction. In Wisconsin, however, nearly half of the prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug offenses have no prior felonies.
The report quotes an assistant district attorney who formerly headed the drug unit saying: "Our office takes the position that there's no such thing as a nonviolent, small-time drug dealer."
Actually, there are plenty of petty drug crimes. It's the collateral damage from over-incarceration of nonviolent, first-time drug offenders that is costly and destructive to our state.
Maybe we should try a more conservative approach of providing economical, effective drug treatment to hold families together and improve people's lives.
February 12, 2006
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Joel McNally lives in Milwaukee, is a FightingBob.com contributing editor, and is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Capital Times, the Shepherd Express and other newspapers.