“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

The Criminalized War on Drugs: One Working Piece

Since Nixon criminalized the War on Drugs in 1971,

the U.S. has thrown our entire military arsenal,

short of the atom bomb,

at America’s drug problem and war.

The arsenal has included Captain America,

and most recently, drones.

See the previous post on Spittin’ Grits


One piece of the criminalized War on Drugs not only worked, it worked to the max. In 1980 there were 50,000 incarcerated people in the U.S.; by 1997 the figure had jumped to 400,000. Today, one in 100 adults is in jail or prison; that’s about 1.5 million people. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarcerations in the world.*

Of those 1.5 million people, most are in jails and prisons for drug-related crimes, not violent crimes, and many of those are low-level dealers and users.

So if the goal of the War on Drugs is to pass hard-nosed laws and throw the criminals in jails, it worked. And some of those low-level dealers and users are serving terms longer than some murderers and rapists.

But all that success caused one huge problem: The more it worked and the more criminals who were put into the system, the more that domestic law enforcement needed equipment and technology; the more they got and used, the more the court systems clogged up and the more overcrowded the jails and prisons became. The more crowded, the more some criminals were released early; the more criminals released, the higher the recidivism rate. The more involved in the War on Drugs that the U.S. military got, the more equipment it had to turn over to domestic law enforcement -- military-style weapons, uniforms, boots, vests, helmets, helicopters, SWAT supplies and trucks, technology, and gobs of other stuff. More equipment and technology, more success. Round and round and round, until it became clear that we had created a “militarized” War on Drugs.

That description has a bad ring to it, and public relations suffered. Criticism has mounted. The hue and cry for ending the Drug War is louder than it has been in 40-plus years.

So we fixed that PR problem. We renamed it. Now we call it “counternarcotics efforts,” being careful not to capitalize it.

Then the consequences of the War on Drugs began to grab attention, and the pie below (named, ironically enough, US Drug Control Spending FY2013) explains why. Three areas, Domestic Law Enforcement, Interdiction, and International gobbles up almost 75 percent of the pie. (Interdiction probably includes policies like standing at our borders with guns, sending armed boats and special teams out into the Caribbean to intercept traffickers, and flying special units into South America to burn crops.)


clip_image002See this chart and much more information at Drug War Facts.


Waking Up

A New York Times article last summer ran some wake-up numbers, including huge domestic costs for continuing this current War on Drugs: “Almost one in five inmates in state prisons and half of those in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses.”

As the writer noted, locking up all these druggie criminals makes for a great stump speech, as long as the stumpers don’t tell the stumpees what the costs are.

Enter the PEW Charitable Trusts State and Consumer Initiatives research project, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers.

Oooops. Suddenly all that success begins to look like insanity.

These circumstances [current fiscal realities] make it crucial for policy makers and the public to understand the full cost of prisons to taxpayers—something that is easier said than done. Although corrections departments pay the vast majority of costs for state prisons, other departments pay related expenses—some of which are substantial. Depending on the state, these can include employee benefits, capital costs, in-prison education services, or hospital care for inmates. Additionally, the cost of underfunded contributions for corrections employees’ pensions and retiree health care plans must be included in a comprehensive accounting of prison costs.

The report rightly warns readers not merely to compare states’ per-inmate costs, since states have various ways of balancing costs with the objectives of making prisons safe, secure, and humane. Rather, the report’s goal is to identify measures that can offer constructive solutions to reducing costs.

The Tax Man Cometh

Nevertheless, here it is: The average annual cost (in the 40 states that participated) for keeping an inmate in prison or jail is $31,286. That’s the average annual cost per inmate for keeping some 1.5 million criminals in jails and prisons.

We will all be considering these prices when we write our next check to the taxman.


*The total number of incarcerated people in the U.S. can vary at any given time, but 1.5 million seems to be a good working number.

For a thorough look at incarceration numbers, see http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Prisons_and_Drugs#sthash.bKIS7SAe.dpbs.

PEW: http://www.pewstates.org/research/reports/the-price-of-prisons-85899383045, for a complete report in PDF format


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